Activity Corner: Quick-Switch Conversations

Callanish Stone Circle(I thought it might be helpful to readers and myself if I described some of my favorite activities from time to time. See all my ESL Activity Corner posts here.)

This activity works best with at least ten participants. It’s a great communicative activity, and makes use of a lot of speaking and listening.

Its logistics are inspired by speed dating, but it’s classroom-appropriate.

In this set-up, students are organized in such a way that with very efficient movement, students can switch conversation partners quickly. If you have enough space, students will form two concentric circles. If you have limited space,  they’ll form two lines instead.

It really lends itself well to fluency practice, because it’s very high-energy, fast, and noisy – not conducive to careful concentration!

Since partners are switched so quickly, it also lends itself to repetitious practice.


  1. Decide what you want the students to practice. See below for ideas. This is a flexible exercise – make it work for you!
  2. Write prompts on cards if needed. For repetitious practice, just write the one prompt on the board.
  3. In class, describe what students will be practicing. “We are going to do an activity to practice ____.” Maybe even write the purpose on the board.
  4. Explain that in this activity, you will have many fast conversations with many people. When you hear the signal, you will get a new conversation partner.
  5. Model, especially less advanced classrooms. (see below)
  6. Help students get into formation! This will be two concentric circles or two lines. Either way, the students in one circle/line will face the students in the other circle/line.
  7. Remind them of the purpose. Remind them of the signal sound. Remind them which circle/line moves.
  8. Sound the signal and have everyone start!
  9. Stay nearby to watch, listen, and prompt.
  10. Keep signaling the partners to switch as appropriate.


Click for an example where we practiced a verb tense and adverbs of frequency. We had 23 students in Intermediate community English and we used prompt cards.

Below is an example of how to use this for repetitious practice, plus how to model the activity.

In a beginner class, I wanted students to practice introducing themselves again and again. We had already practiced dialogs and vocabulary from the textbook – we just needed to get more comfortable now.

For this class, I definitely had to model the activity. After I explained the purpose and what we’d be doing, I brought four volunteer students to the front of the room and had them stand along the board. I wrote “Hello! My name is ____” on the board and then introduced myself to the first student until my signal went off (I set my cell phone alarm for 15 seconds for this example). As soon as it went off, I stepped sideways to the next person and began again with the prompt. I repeated this with each of the four students up front.

Next, we needed the students to be in formation. I helped six form the inner circle. Then I asked the other six students one by one to stand in facing a specific student. I told them specifically, “Ahmed is your first partner,” “Amal is your first partner,” to try to make the abstract concrete.

Since this was a beginner class, I also had them practice changing partners. We were in a smallish space so I had only the inner circle move. I had my signal go off and the inner circle students all stepped to their left. I had the signal go again and the inner students stepped to the left again.

Then I reminded them that we were practicing introducing ourselves. The outer students would begin. “Hello, my name is ___. What’s your name? Nice to meet you!”

“One, two, three, talk!”

When they went all the way around, we switched to having the inner students initiate the conversation.

This was a lot of set-up time! It was also a lot of repeating the same thing, but the interesting format made it pretty fun and less like a drill.

Content Possibilities:

  • a grammar form
  • general get-to-know-you conversation
  • a specific piece of conversation (i.e. introduce yourself, ask where mens’ shoes are at the store, etc.)
  • vocabulary words
  • prompts can be pictures or objects (or words, of course)

Photo Credit: Andrew Bennett on Flickr

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Students’ Notes

312697129_94967f6b1bWhat do you do when you notice that your students take “disorganized” notes?

The “Disorganization”

I put “disorganized” in quotes because their notes appear disorganized to me… but they’re not my notes. Maybe they make perfect sense to the students?

Some of the examples I’ve seen over the years:

  • students open to a random notebook page and begin writing
  • no meta information at all added to the page
    • no date
    • no sub-headings to group what they’re working on
    • just a list of answers – not the questions, and no page or unit number
  • guides pre-printed on the page (i.e. a graphic organizer, a 2×2 grid, etc.) are utterly ignored like they’re watermarks

I don’t mean this to sound critical – in adult ESL, we’ve got folks from many cultures and all sorts of educational backgrounds. Of course their note-taking styles vary, too. Most of my students are highly motivated and earnestly respectful. It’s my pleasure to meet them where they’re at.

My question is, how best to meet their note-taking? Narrowing a broad question a bit more, how much of this should be my focus in an academic ESL setting?

Ideas and Activities

Right now, I’m leaning away from methodically making them take notes the way I do, or making it a rule that every piece of paper be dated. The way I see it, taking notes is personal. It’s private and ungraded. The student is generally the only person who sees or uses most of his/her notes. External, enforced change is unlikely to stick.

I think I’d use a metacognitive approach. In the second class session, we’d discuss the purposes of notes. The two purposes I see are 1) reinforce learning as it happens, and 2) create study materials for ourselves. I’m genuinely curious to see what the class would come up with!

Then we’d have think-pair-share time about how we can take notes that support those purposes. Students would generate and share ideas about how to improve their notes. It would be up to students to adopt any new habits – or not.

Right after the first graded assessment – when they’re fresh from studying – I’d follow up with another metacognitive notes activity. I’d probably run the Snowballs activity with each student writing one way their notes were useful and one way their notes could be improved for studying. Then they’d scramble their answers snowball-style and write a short reflection on the random answers they received: would either of these improve their own notes? What is one more strategy they’d like to try?

Actually, in a writing class, that could make for a nice little in-class writing assignment and be useful for practicing transition and organization words.


How do you support your students’ note taking? Or how would you?


Photo Credit: Jonathan Lin on Flickr

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Three-Phase Lesson Planning

8543315720_4c4676260bOne elegantly simple way to lesson plan is to go through these three phases:

  1. I do it
  2. We do it
  3. You do it

In other words, first you introduce what the students will be learning. Then you all practice it together. Lastly, students have the opportunity to practice it more independently.

I want to be clear that I did not invent this. I learned about it in several conversations and trainings. It’s not the only way to lesson plan – just a really helpful tool to have at your disposal.

Five things I love about this lesson planning lens:

  1. “Do.” In a language classroom, we are using the language to do things. We should not just be learning about the language.
  2. Teacher Talk (or TTT) is in its place. It serves phases two and three. It introduces and then steps aside. It is not the point.
  3. Metacognition. Students need to have ownership of their own learning. One way we can support this, even within the confines of a syllabus-led class, is to be up front about the strategies we use. This lesson plan is an easy one to communicate.
  4. Buy-in. Some students might not think that group work or fluency activities are “serious.” Particularly adults accustomed to a non-communicative way of language learning. Showing that this is an intentional part of a methodical plan can help them try it out with an open mind.
  5. Over-thinker support. I am a classic over-thinker. There are lots of detailed lesson planning suggestions out there, and they rightly point out the bazillion factors you should consider in your lesson plan. This one helps me take a step back and see in broad strokes if I have a pretty good plan or if I’ve been rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Does anyone out there use this lesson planning method?

Photo Credit: Tim Green on Flickr

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Reflecting on Music in the Classroom

A few months ago Rob at the TESOL blog posted a nice article against music in the classroom.

One problem I have with blogging is commenting: I either have nothing to say or enough to say that it’s basically another post. I picked one thought and left it as a comment on the original post. Below I’ve turned my other thoughts into their own post.

8713899106_5227c3d7ceI have sparingly used music in the classroom to highlight some of the very features Rob says it distorts, especially stress (word- and sentence- level) and connected speech.

One lesson I remember fairly well was using “Going to California” by Led Zeppelin in an academic listening and speaking class, so I just listened to it again with those elements of spoken English in mind.

Now I’m of two minds. On one hand, in this song many function words are mumbled and many content words are given at least a beat if not more; it’s nice and high-contrast that way. The stressed syllables of the stressed words also tended to be on the stressed beats (or syncopated nearby). Yes it’s distorted, but it by and large emphasizes normal English prosody, and that can be very valuable to help students hear the music of spoken English.

On the other hand, for all the “natural” prosody in the song, there is some “unnatural” pronunciation and prosody as well. I think I glossed over it in picking the song. What I gloss over, the students might pick up on (and vice versa).

Also, even with the emphasized “natural” prosody, emphasis is still distortion. For example, my colleague Jody’s former students all called her Judy. She told us that when she changed jobs, she introduced herself very slowly and clearly so her new students would hear the “o” properly. “And that’s what they all call me here: Joooooohdy.”

I don’t think listening to this song every day for a year would cause my students to start talking the way Robert Plant sings. However, I think I didn’t have enough respect for the various points of confusion mentioned in the against article.

In the future I need to specify exactly what the students should be listening for, highlight examples from the song, and relate them immediately to spoken English.


Photo Credit: Clive Darra on Flickr

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Activity Corner: Put It In Order

(I thought it might be helpful to readers and myself if I described some of my favorite activities from time to time. See all my ESL Activity Corner posts here.)

My lead teacher used one of these activities to introduce essay structure in our Advanced Academic Writing class last week. She gave each student an element of an academic essay (i.e. “thesis statement,” “topic sentence 2,” etc.), and as a class they had to tape them to the board in the correct order.

I’ve used it in the past to teach sequence signal words (first, then, etc.) and to review several different verb tenses all at once. I’ve also used a variation where students put words in an appropriate order to form a sentence.

One of my Russian teachers used it on us to teach… well, I’m not sure what she was trying to teach. It was the first week of class and she gave us two stanzas worth of separate lines of a Russian poem. We had to put them in order. It was waaaay over my head.

This is a great activity for students to do in small groups or as one big group. They’ll be negotiating meaning together and the conversations will be authentic because of that. It can be individually done as well, but there’s less conversation and lots more cutting out that way.


  1. Decide what you want your students to put in order. Some kind of chronological or other objective sequence (i.e. introduction, body, conclusion) is the most clear-cut way to do this.
  2. Decide how many students to a group, and how many groups.
  3. Decide where the students will be working – at their tables, on the board, etc.
  4. Cut out the pieces onto separate strips of paper.
  5. In class, introduce the activity. Explain that you’ll be putting the papers in order. Explain what the students will be looking for to determine the order.
  6. Give the students time to figure it out.
  7. Go over the students’ results. Highlight the clues that pointed us to the right answer (i.e. “last” would go at the end; a thesis statement always goes at the end of the intro). Go over what is correct and be sure to answer questions about it.


Other prep ideas:

  • Bring several pairs of scissors and have students help you cut strips.
  • Write on index cards or sentence strip card stock.
  • Assign students to each write on each card, then they can put the cards in order. Example: ask each student to write one sentence that told one activity they did last week and when they did it. (This element can be practice of Simple Past.) Then they can put all their sentences in order on the board.

Levels of focus:

  • word building (i.e. prefix, root, suffixes)
  • sentence building (each strip is just one word)
  • paragraph building
  • narrative building / timeline

Other uses:

  • Conversation starter – have students put things in a more subjective order, such as importance, preference, fairness, etc. This sets up the class for meaningful conversations: students can discuss why they put things where they did, ask each other questions, and practice politely disagreeing. Examples: best food, most important belongings, spouse traits, etc.
  • Syllabus study – the first day of class, when going over the syllabus, have students put their major assignments in order so they for sure know what’s coming up in the semester.
  • Grammar study – include sentences in various past, present, and future tenses and aspects that the students are familiar with.
  • Content – put a step in a process on each strip, then have the students put those in order. Examples: photosynthesis, blood transfusions, rebuilding a carburetor, etc.

Activity Corner Round-Up


During my time actively blogging, I’ve enjoyed writing up activities to use during class. I could just talk and talk forever, but that’s definitely not the best use of my students’ time! Having a collection of go-to ideas is useful for me, and maybe it is for a few readers out there, too.

Click here to see all of my ESL Activity Corner posts in chronological order. This link is updated automatically.

I thought it would be nice to round up my activity posts thus far and make an at-a-glance activity resource. Feel free to bookmark this page!

I’ve sorted the list by two factors:

  1. Prep – anything you would need to do/make/get before doing the activity. Most of the activities here that require prep are pretty low-key, i.e. print out a grid.
  2. Movement – anything in which students need to move around during the activity. I do not consider switching seats to be significant movement.

Zero-Prep Activities

Chain Drill
movement – no
ice breaker – yes
competition – no

Guess the Word
movement – no
ice breaker – yes
competition – not really

movement – some
ice breaker – yes
competition – no

Hidden Vocab Words
movement – some
ice breaker – yes
competition – not really

Dictation Relay
movement – yes (but not everyone)
ice breaker – no
competition – yes

Minimal-Prep Activities

Scaffolding Peer Review
movement – no
ice breaker – no
competition – no

Jigsaw Reading
movement – no
ice breaker – no
competition – no

Conversation Jenga
movement – no
ice breaker – no
competition – no

One-Question Surveys
movement – some
ice breaker – yes
competition – no

Grid Activity
movement – some
ice breaker – yes
competition – no

The Flyswatter Game
movement – yes
ice breaker – no
competition – yes

Building Blocks
movement – yes (but not everyone)
ice breaker – yes
competition – not really

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Five Ways to Reduce Teacher Talk

I think a lot about “teacher talk” or “teacher talking time” (TTT).

My enjoyment of communicating with people is both what initially drew me to teaching and my weakest point as a teacher. I could just go on and on forever.

It would certainly be ironic for me to write a 5,000 word narrative on this topic.

In lieu of that, here are five thoughts for creating and reviewing my lesson plans to limit teacher talk (aka “The Emily Show”):

  • 3223877562_5256b1806cThink preschool, not 12th grade. Not in terms of difficulty or nap time, but in terms of a student-centered approach. A pre-K teacher does not go on and on, and those students are busy.
  • Think percentage. Is it reasonable for students to listen to me talk for literally 80% of their class time? What about 50%? 20%? 0%?
  • Think opportunity cost. Every minute I spend talking to the class is a minute the students are not practicing generating or reading English. Listening is important! But so are grammar, vocabulary, speaking, writing, reading, and conversation. And, you know, plain old thinking. Is what I’m saying worth it?
  • 15028041122_e703888842Think burden. My TTT feels easy to me, but it wears my students down. Paying attention to a lecture (or tangent) for more than eight minutes at a time is heavy and tiring for most students.
  • Think ahead. For us chatterboxes, teacher talk has to be a big consideration in our lesson planning, in how we field questions during class, and in our classroom routines.


Photo Credit 1: GoonSquadSarah on Flickr
Photo Credit 2: Nancy <I’m gonna SNAP! on Flickr

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