Activity Corner: Conversation Jenga

(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.)

One activity I’ve had enormous success with as a first-day ice-breaker was Conversation Jenga.2432270195_63a2118440_z

In Conversation Jenga, you write a different number on each block in a Jenga set. As students take out a block, they look at its number as they place it on top. Then they read and answer a corresponding question.

The purpose is to get students who don’t know each other comfortable talking to each other. In this activity they have somewhere to look, something to do, a shared experience, and lots to talk about. Many thanks to my mentor for pointing me toward this activity!

(Photo credit: “The Jenga” by Ed Garcia on Flickr)


  • Have one Jenga set per 8ish students.
  • Write or tape a different number 1-54 onto each block in each Jenga set.
  • Write numbered questions 1-54 (or use my examples below) you’d like your students to discuss.
  • Model how to play Jenga. Then model how and when to answer which question.
  • I had each student read the question and answer it. I did not ask everyone to answer each question – it would have taken too long. Spontaneous conversation did arise around some of the questions, which was great!
  • Give the students the list of conversation questions.
  • Have students separate into groups of no more than about eight.
  • Let them know how much time there is, and encourage them to play again if time allows!
  • Note: I did not model how to re-set or put away a Jenga tower, which was an oversight on my part. However, I thought that the resulting group problem solving and authentic conversation turned out to be super valuable.

Example Questions:

Here are the questions I handed out to my Conversation Partners class. It was the first day so I had never met them yet, but I knew that my ESL students and my native English speaker volunteers would be playing together so clarification would be readily available. I also knew that generally speaking, the ESL students would be international students and community college students of typical college age.

If you have a different group (and you probably do), definitely switch up the questions! Consider English level, age, presumed disposable income level, and presumed openness to being silly.

I would change a lot of the questions if I had a different group, but this is a starting point!

  1. List all the cities/countries you’ve ever lived in.
  2. What did you have for breakfast today?
  3. What’s your favorite time of day? Why?
  4. What’s your favorite time of year? Why?
  5. What classes are you taking this semester?
  6. Tell us about one of your good friends.
  7. Tell us about someone in your family.
  8. What are two of your hobbies?
  9. Name your 3 favorite phone game apps.
  10. Name your 3 favorite phone apps for staying organized.
  11. What do you like to do on weekends?
  12. What do you enjoy reading?
  13. What do you enjoy watching?
  14. What do you enjoy listening to?
  15. What do you enjoy writing?
  16. What do you enjoy chatting about?
  17. What are your favorite ways to exercise?
  18. Where are your favorite places to visit here in Maryland?
  19. Where do you hang out on campus?
  20. What are 3 cool things you know how to do?
  21. What is the funniest thing that’s happened to you in school?
  22. What’s your favorite snack?
  23. Do you prefer houses or apartments? Explain.
  24. Do you prefer big cars or small cars? Explain.
  25. Is picking out clothes in the morning fun, horrible, or not an issue? Explain.
  26. Do you prefer to eat in or eat out? Explain.
  27. Do you do homework right away or at the last minute? Explain.
  28. Do you prefer sandwiches or wraps? Explain.
  29. Do you prefer chocolate or vanilla? Explain.
  30. Would you rather visit Hawaii or Alaska? Explain.
  31. Would you rather canoe or water ski? Explain.
  32. Would you rather go to a comedy club or a dance club? Explain.
  33. When it comes to money, are you more of a saver or a spender? Explain.
  34. Do you prefer to have just a few friends, or as many as possible? Explain.
  35. Are you messy or neat? Explain.
  36. What’s your favorite book?
  37. What’s your favorite song?
  38. Would you rather visit a museum or a garden? Explain.
  39. Do you think children at restaurants are adorable or annoying? Explain.
  40. Do you prefer hot tea or iced tea? Explain.
  41. What’s your favorite animal? Why?
  42. Do you prefer winter or summer? Explain.
  43. Do you prefer spring or fall? Explain.
  44. Do you love hand sanitizer or hate it? Explain.
  45. Do you enjoy exercising? Explain.
  46. What do you think of baseball? Explain.
  47. What do you think of soccer? Explain.
  48. Do you enjoy going to big cities, or do you avoid them? Explain.
  49. Do you think earthworms are cute or disgusting? Explain.
  50. Do you think snakes are great or scary? Explain.
  51. How do you feel about hunting? Is it a traditional skill or a cruel hobby? Explain.
  52. Which type of skiing is better: downhill or cross country? Explain.
  53. Do you love roller coasters or hate them? Explain.
  54. How do you feel about math? Explain.

Other Content Possibilities:

I think this could be very flexible – the Jenga bit is just a fun way to randomize which student gets which little assignment.

  • Grammar: convert one of the listed sentences into today’s grammar point, or fix the intentional error in the listed sentence
  • Vocabulary: each listed sentence could be a clue pointing to one of the unit’s vocabulary words.
  • Academic writing: identify whether the sentence is a thesis, topic sentence, hook, conclusion, transition, etc.

You’re reading Activity Corner: Conversation Jenga, originally posted at

Journal: Passive Voice

Sorry for the blog hiatus.  We’ve been working on passive voice (i.e. “My wallet was stolen.”) for the last week and a half.  I can’t use the textbook’s materials because this topic is scheduled for next semester, not this one.  However, we needed it now, and they’ll need it again next semester.  So I’ve been working extra hard with no text to lean on, and it’s been wonderful but tiring.

Students: 12

One thing that went well:  Jigsaw reading.  In my attempt to not over-use it, I’ve been under-using it.  This time, I used two readings that were fairly long and hopefully high-interest.  The students read independently and worked on comprehension questions.  Then they got together into two same-story groups to discuss their stories: 1) main idea, 2) new words, and 3) what surprised them.  Then they split into different-story partners and shared about their story using the same three questions.  One or two groups finished early, so I had them compare and contrast the two stories.  That proved quite interesting – I wish I’d had everyone talk about it!  Two particular victories: I didn’t talk much, and it ended our class on an energetic and communicative note.

One thing to improve:  Eliciting student opinions.  I actually do it a lot – that’s not the problem.  The problem is that I’m usually met with ringing silence.  I’m clearly not framing it as well as I could, both leve-wise and culture-wise.

One surprise:  I gave a quiz in passive voice today.  I mostly left transitive vs. intransitive verbs off of the quiz – they’re important, but the class was simply not ready for a quiz on them.  However, I wrote a bonus question asking them to write a passive sentence with the verb “sleep.”  This is a trick queston because you can’t use “sleep” or other intransitive verbs in the passive voice.  My happy surprise?  Several students got it right!  It was very exciting.

Activity Corner: One-Question Surveys

(I thought it might be helpful to readers and myself if I described some of my favorite activities from time to time.)

In a One-Question Survey, each student has one slip of paper with a single question on it.  These questions are generally related, often by content.  They’re generally yes/no questions.  Each student is to ask each other student their question and tally up the results.

This is similar to my beloved Grid Activity, but with a One-Question Survey there is little writing, no record of how an individual answered, and it’s a much faster process.

The purposes can be to have students practice asking the same question repeatedly to work on their pronunciation and/or fluency, to reinforce key points of a lesson (i.e. vocabulary, grammar, content, etc.), or to gather data to aid in a math, Excel, writing, or conversation lesson.


  • Decide on your purpose.
  • Based on that, write as many different questions as there are students.
  • Model the process of asking the same question to everyone and tallying the results.
  • Give each student a different question.
  • Tell them to ask everyone, answer only Yes or No, and keep a tally of the results.
  • Debrief as a class.  How depends on your purpose.  Leave plenty of time for this – it’s the real meat of the activity.

Example (from Level 3):

Yesterday, we used a One-Question Survey in my Level 3 class in the context of our unit on cars and driving.

First, I modeled.  I took a slip of paper out of the pile in my hand and told them, “This is my question.  I’m going to ask everybody, including myself.”  I wrote it on the board, asked each student, and kept my tally on the board.

Then, I told them it was their turn.  I handed out questions we had talked about during the unit, such as “Have you ever gotten a ticket?”, “Do you speed?”, and “Do you cut people off?”  You can see we used all sorts of grammar.  This was for two reasons: a) it’s Level 3, so they already know a lot of grammar, and b) our focus was not on a grammar point, but on the content and vocabulary.

I asked them to ask all students, including themselves, and also to ask me.  I said that the only answers should be “yes” or “no.”  And I asked them to keep a tally.

When they were finished, we went through the questions and put them into an Excel spreadsheet that automatically calculated percentages for us.  This was to reinforce some of our computer lessons from last month.  At this point, it was time to go home.

Next time, I’d be more careful to make sure that each student understood his/her question.  In a few cases, students thought they understood, but they were mistaken.  We easily cleared this up during the debriefing time, but it would’ve been more powerful if students could have accurately explained to each other during the survey time itself.

Next time, I’d also like the debriefing to be more than just an Excel demo.  It could be a full-out Excel lesson, or even better, fodder for a conversation and/or writing assignment.  So, I recommend leaving plenty of time to work with the survey results.

Other content possibilities:

  • Warm-up: have students ask innocuous personal questions.
  • Graphs: use the data to practice graph-making, either analog or with Excel.
  • Academic writing: using the survey results, students can summarize, compare and contrast, predict based on, and explain the data.
  • Grammar: all questions should use the same structure.
  • Content: cut up a practice test with multiple-choice questions and have each student tally up answers A, B, C, and D.  Look at the results as a class.  Go over right answers and identify weak spots together that the students should study.
  • Google Docs: send students to the same Google Spreadsheet and have them enter their data simultaneously.

Journal: Tiny Class

Students: 9 (sad!)

One thing that went well: Yesterday’s lesson.  And I still had abysmal attendance today.  Although I hope that if I taught horribly my students would stop coming to class, I just really can’t take it as direct correlation between bad teaching and low attendance.

One thing to improve:  Actually, today was pretty good too.  Even in terms of talking too much – I stopped myself several times.

One surprise:  Realizing for myself that English spelling rules for -ed verbs and pronunciation rules are both pretty simple and pretty consistent, but are 100% unrelated.  It’s so crazy!

Journal: The Verb +ed Common Thread

Students: 14

One thing that went well:   Yesterday felt very choppy, but today we were more focused.  We still worked on three different topics, but today the topics were related (-ed vs. -ing adjectives, pronouncing -ed endings, and reading a story that was mostly in the Simple Past).  I also did a much better job of having them practice rather than just talking at them.  One of the topics was in response to a pronunciation question they asked yesterday.  Though it wasn’t perfect (see the next paragraph for more on this), it felt good to teach a solid lesson based on something they asked about yesterday.  So I guess I felt that several things went pretty well today.

One thing to improve:  Although I think the lesson on the pronunciation of regular past tense verbs (think of the -ed in fixed vs. studied vs. interested) was pretty effective, I think I needed to more clearly tie what we were talking about to verbs ending in -ed and to pronunciation (as opposed to spelling).

One surprise:  We were reviewing the difference between adjectives for feelings that are made out of verbs.  There’s usually an -ed form and an -ing form and they mean different things.  Just think of “bored” and “boring.”  To help them practice this, I drew them a picture of me walking up a really long staircase.  I labeled myself “tired” and the stairs “tiring.”  Then I had the students draw pictures and label them.  Half the class did “interested” and “interesting,” and the other half did “embarrassed” and “embarrassing.”  I was surprised at just how useful it was for bringing out questions that solidified their understanding.  I was also surprised at how vehemently a couple of students either couldn’t or wouldn’t draw anything.  Incredibly useful but incredibly controversial.  Very surprising!

Journal: Grammar was driving us crazy!

Students: 13

One thing that went well:  I busted out a grid activity at a good time in our really exhausting grammar lesson.

One thing to improve:  There were so many incredibly picky questions, and most of them were not actually on the topic of our grammar lesson, which was Past Continuous (i.e. Grammar was driving us crazy.).  Transitive and intransitive verbs came up in one of our examples and there went 20 minutes (The chicken was roasting. vs. I was roasting the chicken.).  I did manage to avoid slipping into an impromptu lesson on Active and Passive Voice (I prepared the chicken. vs. The chicken was prepared by me.), but only because I’ve been revving up to dive into it in our next unit.  But anyway… grammar basically engulfed the whole class period.  And this was after I refused to answer half their questions (the Passive Voice ones).  How harshly should I reign things in?

One surprise:  How easy Past Continuous (you know, our official grammar point of the day) was compared to all the questions they were asking.

Journal: Mad Libs

Students: 14

One thing that went well: Mad Libs.  We’re starting a letter-writing project, so I wrote a sample letter.  Then, on the other side of the paper, I made it into a Mad Lib by removing some words and replacing them with a blank and a note about the part of speech.  I modeled it a lot (a lot), and then handed out one copy to each of four small groups.  They got a good grammar review (students were reminded of comparative adjectives, infinitives, and irregular plurals) and got a chuckle out of the ridiculous letters they created together.  When we were finished with the game, I made sure everyone had a copy of the paper and then we read the real, complete letter on the back and commenced with a pretty normal lesson.

One thing to improve:  I talk too much (I list this one pretty often.  Perhaps I should, you know, actually improve it.)

One surprise:  “Condo” and “condom” sound awfully alike.  I’d never really noticed before today.