Activity Corner: Information Gap

(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.)

13981256424_9658f31715Information Gap is a classic type of flexible communicative activity. It’s a close cousin of the Jigsaw Reading, in which students provide each other with information.

The teacher does not have the answers. Instead, the students are divided into two groups that each have answers for the other. The students communicate to give and receive the information they need.


Here is a simple information gap activity example. Each student is given a slip of paper with one of these sentences.

Group A: Ann is traveling to Brazil on a _______. It leaves at 3:10 Tuesday afternoon.

Group B: Ann is traveling to Brazil on a boat. It leaves at _______ Tuesday afternoon.

Students partner up across groups. They are not supposed to look at each other’s papers.

Group A would ask a question to fill in their blank. For example, “How is Ann getting to Brazil?” Group B would do the same, asking something like, “What time is the boat departing?”

That’s it!


  1. Decide what you want your students to practice. See below for some suggestions.
  2. Choose or create your materials. Note that materials can be reading passages, lists, maps, nutrition labels, and so on. The more material, the longer the activity can be.
  3. Prepare the information for Group A and Group B. The more blanks, the more time the students will need. This can be as low-tech as using white-out. It’s very handy to number each blank. Different colored paper can also be handy to prevent confusion.
  4. In class, prepare students for the content and language to be used in the information gap task.
  5. Explain the activity: each group is missing some information and they need to talk to each other to fill in the blanks. They will work with a partner who is missing different information.
  6. Be sure to emphasize on what the purpose is. For example, if you primarily want them to practice forming and asking questions, be clear about this so they don’t gloss over their helping verbs and intonation.
  7. Form partnerships however you see fit. Make sure each partnership has one student with the Group A paper, and the other has the Group B paper.
  8. As the students begin, circulate to observe, provide help, etc.
  9. Check answers. This can be done as a class, in pairs of partnerships, with all the Group As and all the Group Bs… Depending on your objectives, you might also choose to have students model how they asked for the information.

Content Possibilities:

  • reading any level of informational text in any subject
  • in academic writing class, could be sample paragraphs or essays
  • conversation/intonation practice – the content is just a vehicle for communicating verbally
  • spelling out loud – content just a vehicle for spelling words out loud
  • skimming and scanning
  • map reading and/or prepositions of place
  • forming questions
  • vocabulary practice
  • introducing the syllabus or other “boring” policy information


  • Regular grammar exercises – the students check each other’s work. Group A does the odds and Group B does the evens. Each group is provided with the answer key for the other group. I recommend checking answers verbally – so much of our grammar practice skews toward written instead of spoken!
  • Multilevel classes – Group A could be the lower level and Group B be the higher level. Group B would have more blanks. Group A could practice spelling them out loud if they didn’t know the word.
  • Metacognition – students guess the information in the blank first. (You’ll want to at least triple-space these ones.) This could be especially useful with content in an ESP class.
  • Editing practice – create an info-gap of level-appropriate writing that needed editing, but leave a gap instead. Students can write in their answer. You can then provide the original and Ss can discuss their different answers and compare them to the original. (You might want to provide suggested answers as well, especially at lower levels.)

This is a super flexible type of activity – I hope you’ll give it a try!

Photo Credit: Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung on Flickr

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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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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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Activity Corner: Scaffolding Peer Review

(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.)

17166723465_aec07bcf7fPeer review can be very useful for the students as well as the teacher.

In my ideal peer review session, students swap papers, then give each other encouragement and gently point out each others’ more obvious errors. Based on that, they edit their own papers, and then hand them in to me.

Two challenges that I’ve faced with peer review are getting students’ buy-in and ensuring that the students who struggle are not way off the mark with their advice.

This activity is a suggestion for how to get a class started with peer review.

It’s also another nice way to use student-generated content during class (like snowballs, one-question interviews, and the grid activity).

In a nutshell, I suggest that you simply use the students’ essays as you’d use any other example writing from the textbook. Give them the reading and several (not too many!) targeted questions to answer as their review. Reviews and essays are handed in at the same time. When you grade Student A’s assignment, read and respond to the reviews on Student A’s assignment, too. Agree or disagree with them and explain why.

In this way, you assess and scaffold the students’ ability to review each other’s work. You can learn a lot about where a student is at by seeing their comments on another students’ work. And your feedback helps them improve.


  1. Think about what you want students to gain from reviewing each other’s work. Pick the two or three main points.
  2. Frame questions that help the reviewers focus on these points. Depending on the level, these might be yes/no questions, ask for an appropriate example from the essay, or ask for an explanation.
  3. Create a simple worksheet with these questions on it. At the top, be sure to have lines for the date, the writer’s name, the essay’s title, and the reviewer’s name. Leave room at the bottom for your feedback to the reviewer about their review. Only one review per piece of paper, for sorting’s sake. Make sure you have enough copies of the worksheet for students to review multiple assignments, as time will allow.
  4. Introduce peer review in class the day the writing is due. Ideally, peer review is good practice for the reviewer and good information for the writer. Today, you’re going to begin by just having everyone practice reviewing.
  5. Students should pass their completed essays two people to the left. They should read the essay that’s passed to them and then fill out the entire review worksheet. I recommend a time limit. As time allows, they can pass the essays left again (and again…) and review the next one that comes their way.
  6. Essays and reviews get handed in at the same time. If you have a class with more than about five people, I recommend that you sort the papers as they hand them in. Make a pile of Student A’s essay and all the reviews about that essay, a separate pile of Student B’s essay with all the reviews on his essay, and so on.


Let’s say I’m teaching an advanced academic writing ESL class and we are currently focusing on thesis statements. This topic had a rocky start but students appear to be much more comfortable with it now.

For homework, I assigned them each to write three direct thesis statements about any topics they wished.

For peer review, I decided that I wanted to be sure that the students understood the anatomy of a thesis statement, and I wanted them to practice evaluating the points.

I placed the following on a simple worksheet:

Peer Review

Date: ______
Your name: _______
Whose homework are you reviewing? _____

Thesis Statement 1:
A. What are the three points that will be raised in this essay?
B. Do you think that these points are all relevant to the topic?
C. Do you think that these points are different enough from each other?

[on actual worksheet, repeat A, B, and C for Thesis Statements 2 and 3]

I made enough copies that students could review three assignments. I figured that we would only have time for two each, though.

I explained that today we would be introducing peer review. What is a peer? What is review? Peer review means that you evaluate each other’s work. I asked, why would I have you look at each other’s work? Together, we made the points that they can learn from each other’s correct answers and from each other’s mistakes. Also, the process of evaluating is really useful.

I explained that we will be doing more peer reviews in the future, not only today.

I explained the process of passing the homework to the left. Then I handed out the peer review sheets and asked them to spend only about three minutes on each thesis statement. (I considered doing an example with them up on the document camera, but decided that at this level, we could skip this.)

After about eight minutes, I asked them to finish the one they were on so we could all pass the homework assignments to the left again. They did go a little slowly, so we only had time for two reviews each.

When it was time to hand in the papers, I asked them to hand me Sara’s homework first. Then I asked for the two reviews of Sara’s work and put them under it. Then I asked for the next person’s with the two reviews of their work, etc. It took an extra two minutes of class time but saved me a lot of awkward paper shuffling later!

I graded the homework and the reviews of it at the same time. I made sure to do this before I planned my next lesson so that their performance on this task could inform instruction.

Variations and Other Content Possibilities:

  • Instead of having students pass around their original work, collect it all and hand out a packet of all the work to each student. It’s like a student-generated mini-textbook that you can use for many assignments (i.e. jigsaw reading).
  • For lower level ESL, they can review one sentence and check off basics like 1. starts with a capital letter, 2. ends with a period, and 3. I can read their writing.
  • When students are giving presentations, have the students who are listening answer two or three questions about the presenter’s performance. Again, focus on skills you hope to reinforce. Did the presenter speak loudly enough? Were their slides easy to read?
  • Students can quickly check each other’s assignments for factors like completion, handwriting, etc. This is scanning practice for the reviewers and reinforces these elements of the assignments for everyone!
  • This would be great verb tense practice too. In a Present Continuous unit, reviewers can write down the helping verb that was used and the main verb that was used. They can also check off whether each of these elements was correct.

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Student Questions Matrix, Part 2

This is Part 2 of a series on Student Questions. See Part 1 here.

Today I’m going to look more deeply into the questions of what (to me) makes a student’s question important and/or relevant.

The Graphic (click to enlarge)


The Axes

As you can see, the two axes I use are importance and relevancy. But let’s unpack what I meant by those.

Firstly, I liked both categories because I see them as flexible and subjective. What’s “relevant” in a syllabus-based EAP class might be much more narrow than in a community education life-skills class. What’s “important” in a free basic life-skills class in an English-speaking country differs greatly from advanced academic speaking taught as a foreign language.

Importance to me is about significance in the context of the topic and the students. Is it crucial to the content? Is it vital to the people studying it? It’s two measures disguised as just one.

Looking at importance re: content, if students in an intermediate grammar class are having trouble even recognizing Present Perfect, that’s very important. Recognizing a specific two-word verb tense is crucial for mastering Present Perfect and most of the English verb tenses. By contrast, if those students are trying to figure out the difference between “I already ate” and “I’ve eaten already,” I wouldn’t categorize it as particularly important because there is no functional difference in that example. It’s a rather insignificant detail, not the crux of the matter. I might advise them to focus on something where there is a functional difference, like “I was there” vs. “I’ve been there.”

The other side of importance is how important something is to the students. The sounds /r/ vs. /l/ might be very important to your Mandarin speakers but not at all to your Spanish and Arabic speakers. English-language traffic signs would be vital for the very safety of beginners in the USA, but not particularly crucial for beginners in a classroom in South Korea.

Relevance to me is a question’s connection to the material at hand. If you’re teaching Present Continuous in the context of household chores and then a student asks a question about the three present forms of “to be,” that’s extremely relevant, as it’s a building block of the verb tense. However, if in that same lesson a student asks about the passive voice in past tense from the US Constitution, you’re looking at a legitimate and potentially important question that’s still really outside the scope of where the class was headed that day. Relevancy is generally separate from importance.


One other point to mention is that some extreme outliers in these categories warrant different treatment.

Looking back at the traffic signs example for learners new to the USA, if you realize your students can’t interpret a WALK/DON’T WALK signal, this is not just important; it’s potentially life-and-death. To me it seems worth risking a tangent to make sure none of your students get flattened on their way home. (Teachers of new beginners, have you been in this type of situation, where a real safety concern comes up? What do you recommend for handling it?)

Another extreme can happen when a question is only important to one person in the room. At a really fantastic Microsoft Access training I attended at the Science Museum of Minnesota, one of my classmates kept asking detailed questions specific to her organization’s database needs. It was like she was trying use our class time as her own personal one-to-one consultation with the teacher. The instructor (I think rightly) did not address these questions at all during class time.


Imagine a high-intermediate ESL course on the first day of a unit focusing on Present Continuous in the context of leisure activities.

Here are four example questions based in that imaginary context. I see each of these as a different category of question. What do you think?

  1. Can you explain gerunds?
  2. It’s “-ing” so it’s Present Continuous, right?
  3. Why is “stop” followed by a gerund or infinitive?
  4. “What are the -ing spelling rules?

You might disagree with me, but this is how I see it:

  1. Can you explain gerunds? – Reasonably important for high-intermediate students to know, but not relevant to today’s lesson on Present Continuous
  2. It’s “-ing” so it’s Present Continuous, right? – Important to know and highly relevant to today’s lesson. Those helping verbs aren’t just there for fun!
  3. Why is “stop” followed by a gerund or infinitive? – Not important for this level and “why” isn’t a constructive question here. English is often arbitrary! It’s not at all relevant to today’s lesson.
  4. What are the -ing spelling rules? – I might get myself in trouble here, but to me spelling is of lower importance than structure and usage. The spelling rules are certainly relevant, though. Hopefully this one can come out of the Parking Lot within the next couple of class sessions!

Next Week

Next week I’ll be posting Part 3, which will go into more detail about the action steps from the graphic.

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Activity Corner: Snowballs

(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.)

2946943615_c95e521e6aI went to MD TESOL earlier this month and came away with some great warm-up ideas.

What I like about this one is that the students provide the input, but it gets randomized so nobody has to be put on the spot. It’s a particularly great way to review examples of grammar, writing, etc. anonymously, but can also be used for get-to-know-you activities.


  • Write a prompt on the board. (A question, several questions, an instruction to write a type of grammar construction, etc.)
  • Students each write their answers on a piece of paper.
  • Students crumple up their paper (“snowball”) and toss it into the middle of the room.
  • Everyone takes half a minute or so to pick up the crumpled papers and toss them toward the center again, which really mixes them up.
  • Each student picks up a random crumpled paper and unfolds it.
  • The students complete the activity with the random paper (i.e. read the example on the paper and correct it)


Let’s say I want to review Present Continuous with a fairly advanced grammar class.

I might put a picture up on the projector that shows people doing several different activities. Perhaps children on a playground.

I’d write the prompt, “Write three sentences describing what the children are doing. Please use Present Continuous in each sentence.”

The students would write their sentences. Then I’d have them crumple their paper, toss it into the middle of the room, and we’d all randomize them.

The students would each take a random paper, check it for errors by themselves, then switch with a partner. I’d circulate and help. If there’s time, we could also share them all as a class, or we could just spot-check a few where the partners disagreed on the corrections.

Other Content Possibilities:

  • as a more personal activity, students could write down information about themselves. When students receive their random snowball, they have to try to figure out who their paper is describing. In Level 1, this could be visible information (i.e. “brown shirt, long hair, glasses”). In higher levels, it could be less visible information (i.e. “I play the piano. I love to read. I work in a hospital.”)
  • ask students to produce pretty much any grammar point
  • ask a few content questions (perhaps about the reading assignment?) and then “grade” each other’s papers. The point would be to learn the content better from the process of answering and correcting, not to receive the grade. You could ask them to report what grade they would have gotten, though, as an extremely informal formative assessment.
  • in academic writing, you can ask students to write two thesis statements or three example topic sentences. Then they can evaluate and improve upon each other’s examples.


Photo Credit: Turinboy on Flickr

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Activity Corner: Hidden Vocab Words

(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.)

About six years ago (what?!) I wrote a Journal post called Ice Breakers Impress. I said, “…students kept telling me how smart I was.”

How is this not in my Activity Corner?!

In Hidden Vocab Words, the vocabulary words are written one each on note cards. Then the teacher (with permission) tapes one to each student’s back. Students need to give each other hints so that everyone can guess which word is on his/her own back.

The purpose of this activity is vocabulary review and verbal communication. It makes a nice warm-up to review the previous day’s or week’s work, and is a nice excuse to get everybody walking around and using their English skills to figure something out.


  • Write the key vocabulary words on note cards.
    Assign each student a word to write on a note card (might be valuable for Level 1)
  • Model the activity. Be sure to communicate that they should not read you your word.
  • Tape the prepared cards to the students’ backs.
  • Tell them they have 10 minutes to figure out their words and get out of their way!

Example (in Level 1):

In a Level 1 class, explaining and modeling the activity takes a bit of effort. We do so much reading practice at that level that students might not expect a game where they are not supposed to read the word they see out loud.

I don’t remember the details of how I modeled it back in 2010, but if I were approaching it now I would go in two phases:

  1. Hold up a note card with a gadget word (i.e. washing machine) and ask students to tell me what the word does. Write their answers on the board. Rest or tape the note card near their answer.
  2. Hold up a different gadget note card and ask someone to tape it to my back. Pretend I don’t know perfectly well what it says. Tell students, “We are playing a game. I don’t know what word is on my back! Don’t read it to me. Don’t tell me. It’s a secret. Please tell me: what does it do?” If met with a ringing silence, I would refer back to the first note card and the information about it on the board. Keep modeling, “What does it do?” and perhaps also write it on the board so they know to ask that question.

I am envisioning not bothering with the word “clue,” but of course it depends on the level of the students.

I thought it was clever of Past Emily to focus on “what does it do?” This made students use the unit’s nouns and verbs. They couldn’t just say “square, in the basement, white, big” to describe a washing machine. They needed to recall and use the specific vocabulary of what it does. It was also an opportunity to repeat and hopefully memorize a short and grammatically correct question – a nice bonus in Level 1.

Other Content Possibilities:

This activity is great for vocabulary review at all levels. Here are a few ways to expand that idea a bit farther:

  • grammar: at higher levels, this could be an interesting way to review our twelve verb tenses plus passive, “going to,” “used to…”). Write the name of each tense on a notecard, and then as a hint students have to use that verb tense in a sentence. Try it with no repeats allowed to make sure that students speak to several others over the course of the activity.
  • content: all subject areas have information to memorize. You can write historical events, geographical features, nations, cell organelles, auto repair terminology, famous people, methods of birth control, characters in a Dostoevsky novel, pharmaceuticals and their dosing, or just about anything else on the note cards to review that content.
  • general warm-up: I’ve seen this activity used as an ice-breaker among all native English speakers. They used a fun theme, I think “famous fictional characters.”

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