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.”

You’re reading Activity Corner: Hidden Vocab Words, originally posted at

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.


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

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!


  • 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.

Related Posts:


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Journal: Day 1 Again!

It was a lovely Day 1!

What a difference it makes to already know where to park, where to go when the copier is broken, who to ask for a computer lab, and some of the students in the class.

What surprised me:

  • how drastically the new pre-registration process cut down on first-day paperwork nonsense.  Yay office!
  • the profundity of an error in which a student wrote, “I am not grammar.”
  • I had exactly the same number of Spanish speakers as Korean speakers, meaning that I could make conversation pairs in such a way that they needed their English.

What went well:

I was happy with my pre-teaching of the grid activity, both content and process.  The students found out about each other and practiced some slightly tricky listening as well (“What do you do?” vs. “What do you do on weekends?”)

We got our minimal paperwork and policies out of the way with little pain and little confusion.

We were pretty focused on the question, “What is the most important to study?  Reading, writing, listening, speaking, computers, or grammar?”  We talked about the meaning, separated into conversation pairs, and then wrote responses.  I liked that they practiced different modalities while giving me input about how class should look for the next semester.

What needs improvement:

One of my students is significantly hard of hearing.  Being loud is helpful but isn’t enough.  I need to be much more mindful of how I can support what I’m saying with writing.  This will also help the students who can hear but have trouble understanding.

The class needs more structure, but I’m having trouble getting one into place when I don’t know for sure if I’ll be able to have a computer lab or not.  I did put in a very sweet request – I just hope it can work out.

Also, I discovered a few students who apparently have trouble sitting next to each other and getting in-class writing done at the same time.  I actually had them all at one point last semester, so we already have a good rapport.  I used this rapport to tell them I thought they were distracting each other.  I’m not here to treat adults like children, but I will be watching them like a hawk to see if I need to respectfully split them up, at least during the next writing activity.

Thoughts for tomorrow:

Stay student-centered.  Lay some grammar groundwork for the beginning of the unit on Monday.  Reading.  Continue trying to get a computer lab.  That should do it!

Journal: Ice Breakers Impress

The students were really impressed with my vocabulary review activity this morning and kept telling me how smart I was.  🙂

Students: 8

Countries of Origin: El Salvador, South Korea, Bulgaria, Dominican Republic

What surprised me:

  • The A/C is not only on, but also cooling the building!
  • Introducing the fact that Present Continuous can also be talking about right now did not seem to throw them for a loop.  Phew!

Today’s Objectives:

  1. SWBAT describe what some common home/office gadgets do.
  2. SWBAT ID if a Present Continuous (PrCo) sentence is future or present.
  3. SWBAT hear /th/ and demo /th/ so that other Ss understand it.

What went well:

My magical warm-up activity was to tape a gadget vocab word to all of the students’ backs.  They had to get other students to tell them what their gadget does and use those hints to figure out what was on their backs.  It really made them have to use and understand the language, and I literally backed right out of the room so they could work it out themselves.

PrCo review went smoothly.  I liked my authentic lead-in, “What are you doing after class today?”  I was pleased with the little PowerPoint I made that had one-sentence slides of PrCo mixed in with non-ProCo (they had to determine which ones were PrCo).  We changed the non-PrCo into PrCo.  I kept asking, “Why,” and “How do you know?” … and they kept having to answer me.

The transition from PrCo talking about future into PrCo talking about the present was smooth.  The charades game was fun and really showed me they understood that it meant right now.  Plus one of my students had the verb “flying” and the flapping was funny for all.

Pronunciation was a change from yesterday with students working in pairs, helping each other.  Not The Emily Show!

The listening tied in neatly with the PrCo because the textbook is good that way, and we really stretched it out, locating PrCo sentences in the listening worksheet after the listening activity was over.

What I’d like to improve upon:

Again, my a/v time was longer than I’d anticipated.  This is not hard to prevent, I just didn’t do everything I should have in order to prevent it.

I wish I’d checked for understanding better at the end of pronunciation.  I know they practiced, but except for the little bits I observed while floating, I don’t know how well they did.

Thoughts for Tomorrow:

I really want to tie the vocabulary into the grammar since they’ve seemed oddly separate all week.  I’ll save the second piece of listening for next week.  It’s already Wednesday and we haven’t really done reading.  Pronunciation should continue, especially with small group work.  Maybe we’re ready to succeed at the first exercise the textbook suggests as a lead-in for this unit!

Also, I’d very much like to end the week with a decidedly interactive lesson.

“The Art of Teaching Adults” – Chapters 1 – 5


The Art of Teaching Adults from
"The Art of Teaching Adults" from

Chapter one was basically a detailed and engaging annotated bibliography. It made me really want to read Robert Mager for objectives and Jerrold Kemp for course design.  Those topics might end up being in a different course though.  Renner’s description convinced me to read Grow’s article about stages of self-directed learning in this course.

Lesson Plans:  The lesson plan chapter was extremely short and I was underwhelmed.  One nice take-away was that he listed a separate column for instructor’s activities and learners’ activities.  That makes it really easy to see at a glance if you’re sharing the work (and therefore the learning) with your students.

Regarding Objectives:  Renner keeps citing* Mager’s “motto” and I’m just not 100% on board with it.

If you don’t know where you are going, how will you know how to get there?
If you don’t know where you want to go, how will you know that you have arrived?

There’s certainly logic to it, and it’s a valuable way to think.  My problem is that it leaves no room for serendipity. Plans are all well and good; goals and targets are nice.  I just don’t agree that we necessarily have to be aiming for a given outcome in order to achieve it or recognize that we achieved it.  To me such orderly thinking should be used sometimes, but not at the expense of embracing reality.  As I mentioned earlier in this post, I’m very interested in reading some Mager.

Room Set-Up: I didn’t realize how cleverly multi-purpose the U-shaped chair set-up is till I saw his diagram.  All students can see each other, all students can see the teacher in the front, and the teacher can easily move up the center of the U.

Broken Ice on a Lake by MelvinSchlumbman on Flickr
"Broken Ice on a Lake" by MelvinSchlumbman on Flickr

Ice-Breakers:  I kind of rolled my eyes but read them anyway, and I’m glad I did.  One activity he suggests for starting a new course is “Press Conference.” I like how relevant it is to students’ need to meet other students and their need to start actual class business. Have students form groups of four or five.  Give them one minute to quick introduce themselves to each other and then five minutes to pool questions about the course they’re about to begin.  Then the teacher calls on groups, who ask her a question about the class round-robin until all questions are answered.

Some other elements of icebreakers that appeal to me:

  • Awkward first conversations eliminated! Have students write something informative on a piece of paper, and then have silent mingling time in which people can read each other’s papers.  
  • I also like collecting common expectations, concerns, and learning needs first individually, then in small groups, and then up on the paper… and then actually responding to the lists and even changing your plans to better fit them.
  • He even suggests that some groups can decide what the daily agenda should look like, and I’m a little surprised that I really like the idea of asking the group “What has to happen for this course to be a success?” and posting their answers.

Overall Impressions So Far

I’m inclined to like any book on teaching that encourages the teacher to get off his or her pedestal and facilitate the learning the students are looking for.  I pretty much love being told that plans have to change and that all students’ needs are different.

So I’m hoping that this book gets into a bit more of how to make a reasonable starting plan and frameworks for understanding where students are at, or else it won’t be telling me anything I actually need to hear.  Based on the table of contents, I do think it’ll get a little more pithy.  And if not, I’ll move to a different source.

*EDIT: Thanks to MJ for pointing out that I mixed up “cite” and “site.”  For the record, I do know the difference.  It just doesn’t always stop me from typing the wrong one.