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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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.

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Reflecting on Conversation Partners

In my last post, I hoped to write a bit more about the Conversation Partners class I taught earlier this year.

It met one hour a week as an elective course for students enrolled in English instruction full-time. I had two groups of people attend my class: the ESL students enrolled in the class, and the volunteer English speakers who partnered with them to chat.

During class, I basically proposed a topic and/or activity that would encourage students to converse. I listened, conferenced with people as necessary, and tried to interject as little as possible. This is why I say I was more of a facilitator than teacher.

The syllabus was a rather terse thing of beauty. Students had two responsibilities: show up to class, and meet with their partners one hour per week for conversation time. That was it.

I still had two students who didn’t pass. One lied (flagrantly, provably, and for weeks in a row) and I had to write him up. The other had a truly incredibly amount of trouble keeping his commitments to meet with his partners (he went through three). But he kept trying even when he knew he was failing the class, and hopefully he got something out of it all.

Anyway, some tidbits on how the actual day-to-day class went:

  • Overall, the first 3/4 of the semester was mostly getting-to-know-you type topics. The last 1/4 of the semester really got into Issues – the election, philosophy, feminism, etc. Looking back, I think I should have been more bold about getting into more serious topics earlier. That said, there was value in the students knowing each other fairly well before things got intense.
  • Tactile activities were especially interesting to all of us. Two examples:
    • Jenga. My mentor had Jenga sets in which each block was numbered. I wrote a conversation question for each number. The conversation partners played Jenga as usual, but had to answer the question that corresponded to the number on their block. It was a great warm-up on the first day, actually.
    • Building Blocks. This was a great recommendation from a colleague. The conversation partners took different roles: the Designer built something that nobody else could see. The Engineer had an identical pile of blocks and wanted to replicate the Designer’s building. The Consultant walked between the Engineer and the Designer and had to convey the instructions for how to build the same structure.
  • I didn’t foresee feeling pulled between my two groups of participants. Obviously the volunteers would have different needs than the ESL students. I think I underestimated the volunteers’ needs before I began, seeing them more as helpers and less as volunteers.
  • I had a mentor assigned to me as a newly hired teacher, and it was a super helpful set-up. Just knowing who to ask first is so huge for a new teacher – the division of labor in established departments is mind-boggling to the uninitiated. She happened to also be a great mentor and a person I like, so it was a very positive experience.
  • As a person and a learner, I tend to be rather bookish. It was really great for me to be in charge of a verbal-only class, with no textbook, no formal presentations, no pronunciation drills – just verbal communication. This experience will definitely inform the (bigger) role of conversation in my future classes.

I really enjoyed facilitating this class, and I’d be teaching it again this semester if the scheduling weren’t so inconvenient. I hope the current teacher is enjoying it as much as I did!

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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: Quizzing and Stress! (but it went fine)

Students: 18

One thing that went well:  I gave them a six-question grammar quiz as part of our accuracy review this morning.  Honestly, my motivation for doing so was to get data that was meaningful to them for our daily mini-demo on spreadsheets.  But the data turned out to be very informative for me.  I found that one of my questions was unduly difficult and why (whoops), about 2/3 of the class was pretty solid on the grammar point, and about 4 people (I was surprised at who they were) were struggling considerably.  Very good to know!  Note to self: low-stakes quiz more often.

One thing to improve:  The warm-up was weak and lacked any structure at all.  This was not a choice, but a result of saying during my planning, “I’ll come back to the detail of how exactly they should practice each other’s names” and then doing so when I didn’t have enough time to figure it out.  I ended up telling them that they had 7 minutes to study each other’s names, first and last.  It actually seemed to go pretty well: many of them used their grids from Monday, everybody was involved, and later on during the break I heard snippets of “how do you spell your name?”  Free-form seemed to have been a good idea – I’d just like to use it intentionally in the future.

One surprise:  This week, several students have mentioned to me that they’re stressed in class.  Not in tears or anything, and always with a laugh, but still.  In some ways this is not actually a surprise because a couple of them just moved up from Level 2.  But one of the students has been Level 3 for a while now, and though her writing is excellent, she mentioned that it really stresses her out.  I guess I’m surprised that I could both be stressing out my students and that they’d be willing to tell me so – you’d think they’d be mutually exclusive.  Also, I’m not really sure what to do.  Thoughts?

Journal: First Day of Computer Lab

Students: 18

One thing that went well:  The warm-up turned out to be quite a success.  We practiced each other’s names.  I kicked things off by saying we should test the teacher.  I went around the room and named everyone who was there so far.  (100% correct, not because I worked at it, but because names generally come easily to me.)  Then we split into two groups and did name chain drills that rapidly turned into free-form name repetition, which I had no problem with.  Next, we mixed up the groups a bit and repeated.  We wrapped up with a second test for the teacher because more students had arrived since my first test.  Everyone is very friendly but maybe a little shy, and they seemed to really enjoy this excuse to get to know each other a little bit more.

One thing to improve:  We’re doing some process writing, and we’re getting to the point where they need more individual time from me for guidance, corrections, etc.  I’m not really sure how to provide that in a class of 18.  Weekly conferences?  Email?  I’m not sure what’s best.

One surprise:  Our first computer lesson was not an unmitigated disaster.  Granted the room was locked when we got there (just like last semester), getting everybody up and running went slowly, and the room was seriously cold.  Still, they all got to my website, and all but one student successfully filled out the online survey I’d made to get a sense of their computer skills and their interests.  I didn’t realize I was missing someone because I had 18 answers and 18 students.  It turns out that somebody filled it out twice… with totally different answers each time.  Ah well.  We made it through, they’re more familiar with my web resources, and I’m more familiar with their interests and needs.  A surprisingly solid start!