Number one for English language teachers

Minimal resources: The immediate environment

Level: Starter/beginner, Elementary, Pre-intermediate, Intermediate, Upper intermediate, Advanced Type: Teaching notes

Scott Thornbury offers some valuable tips and ideas for making use of your immediate environment for imaginative language lessons.

  1. Guess what?

    This is a golden-oldie, but it works at almost any level. Teacher says: “You have to ask yes/no questions to guess the mystery object that I have on me, with me, am carrying, wearing, etc. Who’s going to start?” You can use this demonstration stage to elicit, model and write up typical guessing questions, such as Can you…with it? Is it made of plastic/metal/paper etc? Is it bigger/smaller than…? Is it used for …ing? Is it used to … with? etc. Once students have guessed your mystery object, show it to them and invite them to ask “normal” questions about it: How long have you had it? Was it expensive? Use this stage to “tell the story” of the object. Then put students into pairs or groups of three and they do the same. Make sure they don’t forget to tell the story behind the object, once they have guessed it. Go round the class, helping out with vocabulary when necessary. When most of them have finished, ask one or two students to report on their neighbour’s object. You can also ask them what questions they asked that helped them guess it.

  1. My bag’s things

    Display some items (four or five) that you have in your bag, or in your briefcase, or desk drawer, etc. As you hold each one up, talk briefly about it – where you got it, what you use it for, what personal significance it has, and so on. Invite students to ask questions, if they want. Then, sort them out into pairs or small groups, and ask them to remind each other what you said about each object. Then ask individual students to report back to you what you said about each object. Students then do the same in small groups, using objects from their own bags, etc.

  1. Detective work

    As in the previous activity, display some personal items (such as a cinema ticket, a bus pass, a CD, someone’s business card, a magnifying glass…), checking the names of each one. This time ask learners, working in pairs or small groups, to make deductions about your life, personality, and so on, based on these items. You can provide them with sentence frames which they can use to generate as many sentences as possible. For example: You must + verb … You probably + verb… You might + verb … You obviously + verb… Ask groups to report their sentences, giving reasons, and then tell them whether their deductions were correct or not. They can then go on to do the same activity in pairs or small groups, followed by a class report stage.

  1. Total physical response

    This technique forms the basis of a teaching methodology (TPR), but also lends itself to lots of activities involving students responding to instructions. For example, ask each student to lend you one personal item (if there are a lot of students, it may be best to limit it to only a dozen items). Place these on the desk in front of the room, and check that students know a) the name of each object and b) who it belongs to. (This way it doesn’t matter if some of the objects are the same, because you can distinguish them by saying who the owner is, as in Jorge’s watch, Carmen’s watch). Then ask individuals to do things with the objects. For example, Leonardo, stand up, come and get Carmen’s watch and give it to Yolanda. … Teresa, take José’s ruler and put it next to Felipe’s pen… etc. Invite the students to take turns coming to the front of the class and giving instructions to other students.

  1. Lost property

    Ask each learner to contribute an item by (secretly) placing it in a box or bag that you pass round. Then, tell the them that the classroom is a “lost property office”. Demonstrate by first taking the role of the “office assistant” yourself and inviting individuals to come up and “claim” their item. To do this they have to describe it accurately, as well as answer questions such as What’s it made of? Has it got your name on it? What do you use it for? How long have you had it? etc. When they have given sufficient information (you can set a minimum of, say, ten facts about the object), you can select the item and give it back to them. Then ask other students to take turns as the “office assistant” and “customer”, until all the items have been returned to their owners.

  1. Classroom: true or false

    Make two or three statements about the classroom, such as There are three shelves on the far wall; The room hasn’t got an air conditioner; The ceiling is off-white; and ask students to tell you if they are true or false. You can write the sentences on the board or dictate them, so that students have a model of different “description” structures that they can use. Then, using dictionaries if you wish, students work in pairs to prepare similar statements to try out on other pairs, or on the class as a whole. For more advanced students, you can stipulate that they use specific structures, such as the passive (The windows have been cleaned recently) or needs doing/could do with: The walls could do with a coat of paint.

  1. What’s different?

    (This is good practice of the present perfect). Tell the class to look closely around them, and try to remember the details of the layout of the room and the things in it. Then ask two or three students to leave the room for a minute. While they are outside, ask the others to quickly make five changes to the room – e.g. moving a picture on the wall, opening a window, etc. Ask the students who are outside to return and to ask questions to find out what has changed. You can supply a model (or models) for the questions on the board. For example, Have you opened the window? Has someone opened the window? Has the window been opened? When all the changes have been identified, another group of students have a turn to go out. (I prefer to do this with small groups of students rather than a single student, as it puts slightly less pressure on them, but if you have a small class of talkative students, you could choose individuals to go outside).

  1. Finally www.groups.yahoo.com/group/dogme had this to say:

Today was our last day of term (in New Zealand) and I had asked my students to interview each other and write newspaper-like articles about the most memorable moments from the term in class (they were collated and put into a class news sheet as a reminder of our term together). Well, what interesting reading. A surprise to me was that the activities outside our classroom window were some of the most memorable things all term (our class is on the 2nd floor overlooking the intersection on a busy street). Like the three-car accident and the dramas that followed; or the ambulance that would go past everyday at around morning tea time (not always in a hurry), which we were sure was going to collect donuts from the bakery; or the car that always parked in the same place, until it got a ticket; or the farmers protest march about a proposed government tax. A great number of the activities outside the classroom resulted in speculation and discussion inside the classroom.

(Peter Sampson)

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Readers' comments (1)

  • What would happen if the teacher just sat there?

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