Here are some activities that make use of the kind of banal, everyday objects people carry round with them – pens, watches, keys, combs, chewing gum, bus passes and so on.
What is it?
Level: Elementary (with variations for higher levels)
Language focus: vocabulary for describing objects
1. Students choose one item which they have with them and place it on a table for the whole class to view. Ensure that there is a variety of different objects.
2. The teacher shows the class an object of their own and elicits its name. Brainstorm words related to this item and write on the board, e.g. Pen: plastic, ink, writing, small, etc.
3. Next, the teacher needs to help the students put these words into full sentences. To do this, ask the students questions about the object, for example: What is this? (It is a pen) What’s it made from? (It’s made from plastic) How big is it? What colour is it? Is it heavy? What is it used for? How much does it cost? Is it new or old? e tc.
Teach any new vocabulary items, e.g. names of materials. Ensure students are aware that for the question, What is it used for? The answer is the verb in the –ing form. It may help to brainstorm or simply give a list of suitable verbs to the students.
Write the full sentence answers plus any new vocabulary items on the board to help students remember.
4. When the teacher has taught/elicited as many sentences about their item as they feel necessary, review the description as a whole. For example: This is a pen. It is blue. It is small and light. It’s made from plastic. It’s used for writing. It’s (quite) old. It’s (very) cheap.
5. Next, students choose one item from the start of the class (either their own or another student’s) and write a description of it, using the vocabulary they have just learnt. The teacher monitors and helps students individually, checking that their sentences are correct.
6. Once everyone has completed their sentences, students stand up and mingle. They speak to other students and describe their object, without mentioning its name. Their partner has to guess which object they are describing.
VARIATION 1: Write the names of each item on a scrap of paper, fold and place into a hat (or similar). Students pull out one piece of paper each and their challenge is to describe that object to the class, without naming it. Points can be awarded to the student who guesses correctly first. This is good for oral fluency practice, and would suit a slightly higher level class, or a as a revision of language in a subsequent lesson.
VARIATION 2: An extension of this activity for intermediate level classes is to show pictures of some unusual objects. Students use their imaginations as to what each one might be used for, using the simple affirmative statements taught above. Once their descriptions and imaginations have been exhausted, the teacher reveals the item’s actual name and use, or, if this is unknown, the class could vote on the best name and use.
As a follow-on activity, students could invent and describe their own imaginary/funny objects.
VARIATION 3: For advanced level classes, students could spend a couple of minutes thinking individually about how they might persuade someone to buy their object, making full use of exaggeration and invention. You might need to prompt them or help them express what they want to say. For example:
This pen is hand-crafted from the finest quality plastic. The classic design is the result of decades of research into the workings of the finger, wrist and arm muscles, and guarantees smooth, comfortable writing. Look how the ink flows effortlessly onto the page, helping you to express your thoughts fluently. Because of the high production costs, only a limited number of this model were produced and they are now greatly in demand. This particular pen is believed by some experts to be the one that Shakespeare wrote his plays with.
They should also decide on a price that they want to sell their object for. Ask them to stand up and mill around, trying to sell their items to each other. As they move from one potential buyer to another, they'll be essentially going through the same 'sales pitch', but not literally repeating – they'll also be refining, polishing and expanding what they say. You might want to wander around and feed in language that they seem to be groping towards or you might prefer to just leave them to it. Even if they find a buyer, they might want to regard the sale as provisional and see if they can get a better price from someone else!
Level: Upper Intermediate/Advanced
Language focus: describing and comparing objects
1. Ask students to choose one item that they have with them and place it on a central table. Items cannot be duplicated. List the items on the board for extra clarity.
2. Tell the students that they have been stranded on a desert island, and the only items they have are the ones listed on the board. Their aim is to stay alive. You might want to have a brief discussion about what is on their island (for example, Is it small or large? Are there any people or villages? etc.)
3. Ask students to work in pairs or small groups and think of desert island uses for each of their listed objects. Prime them using examples such as: A ring could be traded for food. A paper bank note could be used to start a fire. (a desert island is unlikely to use the student’s current currency!) etc.
Encourage students to think of as many uses as possible for each item, not just their obvious uses.
4. Students feed back their pair/group ideas to the whole class. See who comes up with the most imaginative ideas.
5. Next, ask students to rank their items in order of importance. You could limit the number of items: for example, in a class of 12 you could say that only six items can be kept (make up a reason as to why) but students have to choose which six.
- Students need to say which items they think should be kept and why (or conversely which items they think should not be kept, and why not). For example: I think we should keep the water bottle because it can be used for storing things as well as keeping water. I don’t think we should keep the ring because there may not be any people on the island to trade with.
- This stage could either be done as a whole class or by splitting the students up into pairs or groups (if doing the latter, it is a good idea to mix the students up so they are working with new people, thus challenging them further) and then feeding back to the whole class.
Which is better?
Level: Intermediate and above
Language focus: comparing objects
1. Divide the class into small groups.
2. Ask each member of each group to contribute one object they have got with them and to put all the objects together where the whole group can see them easily.
3. Students should then make sentences in the form _________ is better than ____________ because ...
Depending on their level and their ingenuity, the sentences might include the obvious, such as: A sandwich is better than a penknife because you can eat a sandwich but not a penknife. or the not so obvious, such as: A sandwich is better than a penknife because you can cut yourself with a penknife but you can't with a sandwich. A bus ticket's better than a sandwich because you can't get food poisoning from a bus ticket.
NB 1. At higher levels this is likely to take the character of a fluency activity leading naturally to further discussion. At lower levels it might be an early opportunity for learners to practise combining clauses and using ellipsis to form longer sentences, in which case it might be helpful if the groups produce their sentences in writing, with the teacher helping them with accuracy.
NB 2. This is also an opportunity to practice – both orally and in writing – the weak forms of better than and is. For example: a sandwich is better but a bus ticket's better.