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English Conversation Club

2013-11-14

Every year my school has eight after school meetings called English Conversation Club. These are fifty-minute elective class-like sessions. The idea is to throw a bunch of motivated ninth, tenth, and eleventh graders at some native English speakers and hope something good happens. It does, if you have good ideas, which we do, and here they are. Remember to put up door decorations and a sign-in sheet.

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Teacher Introduction Jeopardy

Jeopardy is a simple enough team game. Make some teams, preferably no more than eight (otherwise getting answers is too time consuming), write some categories and points on the board, and you're good to go. Some teachers prefer answers phrased in the form of a question, like in the original TV show, but that's perhaps unnecessarily confusing. This year our numbers are rather high — something like seventy-five students are enrolled — so rather than having teams raise their hands to answer and awards points to the first team that correctly does so, we'll ask each team to write their answer on a sheet of paper and check all answers at the same time. Some of the students know us, but some don't, so we decided to make categories based on our own interests. There are three teachers, so we each make five questions, half of which are about us, and the other half of which cover topics we find interesting. If time runs low, we'll stop the game early. If tension runs low, we either stop the game early or change the rules (e.g., double the points or switch to a first-to-answer system). Here are some question cards we use.

Self Introductions

Small group self introductions are a standard. There are many variants, most of which involve everyone saying their name and one or two fun facts about themselves according to whatever rules are specified. For example, since we're doing music on the same day as introductions, we can ask students to say their favorite foreign singer. Once everyone has said their piece, each group can then write the most popular foreign singer from that group on the chalk board. Other reasonable topics might be: favorite coffee shop, least favorite subject, whether and why baths are better than showers, or anything at all that might cross your mind and about which people could reasonably be expected to have an opinion.

Song Title Guessing Game

I've used this game a lot, but music is great, so I keep coming back to it. The idea is you take a dozen songs where the song title appears distinctly in the lyrics, print out the titles on A3 paper, put them on the board, and play the songs. When students hear the song title, they rush to grab the sheet off the board. It's a nice way to introduce students to new music or to new words (that are in the song titles). In one variant, students can grab the title as soon as the recognize it. If that gets too chaotic, make students wait until you pause the song and then allow them to grab the paper. The drawback to this game, if you want to call it a drawback, is that it's a listening activity. A good follow-up would be a speaking activity making use of relevant topics. For example, one could ask the class what foreign artists they know (The Beatles, Lady Gaga, Rihanna, etc.) and see how many students know each of them, possibly writing the results on the board.

Here's a song list we used this year. I generally prepare more songs than necessary and stop when time runs low or interest shows signs of waning. Here are the corresponding A3 song title sheets.

Treasure Hunt

I call this a treasure hunt, but there's actually no hidden treasure, just hidden clues. Optionally, give stickers or candy to the team that finds all the clues first. Or, if you have a time limit, ask the students to come back by that time and see who found the most clues.

I Spy

This game is an old classic. You don't even need to explain the rules; just start playing. The teacher thinks of an object in the classroom and gives a hint. "I spy ... something black." Students can be in groups, if there are many of them, or not. In either case, one or more students guess what the object is. If they don't get it, give another hint and repeat until they do. This can also be changed into a teacher guessing game. Give a hint about a teacher. "I'm thinking of a tall teacher... I'm thinking of a P.E. teacher..." The most difficult part of this game is forming good clues, so it's best for the teacher to give them. If you want students to be doing the hard speaking work, try Twenty Questions (described below).

Twenty Questions

To play Twenty Questions, first specify a category. The easiest ones are a teacher at the school and something in this room. Students rotate asking yes/no questions trying to figure out the answer. As students get more familiar with the game, the category should become more general. For example, place and food are more challenging. If you're doing the activity in more than one class, try not stating the category at all. Older students with some experience playing will be able to ask questions about the object's size, location, and color to narrow down what kind of thing it might be. For this game, the hard part is asking the questions. Answering the questions is easy, so after it's clear that everyone understands the game, a student can take on the answering role.

Question Challenge

This is a question and answer group challenge. Make a group of three or four students. Go around the circle. The first student asks the person to the left a question. That student answers and asks the person to their left a question. Repeat. There are two rules: (1) no repeat questions, and (2) no more than two seconds before answering or asking a question. The goal is to go as long as possible, so simple questions are more than acceptable. Ninth and tenth graders can probably continue for a minute or two. After the group has played once, try it again, but disallow yes/no questions. (You may have experienced when younger a kind of phenomenon where people keep asking each other questions without ever answering. I don't think ESL students would enjoy doing this, but they might enjoy listening to it. How old are you? Why do you want to know? Are you ashamed of looking so old? Who said I look old? Who said you didn't? Didn't your mother say I looked young and handsome? ...)

Hot Potato

Hot Potato is a classic game for ESL students and native speakers alike. There are many variants — here I'll describe one. Make a circle. A big circle is fine. Play some music for a minute or two. Specify a category, like foreign food, foreign cities, or countries. If possible, pair this game's topic with something else from the lesson. Give a student a stuffed animal or ball or something interesting. That student says something from the category and passes the object to the left. The person holding the object when time runs out is ... the loser? ... but not really because there is no penalty clause, but anyway, probably nobody will want to be that person who didn't say a word fast enough, so they'll try hard to say something. No repeats are allowed. If there are many students, sometimes it's hard to hear, which is both inconvenient and a good learning opportunity (about the value of listening) for students. Also, if the teacher has several different interesting objects, rotating them between rounds and chatting about the new object would be nice.

MadLibs

There are two ways to play MadLibs. Start off by playing as a class. The teacher puts a bunch of A3 cards on the board, front side visible. The front of each card is a type of information. For example, there might be five cards: number, number, color, color, animal. The back, which nobody can see yet, contains more precise information: height, weight, hair color, eye color, looks like. The teacher also puts an A3 photograph of a teacher at that school on the board, with the back showing so nobody can see who it is. The teacher surveys the class and gets values for each of the types. That is, students say two numbers, two colors, and an animal. Next, the teacher turns over the picture, showing which teacher is to be described. Slowly, the teacher turns over each other card one at a time. If all is successful, this should be quite entertaining to everyone, since students will have provided a ridiculous description of the teacher in question.

After playing as a class once or twice, this game can be played as a group. Each team gets a sheet of paper with blanks for writing down information similar to before. They decide within their group what answers to choose. Then the teacher hands out a second piece of paper with sentences and blanks. Students copy their answers from the first paper onto the second paper and then read the sentences aloud. If there are any particularly funny results, the teacher can ask someone from that group to read them aloud for the whole class to hear.

Our students often learn English grammar in Japanese. That's OK, I guess, but what's not OK is that they might never learn English grammar in English. That means they generally don't know words like noun or preposition in English. It would be good if we could teach them these words, though, and this game is a nice chance to do so. The teacher doesn't even need to speak in Japanese for the explanation, because for each grammar term in English there is a corresponding kanji in Japanese. For example, verb is 動詞 in Japanese, and in the dictionary this is abbreviated to 動. For MadLibs, it is sufficient for the teacher to write the English grammar terms and corresponding kanji on the chalkboard.

Taste Testing Food & Soda

Everyone likes having drinks and snacks. It's even better if you're serving foreign stuff that students might never have tried. Blind drink taste testing is a nice activity that gives everyone a chance to try some new drinks. Suppose I have five different sodas. If I secretly pour each can or bottle into separate cups (that are labeled or different colors or somehow different from one another), I can show everyone the empty cans without revealing what drink they're about to try. Then everyone can pour a little bit of soda from the big cup into their own smaller cup, try it, and vote on which drink they think it is.

Taste Testing Water

This is similar to taste testing sodas, except we use bottled water instead. Get several different brands of bottled water from several different countries. Give them to the students and ask them to guess which country the water came from. If you have one brand of Japanese bottled water, this is particularly interesting. People often like to think that water from their own country tastes the best, and through this activity they might expand their feelings on the matter.

M.A.S.H.

This is a common girls' game from the U.S. The idea is to tell someone's fortune. In pairs, one person is the fortune teller. She asks her partner for four of each of the following: (1) boys' names, (2) vehicles, (3) occupations, (4) numbers (children), (5) animals (pets), and (6) countries. Two more categories are used: (7) the four letters: M, A, S, and H, where "M" means "mansion", "A" means "apartment", "S" means "shack", and "H" means "house", and (8) these abbreviations: VR, R, P, VP, where "VR" means "very rich", "R" means "rich", "P" means "poor", and "VP" means "very poor". Once this information is written down, we are ready to tell fortunes. The partner chooses a number between 1 and 10. Then the fortune teller goes through the list of possible outcomes, counting up to that number and crossing off the words she lands on until only one word from each category remains. These remaining values are said to be the partner's fortune.

In Japan, numerology and blood type are quite popular. My friend Todd got married on April 1st because his wife insisted. Apparently the risk of Todd pulling a no-show as an April Fools gag was outweighed by the auspicious nature of the date! Blood type is supposed to describe one's personality. Nearly everyone in Japan knows their own blood type. On the other hand, they don't know whether it's positive or negative. Which is to say, they're well prepared for cocktail parties and less so for hospital visits.

Photo Scavenger Hunt

A photo scavenger hunt is like a normal scavenger hunt except with cameras. Make groups, give each group a camera and a list of things to find, and send them on their way. The clues can be specific or vague, and probably a mix of the two is ideal. Each group has to go find the (or an) object satisfying the clue and photograph it along with themselves so they can prove that they actually found it. Below are some clues we used this year. Remember to shuffle the order of clues for each group so they aren't all going to the same place at the same time.

  1. Tic-tac-toe Mickey by a trellis.
  2. Gingko fruit.
  3. A giant mirror.
  4. A good place to study outside.
  5. The quietest place in school.
  6. A Brazilian flag.
  7. A British phone box.
  8. A tiny tree.
  9. A good place to have tea.
  10. The man who made the school.

Describe and Draw

Give everyone a piece of paper. The teacher describes a picture one object at a time. Students listen to the description and try to draw the same picture themselves. After the description is finished, the teacher shows the class the original photo. Choosing a good base photograph is important, and finding good candidates is difficult. The main thing to think about when choosing a photograph is that describing it should be simple.

The Apples Game

In this game, there is a secret rule. First, the teacher chooses the rule and writes it down, secretly, on a sheet of paper. Possible rules: double letters, starts with "b", contains "a", is four letters long, has an even number of letters. Assume the rule is double letters. The teacher shows an example sentence, "I like basketball, but I don't like staplers." Students take turns trying to make their own sentences of the form, "I like ~ , but I don't like ~ ." If the sentence fits the rule, the teacher says so. Go around the room getting guesses from many students, possibly writing their answers on the board, until someone can guess the rule. Generally speaking, it is not necessary for students to say the rule itself; they can show they know it by coming up with a sentence that fits the pattern.

Pressure Cooker

Everyone stands up and makes a big circle. Give a notable object to a student. That student is the speaker. Start a stop watch with 20 second intervals. The student holding the object has to speak, saying anything she likes, in English. When 20 seconds elapses, the student passes the object to her neighbor. If the speaker stops speaking before her 20 seconds is up, she loses ... but not really, because there is no penalty clause. Try this for two or three minutes or until everyone has had a chance to speak. Once students understand the game, introduce a second object so that two students can speak at the same time. If there are two teachers, each teacher can keep track of one speaker.

Happy Halloween Word Making

Write "Happy Halloween!" on the chalk board. Ask students to form as many words as possible using some or all of these letters. Write the new words on the chalk board. There is nothing special about "Happy Halloween", except that we did this activity the week before the party and wanted to advertise.

Categories

Put students in teams and decide on an order within each team and for the class as a whole. Name a category. Students go around saying something in that category. The only rules are that they have to speak within three seconds and repeats are forbidden.

  1. Sports.
  2. World cities.
  3. Words starting with "s".

Spot the Pattern

Write two categories on the board: Matches and Doesn't Match. A teacher thinks of a pattern and gives two example words, one of each category. The other teachers each suggest a word, and depending whether it matches the category, they write it in the appropriate column. Take word guesses from each group, rotating around the classroom. When a group thinks they know the pattern, they should not say it aloud, but rather they should suggest words that fit it. Sample categories include: words that end in "s", sports without a ball, and words with an odd number of letters.

Throwing Self-Introductions

Start off by brainstorming some adjectives. Write them on the board. Each student picks an adjective that describes herself. Go around the room introducing oneself. My name is Douglas. I'm dope. / My name is Adam. I'm awesome. / My name is Meghan. I'm musical. After everyone has introduced themselves, take out a ball or stuffed animal. The person holding it says their name, then throws it to someone else and says that person's name. Hello Awesome Adam. I'm Dope Douglas. / Hello Musical Meghan. I'm Awesome Adam. Do this until the object goes around the room twice. For large groups, split in two or three and assign one teacher to each group.

Scrabble

You can play Scrabble or Bananagrams or any other such board game with letters on tiles. It's generally speaking best to simplify the rules, especially at first. Put students in pairs or teams of three. Play with your own tiles face up. Optionally, encourage students to put down new words whenever they have them, as opposed to going around the room clockwise. For Scrabble you can score points with the point values on the letters, or you can simplify the scoring mechanism where each tile is worth one point, regardless of what letter it is.

Jenga

Take a Jenga set and write or tape a number to each tile. There are around sixty tiles in a set. Make a question list where the question depends on the number on the tile. Students pull tiles one at a time, the teacher reads the question aloud, and anyone in the room can answer it. Make teams and track the score. The game ends when the tower falls over.

YMCA

You know in the YMCA video that people pose with their bodies to make letters and spell out words? Since we already have cameras in this lesson, why not spell out some other words? What words you can make depends on how many people are in each group. Try and do three or so, and it'll be entertaining. Students may get confused and spell words backwards, from the photographer's point of view.

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