Four Engaging Activities for Large EFL Classes

1. Strip Stories

A strip story is a short dialogue or story with each line typed onto a separate strip of paper. Strip stories present opportunities for practice with everything from speech acts to transitions. However, can you imagine a single strip story for fifty students? Common sense dictates that one should use several shorter stories. But the more difficult question is how to manage a large class so that everyone is honestly participating in the activity. The main issues seem to be keeping a few students from taking over the task, and preventing students from simply putting their cards together into a heap and solving the exercise like a jigsaw puzzle -- as my Korean, product-oriented students would certainly do.

Here are the steps to take to successfully administer a strip story activity in a large class. First, write stories including four to six lines of dialogue. Each line should be succinct enough for your students to memorize in a few minutes. Also, make stories distinct enough that they will not blend with the other stories, resulting in a quagmire in your classroom. I have made about half of my stories with two to three optional lines at the end to compensate for fluctuating attendance. I can simply leave out the last line or two, if necessary. Second, print the "strips" of your stories on colored paper. Use a total of six colors. Each line of each story should appear on a different color of paper, so that when gathered, no story would have two pieces of the same color paper. But be sure not to put all of the first lines on one color, all of the second lines on another, etc. That would present an easy solution to clever students. In class, pass out the slips randomly (remembering to leave out optional last lines as your attendance dictates). Before telling students what is going to happen, have them write their line down, repeat it out loud, say it to another person, or however else you would like them to memorize it. One simple way to give students instructions for this activity is to hold up four slips of paper, all the same color, and ask them if it is a rainbow. (Hopefully, they will say it is not.) Then two strips each of two colors, and ask the same question. Finally, hold up one slip each of four different colors, and affirm that this is, indeed, a rainbow. Next, tell your students to put away everything, and collect the strips of paper. Then tell them, "Make a rainbow."

Of course, further directions may be needed, but the point is that they will not be able to rely on their paper (because they do not have it) nor on other students (because they did not see the paper) as they mingle and try to fit together their fragments of a story. They will be forced to repeat their memorized lines again and again as they search for the other members of their story, and then as they work to organize their story in their group. If explained well, this exercise is guaranteed to be interactive and verbal.

2. Survivor

Survivor is a popular television show in the United States. On the show, two teams of contestants compete over a period of several weeks, with a member from one of the two teams being removed from competition each week. The final person in the competition is the ultimate winner. Sharing a certain similarity with the television show, my version can work especially well with large classes. First, divide the class into equally sized groups. About five or six members per group would be ideal. The teacher will distribute a selection of cards to each group, instructing the members not to read them aloud or let other groups see the cards. Each card will pose a different task, ranging from such things as describing the current weather to giving advice to someone with the flu.

After determining which team will go first (if one team has fewer members than the others, the smaller team should begin), the first team will choose one member of one other group and pose one of their tasks to that member. The teacher will be the judge of whether the answer is adequate. If an answer is not adequate, the respondent is removed from competition (seated in another area of the room), and the first team can proceed to their next target. If the answer is adequate, no one is removed, and the group whose member answered now gets to pose a question to another group. The goal being to eliminate all the members of all the other groups.

This exercise is a great way to review large amounts of practical English. Not only can the competitive atmosphere make for an engaging review session, but this activity can remind students of the scope of what they have studied. The teacher can choose just how strict the environment will be. For example, perhaps only the respondent is allowed to answer, and if any group members assist, they are both eliminated. I would suggest eliminating anyone for using a language other than the target language.

3. Question Cards

Glancing through "75 ESL Teaching Ideas" by Hall Houston (The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. V, No. 11, November 1999), I found an activity which I decided to adapt for my own classes. Houston suggests, "Ask students to write one question they would feel comfortable answering (without writing their name) on an index card. Collect all of the index cards, put them in a bag, have students draw cards, and then ask another student the question on that card." However, knowing my students, I expect that there would be a large percentage of questions such as "What's your name?". Therefore, I have modified the activity as follows.

First of all, class introductions should be made so that everyone knows each others' name. Then, instead of generally assigning them to ask a question, instruct your students to choose one person who they would like to ask something special, and have them write this person's name, then the specific question. Collect the cards. Re-distribute the cards to other students. Each student must address the question he or she has to the person to whom it was intended by the author. Whether some authors end up asking their own questions or not is not of importance, as everyone will assume that they have someone else's question. The goal of this activity is to produce interesting, specific questions which can stimulate further exchanges. Remember to allow students to pursue any follow-up questions and discussions that may result, since the object is not to read all of the questions, but to promote dynamic and spontaneous speaking in the target language.

4. Song Titles

Have students supply you with the titles of some favorite or famous songs. If the titles are in a foreign language, work together with the students to translate the titles into English. Write all of the titles on the board. You will need between eight and a dozen or so titles. The more the better. Next, have the students form groups, and instruct them to use as many of the phrases on the board as possible, with no further alterations of editing, and construct a short conversation. They may add text around the titles, such as subjects, question words, etc., but the main text of the product should reflect the titles. As you might suspect, this activity can be hit or miss. But given the propensity of younger students to gravitate toward love songs, this can result in some interesting composites.