New teaching time expressions materials and ideas

I start far too many of my articles with suggestions to teach more of this and less of that, but this time I really really really really really really mean it!

Perhaps the most shocking weakness I have found in how English is usually taught is the number of students who know the intricacies of Present Perfect Continuous but not the expression “the day before yesterday”, know all about the differences between predictions with and without present evidence but not the difference between “in two weeks” and “two weeks later”, etc. Therefore nowadays when the book says I should be teaching present, past or future tenses, I actually spend far more time teaching present, past and future time expressions like “almost always”, “in the last two weeks” and “some time”. And in a nice accidental benefit, that is often the best way of teaching the differences like Present Perfect/ Past Simple and Present Continuous/ Present Simple, as well as a vocabulary rich way of introducing prepositions of time.

To help make this simple, effective and important shift in how grammar is taught, over the last few months I have added three articles with loads of game ideas and 15 photocopiable worksheets on teaching past, present and future time expressions, along with links to loads more new stuff on more specific time expressions like days of the week and dates, all here:

Time expressions worksheets, games, stories and songs

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TEFL dominoes (TEFLtastic Classics Part 36)

Part One of the most recent of my articles in ETP magazine. Updated with extra worksheets on 20 July 2018.

Readers who saw the number of variations in my article on jigsaw games might be surprised to find that those are just part of the even more varied and useful category of ‘matching games’, along with dominoes, pelmanism and snap, the first of which is dealt with here.

Dominoes

The most similar of those three games to a jigsaw is dominoes, especially the ‘jigsaw dominoes’ variation explained below. Many of my students are only aware of dominoes from YouTube videos showing people standing them up in lines and then knocking them over dramatically, so I occasionally start by demonstrating an actual game of dominoes. There are many variations, but I tend to demonstrate a simplified version that has the same rules as the ELT version that I will then get them to play.

 

Regular dominoes

Each domino is a rectangle divided into two, with between zero dots and six dots on each half. Each domino in the set has a unique combination of dots, and every possible combination of those numbers is included in a set of dominoes: from a domino with no dots on both halves to a domino with six dots on both halves. Two to four players take seven dominoes each and look at them, without showing them to anyone else. One domino is then placed face up in the middle of the table. The first player tries to match a number on one of their dominoes to one of the halves of the domino on the table, e.g. putting a domino that has five dots on one half next to a matching domino with five dots that is already on the table. If that person can’t go and there are still dominoes which haven’t been dealt out to any of the players, they take one more. Play then passes to the next person. The person who first successfully places all their dominoes down or has the fewest left at the end of the game wins.

 

ELT dominoes

Very young and low-level learners could benefit from moving from one quick game of regular dominoes to another game using a set of dominoes with written numbers on the left-hand side of each one and dots or figures on the right, so they have to match “six” to “6”, etc. They could also do similar things with pictures, e.g. matching “red” on the right of one domino to a patch of that colour on the left of another domino, or matching the written word “cow” to a picture of a cow. It is very easy to make your own paper dominoes with a two-column table in a Word document, making sure that each end matches at least one other domino and that you leave the two columns together on each domino when you cut them out. There are also many commercial versions of picture dominoes, with animal vocabulary, etc, but they usually have problems, such as words with very tricky spellings that aren’t easy to pronounce.

Picture dominoes are often also more like a jigsaw than an actual set of dominoes, with only one possible match for each half of each domino. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but if that is the case, it is often better to get the students to work together to match all the cards to make a big circle (or rectangle) instead of, or before, trying to play an actual game of dominoes. It is easier and more satisfying if the final order makes some kind of sense, e.g. if a set of opinions phrases are alternatively positive and negative or if the finished days of the week are in order when the students have put all the “jigsaw dominoes” together in the right way.

Matching half of a domino to the same or a similar thing on another domino also works for:

  • first letters and matching words (e.g. Z with a picture of a zebra or A with “_pple”)
  • phonemic symbols and words which start with those sounds
  • synonyms (such as character words with the same meaning but positive and negative connotations)
  • formal and informal phrases with the same function (e.g. formal and informal requests)
  • phrases which have the same word missing (e.g. ‘__ a good time’ and ‘__ your hair cut’ because they both need the word “have”)

 

Especially in higher-level classes, it is perhaps more common and useful to get the students to match up beginnings and endings of words, phrases, sentences, etc. This works well for negative prefixes and the words they go with, collocations such as “play” and “go” with sports, or beginnings and endings of useful telephoning phrases. Other possibilities include:

  • adjectives and dependent prepositions (e.g. “afraid” + “of”)
  • proverbs
  • compound nouns;
  • binomials (e.g. “safe and” + “sound”)
  • names of months (e.g. “Jan” + “uary”)
  • irregular plural endings (e.g. “ox” + “en”)
  • opinions phrases
  • travel phrases (e.g. airport phrases, perhaps with alternate phrases used by staff and travellers)
  • beginnings and endings of words that the students have been studying (e.g. “whiteb” + “oard”)

As well as matching similar things and beginnings and endings, you could also match opposites, e.g. “I support …” and “I oppose …” for opinions phrases or “generous” and “mean” for character words.

Photocopiable dominoes pdfs

Number word recognition dominoes – NEW

Days of the week dominoes – NEW

CPE collocations dominoes (Use of English Part One and Part Two) – NEW

Ordinal number word dominoes

British and American technical English collocations dominoes

Looking at both sides dominoes

Months of the year dominoes

Strong and weak opinions dominoes

Academic Word List collocations dominoes

Medical breakthrough dominoes (passive voice)

Meetings and negotiations collocations dominoes

Formal and informal functional language dominoes

Air travel compound nouns dominoes

More dominoes pdfs coming very soon. In the meantime, there are another 35 infinitely adaptable TEFL activities here.

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Discuss and agree (TEFLtastic Classics Part 35)

Simplicity itself, and almost infinitely adaptable – students try to come to agreement with the words, phrases, gapped sentences, sentence stems, etc that you give them, making it like an opinions version of Things in Common. Then they try to remember and/ or analyse the language that they just used. Photocopiable examples:

Passive voice discuss and agree – NEW

Present Simple and Continuous discuss and agree

Gradable and ungradable adjectives discuss and agree

Defining relative clauses discuss and agree

Comparing language discuss and agree

Sentence with “in case” discuss and agree

Others coming up (soon or eventually):

  • Comparative adjectives discuss and agree
  • Academic discussions discuss and agree (for determiners practice)
  • Opinions phrases discuss and agree (for IELTS Writing Part Two and Speaking Part Three)
  • Social issues discuss and agree
  • Business predictions discuss and agree
  • Cultural differences frequency expressions discuss and agree
  • Hedging language discuss and agree

And can be used for loads of other points.

34 more classic TEFL activities with 100s of pdf versions here.

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Having a Ball: EFL ball games

Another of my articles for ETP on basic TEFL games and their many uses and variations. Not many photocopiables possible for this one, but one example included below.

 

Although I would put the blocks that I wrote about here at the top of my list of things to buy for a new teacher’s room, a ball would be a clear number two. As well as being useable with lots of different language points, a ball adds a good balance of energy and focus to classes in a way that very few other things can.

 

Choosing a ball

The ball should be soft enough not to injure anyone or break anything, and easy enough to catch and possibly bounce. For most situations, a beach ball is the number one choice, the only negatives being the chance of getting a puncture, the possibility of spreading germs if many people blow it up, and the amount of bouncing causing too much fun in some classes. The second choice is a soft foam ball. Balls should preferably be about 30 centimetres in diameter, as smaller ones can mean wasted time looking for them under desks, etc, and bigger ones just tend to bounce around without being caught.

For throwing at things, it can also be good to have a sticky ball (also known as a sucker ball), which is a ball with little plastic cups on it that make it stick to smooth surfaces such as a whiteboard or window.

 

Alternatives to balls

If you want to add even more excitement and/or give the students more time to think and get ready to catch, it is sometimes good to use a balloon instead of a ball. In contrast, a beanbag or something similar, like a pair of rolled-up socks, can take away the bounce factor if bouncing balls might make your students go wild. Screwed-up pieces of paper can also work, with the benefit that the students can make one each and all throw them at the same time if you wish, and for older students it can seem less childish to use a piece of screwed-up paper than it would be to use a beach ball. Particularly if you want to add language related to the thing being thrown, you could also use toys such as soft plastic animals, plastic fruit, and hand or finger puppets.

 

How to use a ball

As in actual ball sports, the most obvious things for students to do with a ball in class are to throw it (at a target or to each other), catch it, bounce it, pass it, and roll it (across the floor or table top). These different actions can be done individually or together with other people. For example, one student could recite the months of the year as they bounce the ball against the wall on their own, with the other students chanting along or checking for mistakes. In pairs, the students could ask and answer basic personal questions as they throw the ball back and forth between them (either cooperating or competing). In teams, the students could bounce the ball back and forth between two sides of the classroom in a kind of volleyball match, as they test each other on adjective opposites.

Rules for who starts the next round, the scoring of points, when a game finishes, etc can be borrowed from sports such as volleyball, tennis, badminton, table tennis and squash. However, I usually find that using a ball is enough fun on its own, so I generally just get my students to take turns or change the person who “serves” whenever the previous server loses a round, without any actual scoring of points. In the same way, when I tell my students that we are playing “volleyball” and that the ball therefore can’t be caught, I’m rarely strict about how many bounces are allowed, what counts as a proper bounce, etc.

For games where the students throw the ball at something in the classroom, on the board, etc (as they would at a basket or goal in real sports), more fun can be added by having them close their eyes and/or adding a goalkeeper who tries to stop the ball going where it should.

There are also some games which are based specifically on passing the ball from hand to hand, with more relation to party games or sports training than to actual sports. Smaller classes can just pass the ball around the class as they drill the language as quickly as possible, eg saying “What’s this?” “It’s a ball” or “How” “many” “chairs” “are” “there?” “There” “are” “ten” word by word, as the ball goes round the class. A nice variation is to have two or more balls going from desk to desk or around a circle of students at the same time. With larger classes, you can get the students lined up in teams and ask them to pass the ball along the line as they drill the language, perhaps with the person at the end of the line running to the front with the ball to show that they have finished and are ready for the next round. Although it can be time consuming, for extra challenge and/ or fun you can also add variations like the students having to pass the ball only with their little fingers, pass it under their legs, or get to the front of their line by crawling under the other students’ legs or by winding in and out through the other people.

There are also two ball action games described at the end of this article that can involve heading or kicking the ball, but these can have the disadvantage of putting the focus too much on sporting skill and not enough on language.

 

Starting to use a ball in class

With young learner classes, I often stand at the door of the classroom with the ball and shout out “Are you ready?” to show them that something fun is coming from the very first moment of the class. When they have entered the class and are settled down, we then roll or throw and catch the ball as we ask and answer basic personal questions like “What’s your name?” and “How old are you?” This then naturally leads on to the drilling games, brainstorming games or target practice games outlined below. I often use those games to move smoothly from revision to the new language point of the day, e.g. using the same game to revise “Do you like…?” and then introduce “Do you have…?”

With older classes, the appearance of a ball can have the exact opposite effect, causing the students to doubt that they will be doing something either age-appropriate or useful. Therefore, you need to set up the activity very carefully before you introduce the idea of using a ball. For example, if you put some short answers on the board and get the students to pick ones like “Yes, I do” and “No, I haven’t” and then try to get those answers from their partner by asking questions, this can quickly become too easy and a little dull, so teenagers and even adults might be ready to throw a piece of screwed up paper at the board in order to choose which response they will try to obtain.

 

Drilling games with balls

A ball is perfect for making the drilling of lists of things like days of the week and months fun, either with one student trying on their own or with different students continuing the list as they throw a ball back and forth. This also works for:

  • numbers (including big and small numbers in sequences like five, ten, fifteen, etc)
  • ordinal numbers (first, second, etc)
  • the alphabet, phonics and example words (“Zed” “zzzz” “Zebra”, etc)
  • times (one o’clock, quarter past one, etc)

To make it more like real competitive ball games, such as tennis, the students can also test each other with an infinitive that their partner should “return” with the past simple form, or an adjective which their partner should return with the comparative and/or superlative form. This also works for:

  • cardinal and ordinal numbers (“Twenty” “Twentieth”, etc)
  • opposites (“Hot” “Cold”, etc)
  • pronouns (“She” “Her” “Her” “Hers”, etc)

Another possibility for something to do after asking questions back and forth is to split the questions and answers up into individual words as the ball goes back and forth: e.g. “How” “many” “windows” “are” “there?” “There” “are” “three”, as the ball is passed eight times. This is more fun if the students have to think carefully about and/or react to the answer, for example running and touching the object that the last student says at the end of a sequence like “What” “is” “it?” “It” “is” “a” “table”.

All these games work well with some version of volleyball, meaning that the students can’t catch the ball, but have to continue bouncing it until they think of the next word or response, perhaps using a balloon if it is too challenging with a ball. Passing games are also good for both drilling and the brainstorming ideas below.

 

Brainstorming with a ball

A slight variation on the drilling games above is for the students to brainstorm examples of a category as the ball is caught, or bounced, e.g. “Apple” “Banana” “Orange” etc if the category is “fruit”, or “Wanted” “Needed” etc if the category is “Past Simple with -id”. A student who says something that doesn’t match the category, repeats what someone said before or drops the ball loses that round. Then you can try again with the same or another category.

 

Target games

The easiest things for the students to throw balls at are words written on the board, and that is also often the place where a sticky ball sticks best. In that way, the students can select:

  • what response they will try to get from their partner when they say something to them (“That’s too bad”, etc)
  • the topic or language for which they have to get a “Yes” answer from someone else (“like”, “food and drink”, etc)
  • the language they should use to try to make a true sentence about someone else in class (“have got”, “often”, etc)
  • the topic they have to ask someone about, talk about or do a roleplay on
  • who they are, where they are, what they have to talk about or what tricky situation they have to deal with during a roleplay
  • which of two sounds they think they heard (/l/ in “lead” or /r/ in “read”, etc)
  • the topic they want to answer a quiz question on
  • how difficult a quiz question they will try next (and, therefore, how many points they might be able to score)
  • what word will be deleted next from the “disappearing text” on the board (to be remembered when the next person tries to read out the whole thing)

Parts of the classroom can also be used in the same way. For example, for minimal pairs practice you can tell the students that the wall at one end of the classroom represents the first sound of “yet” and the other wall represents the first sound of “jet”, and get them to throw screwed-up pieces of paper at the correct wall for the sound they think they have heard or have seen silently mouthed. However, I more often get my students to aim at actual things in the classroom. After practising common questions at the beginning of the class ending with “What’s this?” “It’s a (sticky) ball”, I then move smoothly from that to getting the students asking each other and me “What’s this?” “It’s a whiteboard eraser” etc as they throw the ball at those things around the class. They could also ask additional questions about those things, such as “How many windows are there?” “What colour is the book?” and “Where is the sticky ball?” The last question can then lead smoothly on to a game in which the students use cards to make sentences challenging each other to put the ball somewhere in class, such as “Throw the ball under the window” or “Balance the ball on your head”. There is a link to further instructions for this game and a photocopiable set of cards for classroom vocabulary, body vocabulary and prepositions of place below.

You can also play a game in which one person throws the ball, and the other students compete to be first to shout out correctly where it has ended up, in order to win the right to be the next person to throw it. All of these can also work with pictures of the inside of a house drawn on or attached to the board. Another variation is for the students to aim at one particular thing on the picture or in the classroom and to say where it actually ended up, in order to be able to try again.

A very specific variation on throwing at things is for the teacher or a student to show the angle at which they are planning to throw a ball and getting the other students to predict where it will end up, with sentences like “(I think) it will land under the table” and “(I guess that) it will land next to the door”. They could also listen carefully with their eyes closed while someone throws the ball somewhere in the classroom and try to guess where it is with sentences like “It is under the whiteboard” and “It is near the door”.

 

Ball action games

You can also do a “listening with eyes closed” game with the students guessing things like “You are kicking the ball (against the door)” and “You are bouncing the ball (on the teacher’s desk)”. To practise can for ability, they can also outbid each other for things that they can do with the ball (“I can head the ball 12 times”, etc). Just the top bidder tries and then wins or loses points depending on whether they can actually do what they said.

 

Related links

Using Ball Games to Teach English on UsingEnglish.com

Picking cards ball game pdf

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New TEFL stuff spring 2018 part two

Newest of each kind top of each section. Link to Part One here.

New ELT articles

How to teach prepositions of time

How to teach telling the time in English

Teaching ordinal numbers to EFL learners

How to teach dates in English

Stacks of fun: EFL blocks games

How to teach English plurals

How to teach irregular plurals

 

New EFL photocopiables 

Guess the dates from hints game

Months flashcard memory games

Academic discussions prepositions and determiners pairwork guessing game

Simple Irregular and Regular Plurals Presentation

Which is plus comparative drawing game

Was were past time guessing game

Irregular Plurals Reversi memory game

Verb patterns discussion questions

Country and Nationality Words Drawing Games

Comparing Marketing Methods- Discussion and Collocations

Environmental collocations first conditional pelmanism

Cultural differences extended speaking

Clothes and accessories to sell

Crime and punishment trends

Want and feelings guessing game

Academic Writing Error Correction Pairwork

Months battleships

John Finally Came First ordinal numbers story

Regular and Irregular Plurals Storytelling

Science and technology opinions

Marketing discussion questions

Days of the week battleships

Prepositions and pronouns drawing game

Academic Writing Cultural Differences and Useful Phrases

Adjectives and prepositions pick and draw

Asking questions to get more details drawing game

This that these those pick and draw drawing game

Telling the time warmer cooler guessing game

How many are there drawing game

Possessive adjectives pick and draw drawing game

Comparatives Make Me Say Yes Questions game

Are they… or…? TPR games

Basic adjectives and nouns drawing games

Does he she like pick and draw drawing game

Like & Don’t like TPR coin game

Positive and negative words to talk about architecture

Brainpower trends

Communication trends

Explaining Japanese performing arts

Solutions to countable and uncountable problems discussion

Ordinal number word dominoes

Ordinal number word jigsaw games

Put the Days of the Week in Order 

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New plurals teaching tips, games and pdfs

Not quite sure how I managed to churn out pages of stuff on Present Perfect Continuous and not a single teaching idea or photocopiable on plural nouns in the first ten years of this blog. I kind of feel like blaming Headway, but I’m not sure why. Anyway, have made up for lost time with two articles, loads of games, several worksheets and lots of links to songs and online games here on the use, spelling and pronunciation of regular and irregular plurals here:

Plurals games, worksheets and songs page – NEW

and more coming there very soon.

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Cultural differences and useful phrases (TEFLtastic Classics part 33)

This activity originally started as a solution to a problem with one of my favourite activities, tips and useful phrases. The problem is that students often have no idea what good tips are and so the discussion stage doesn’t always work well. This variation also makes students think about cultural differences without the teacher needing to make sweeping statements about the students’ culture(s).

Give out at least 20 descriptions of communication in different places such as small talk in the UK or gestures around the world like “The weather is a good topic, but it’s best to make strong positive and negative statements and include a tag question to prompt discussion” and “Tap the side of your head to show craziness”. If possible, include accompanying phrases like “Lovely weather, isn’t it?” and “He must be nuts”. Students read the descriptions and mark ones they know to be the same in other places such as their own country with the names of those other countries, e.g. writing “Spain” next to any descriptions which are the same in “Spain”. Perhaps after comparing ideas in groups or as a class, students are then tested on their memories of the useful English phrases that accompanied the tips with a worksheet with just the tips and blank spaces where the phrases were on the first worksheet.

Here are some I prepared earlier:

Photocopiable cultural differences and useful phrases classroom activities

Academic writing cultural differences and useful phrases – NEW

Academic discussions cultural differences and useful phrases

Meeting people cultural differences and useful phrases

Making arrangements cultural differences and useful phrases

It should also work for:

  • Telephoning
  • Presentations
  • Meetings and negotiations
  • Job applications
  • Requests and offers
  • Invitations
  • Apologising
  • Small talk
  • Functional language reviews
  • Living abroad/ Moving abroad
  • Business entertaining
  • Gestures and accompanying phrases

some of which I’ve started already. If you’d like to help me have more time to polish up and publish such things, please support TEFLtastic.

Many more TEFLtastic classics here.

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Top 30 pages all polished up

Have expanded and rearranged all my top pages in my continuing quest to make TEFLtastic worth supporting financially. In case you are wondering what those most popular pages are, for the last 3 months they have been:

  1. First conditional
  2. Passive
  3. Comparative and superlative
  4. Can can’t
  5. Conditionals
  6. Past tenses
  7. Travel and tourism
  8. Future
  9. There is/ There are
  10. English for engineering
  11. Present simple and continuous
  12. Indirect speech
  13. Countable and uncountable
  14. Modals of probability/ possibility/ deduction
  15. FCE
  16. Possessive adjectives
  17. Present perfect
  18. Present perfect progressive
  19. Modals of obligation, prohibition and permission
  20. Presentations
  21. Present progressive for arrangements
  22. ed and ing adjectives
  23. Emailing
  24. Comparing and contrasting
  25. IELTS speaking
  26. Complaining and dealing with complaints
  27. Have something done
  28. Medical English
  29. English for architects
  30. Likes and dislikes
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New TEFL stuff spring 2018

Newest top in each section. For my last list of new materials, with the best of last year, see here. If you like anything here and want more, please support TEFLtastic.

New teaching activities pages

Past modals page

Ordinal numbers page

Months page

Telling the time page

Dates page

Days of the week page

Poems page

Stories page

New TEFL articles

How to teach dates in English

How to teach months

How to teach days of the week in English

Blocks games for different language points

How to teach short answers

Stacks of fun: EFL block games

On a roll: EFL dice games

New lists of useful language for EFL learners

300 Technical English abbreviations list

New TEFL pdfs

Yes no questions dice game

Different kinds of business communication dice game (Market Leader Intermediate Units 1 to 12)

Days of the week flashcard memory game

Telephoning challenges dice game

Telephoning roleplays dice game

Travel English telephone roleplays dice game

Making arrangements roleplay dice game

Basic question formation dice game

Superlative adjectives dice bluffing game

Personal phone calls roleplays dice games

Making shapes from blocks games

Stacking races games

Days of the week projects

Academic discussions cultural differences and useful phrases

IELTS Speaking Part Two dice game

Are they… or…? drawing games

Countable and uncountable nouns Answer Me questions game

Supporting your opinions dice games

Months hangman

Giving directions on how to get somewhere dice game

Business meetings vocabulary and turn taking practice

Nationality words syllables and stres card games (pelmanism and snap)

Passive voice Yes No questions games

Meetings dice game

First contact and further contact dice game

Days of the week pick and draw drawing game

Nationality word endings maze games

I Brushed My Teeth in January past time expressions poem (Present Perfect and Past Simple)

Johnny Quickly, Jeremy Normal and Jimmy Quickly telling the time story

Lucy Was Not Impressed months of the year story

Can & can’t drawing coin game

CPE Speaking Part Three on travel, transport and tourism

Nationality word endings card games (pelmanism and snap)

Speaking Part One on transport, travel and tourism

1999 was a Strange Year months story

12 Jobs a Year months story

Past and present modals of permission and obligation sentence completion games

Present and past ability sentence completion games

Comparative adjectives drawing games

There is/ There are stacking games

Possessives coin drawing game

Country and nationality words sentence completion games

Names of months dominoes

Passive voice rhyming past participles poems activities

Present Perfect rhyming past participles poem activities

Strong and weak opinions collocations dominoes

 

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Stacks of fun: EFL blocks games (TEFLtastic classics part 32)

Fourth in my recent series of articles in English Teaching Professional. See bottom of the page for links to a couple of photocopiables, two other articles on the topic, and lots more posts on classic TEFL games.

A set of blocks is my number one aid for most young learner classes with students aged from three to seventeen. Blocks are the next most fun alternative to ball games, but they are much easier to control than balls and it is easier to focus the class with them. In addition, blocks can provide the perfect ending to a game when a tower that the students have built falls to the floor or they run out of blocks. You can also use blocks as a reward to improve effort and behaviour, for example giving out one block per correct answer during the first half of the class to be used in a stacking game later. And when your students become bored with stacking, there are also plenty of other blocks games you can use, such as making shapes by putting the blocks together.

The blocks you use can be large or small, but they should not be too difficult or too easy to stack. So it is probably best if they don’t have smooth hard sides or rounded corners, but they shouldn’t be the interlocking kind like Lego. They can be plain or coloured, or have pictures, letters or numbers on the sides, depending on the activities you want to do.

 

Stacking games

The most obvious activities to use with blocks are stacking games. In these, the students use the blocks to build one or more towers. In order to add a block, each student has to perform some kind of language task. I often start using blocks from the very first class with young learners, usually with simple personal questions. In the first stage, the students stack the blocks while asking and answering the usual personal questions like “What’s your name?” and “How are you?” Once they run out of suitable questions, we often move on to asking “What colour is it?” and “What’s this?”, perhaps talking about pictures on the blocks. When the tower eventually falls, in the next round we do the same but with the students not allowed to copy any previous questions, instead having to ask something different each time. In the final round(s), I then do the same with more targeted language, like just “Do you …?” questions if the last class was on Present Simple or “Do you want to …?” if we are going to spend the lesson on future desires.

Rules which you will have to think about before using stacking games in class include:

  • Are the students allowed to stack their blocks next to, in front of or behind the present tower, or will they be building a single one-block-wide tower?
  • Are they allowed to straighten up the blocks that are already there, or must they just place their next block without moving any previous ones (for more challenge and more fun)?
  • If only part of the tower falls, will they destroy the rest of the tower and start again, or just carry on stacking on top of whatever is left?
  • Will you have some kind of scoring, e.g. one point for the last person to place a block successfully before the tower fell down?

 

The stacking games I use can be classified as:

  • Counting higher and higher stacking games
  • Maths challenge stacking games
  • Drilling stacking games
  • Question and answer stacking games
  • Making statements stacking games
  • Giving instructions stacking games

These are described below, with a few variations and some of their many uses.

 

Counting higher and higher stacking games

As the students take turns adding a block to the top of the tower, they also take turns continuing to count up a sequence, e.g. the first student saying “One” and placing the first block, the second student saying “Two” and placing the second, etc. Alternatively, one person can stack and count on their own and see how far they can get before they make a mistake or the tower falls down. The students can also go through the sequence more quickly by going up in twos, fives, tens, etc, or going up as much as they like each time as in the “Don’t reach” variation below.

This game works for any language that gets higher and higher in some way, including days of the week and names of months, and also less obvious points such as adverbs of frequency (“Never”, “Almost never”, “Rarely”, etc) and adverbs of degree (“Very slightly”, “Not very”, “Fairly”, etc). For any of these, you can also get the students to say whole phrases or sentences like “There is one block”, “There are two blocks”, etc.

You can also combine counting higher and higher with some of the other games below by asking the students to make true statements about their partner with the next word in the sequence so that they are allowed to place the next block, e.g. being able to place the third block if they say “You have three sisters” and it is true. The same thing also works for questions, e.g. getting the answer “Often” to the question “How often do you get up late?” to be able to place a fifth block on the tower (after the blocks representing “Never”, “Almost never”, “Rarely” and “Sometimes” have already been placed).

 

Stacking races

The students race to stack a tower to a given height, trying again if their tower falls or if they stacked to the wrong height until someone manages it successfully. For example, if you say the word “September”, teams of students have to race to make a tower that is nine blocks high to represent the ninth month of the year. This also works for more than one number, e.g. making one tower of three blocks and a second tower of fifteen blocks for “Quarter past three”. For towers higher than about 15 blocks, the students will need blocks that fit together, such as Lego, but there are ways around this. One possibility is for each column to represent one figure in the number, e.g. three blocks then five blocks then two blocks for “Three hundred and fifty two”. For times, you could also have one block in the minutes tower for each five-minute segment of time, e.g. three blocks and then nine blocks for the time “Three forty five”.

 

Don’t reach …

In this variation on stacking, the students can go up as much as they like each time they say something, e.g. in the sequence “One o’clock”, “Twenty past two”, “Twenty one minutes past two” and “Quarter to four”. To make them think more about what they are saying, I also tell them that there is a limit that they should not go beyond, e.g. that all dates must stay before Christmas Day. The game stops if the tower falls or someone goes beyond that limit, and a student misses their turn if what they say is actually lower than the previous thing that was said.

 

Counting higher and higher stacking games work for:

  • Simple numbers
  • Big numbers
  • Small numbers (fractions and/or decimals)
  • Ordinal numbers
  • Days of the week
  • Months
  • Dates
  • Times
  • Adverbs of degree
  • Adverbs of frequency
  • Frequency expressions (twice a week, etc)
  • There is/There are

 

Maths challenge stacking games

For some of the language points above you can also play a kind of maths challenge game. For example, one student might say “Plus 20 minutes” when the previous block was “Eleven oh five” and the next student then needs to work out that the answer is “Eleven twenty five” in order to be able to place their block. The students can also set each other longer and longer challenges, e.g. “Ten” “plus” “twelve” “minus” “seventeen” “times” “two” “equals”. Especially with this version, I tend to make the person who challenges their partner also lose a point if they don’t know the answer either. Maths challenge games work for:

  • Simple numbers
  • Big numbers
  • Fractions and decimals
  • Dates
  • Times

 

Drilling stacking games

As the students add blocks to the tower, they test each other by, for example, saying the infinitive of a verb for their partner to say the Past Simple, saying a gradable adjective for their partner to say the corresponding extreme adjective, or saying a character adjective for their partner to say the opposite of. This works best if the number of students or teams means that the person who is challenging and the person who is being challenged naturally changes each time, e.g. three students if they are practising appearance adjective opposites (“Tall”, “Short”, etc), or two students if they are practising comparatives and superlatives (“Big”, “Bigger”, “The biggest”, etc).

 

Drilling stacking games work for many points including:

  • Infinitive and past simple and/or past participle
  • Adjective and comparatives and/or superlatives
  • Gradable and extreme adjectives
  • Cardinal numbers and ordinal numbers
  • Simple and more complex ways of saying times (“Three forty five”/ “Quarter to four”, etc)
  • Opposites (appearance opposites, etc)
  • Since and for expressions (“Since 1998”/ “For 30 years”, etc)
  • Decimals and fractions (“A half”/”Zero point five”, etc)

 

Question and answer stacking games

As explained above, I often get my students asking and answering basic questions while stacking blocks from the very first class and then do the same with questions related to the language point of the day. Before playing such games, the teacher needs to decide if the blocks will be placed on the tower by the person asking, by the person answering, or by both. The advantage of having both the questioner and answerer add blocks is that the tower quickly becomes tall and so more likely to fall over, adding to the excitement of the game. However, it can mean that rounds end very quickly, particularly with classes who aren’t good at stacking or can’t be bothered to place their blocks carefully, in which case it’s better to add only one block per question and answer pair. You can also slow the tower down further by adding other rules on when blocks are placed, such as the “Make me say yes” game below.

 

Make me say yes stacking games

The students ask each other yes/no questions and blocks are only added if their partner says yes. If they enjoy placing the blocks, let the questioner do so as a reward for getting a yes answer. Or if they get nervous about placing the blocks in case the tower falls, a better rule is for the answerer the place the block on if someone makes them say yes.

If the blocks are coloured and/or have pictures, numbers or letters on their sides, the questions can include that aspect of that block, eg “Do you like cats?” if the block has a cat on it or “Do you have four chairs in your kitchen?” if the block has a figure 4 on it.

You can then play later rounds of the same game where only no answers mean that a block is added and/ or where they try to get the answer “I don’t know”.

 

Stack the answers game

The students ask each other questions, and the answers that they receive decide how many blocks are placed, what colour blocks are placed, etc. For example, if their partner answers “Three” to the question “How many brothers and sisters have you got?”, then three blocks are added to the tower, and if the answer to “What colour is your pillowcase?” is “Red”, they can add that colour block (if it is still available).

 

Answer me stacking game

As explained in the “Stacking higher and higher” section above, you could also ask the students to get the next word in the sequence as an answer in order to be able to add the next block, eg having to get the answer “Quite a lot” to the question “How much mess is there in your bedroom (right now)?” to be able to add the fourth block (after the blocks representing “none”, “very little” and “not much” have already been added to the tower). If your blocks have pictures, numbers or letters on them, the students could also ask questions to try to get those things in their partner’s answer, e.g. asking “What’s your favourite fruit?” and getting the answer “Apple” to be able to stack the A block.

 

One or more of these question and answer games work for:

  • Basic personal questions (“How old are you?”, “Where do you live?”, etc)
  • “Do you have/Have you got …?”
  • “Can you …?”
  • “Have you ever …?”
  • “Are you …ing?”
  • “Did you … (yesterday/on Sunday)?”
  • “Will you/Do you think you will … (if …)?”
  • “Do you want to/Would you like to …?”
  • “Do you like …?”
  • “Is there/Are there … (in your house/this room)?”
  • “How many …?”
  • “What colour …?”
  • Questions about friends and family

 

Making statements stacking games

The simplest way of adding statements is with the students making statements describing the tower as it presently is (“There are four blue blocks”, etc) in order to be able to add one more block. You can also play a game that is similar to the “Make me say yes” game above in which the students have to make a true statement, such as “You have two brothers”, to be able to place the next block or blocks. This works for all the same language points as the question and answer games above.

 

Giving instructions stacking games

The students tell each other where the next block should be placed, how many blocks should be added, what colour blocks should be added, etc with instructions like “Can you put the blue block between the red block and the yellow block?” or just “Put the blue block between the red block and the yellow block”. This works for:

  • Imperatives
  • Requests
  • Colours
  • Numbers
  • Prepositions of position

 

Other blocks games

Making shapes from blocks

Depending on how many blocks you have, the students can arrange them into two- or three-dimensional shapes to represent:

  • Figures (the numbers 1, 2, 3, etc)
  • Letters of the alphabet
  • The spelling of short words (c + a + t, etc)
  • Syllables and word stress (three blocks in a row to represent I-ta-ly, one block and then a tower of two blocks to represent BraZIL, etc)
  • (Approximate) shapes, such as square, oval and pyramid
  • Some objects with very simple shapes such as animals, nature (flowers, etc), household vocabulary, clothes and body parts
  • Some simple adjectives, such as “tall” and “long”

Note that with some of the shapes, such as oval, it is better to make an outline of the shape instead of a solid shape.

Games with this technique include getting the students to race to make the right shape depending on what the teacher or another student says, or racing to guess what the shape represents.

 

Pictures on blocks games

You can combine the pictures on the sides of blocks with many of the games above. For example, in order to be able to stack the block with a picture of a cat on it, the students could be asked to:

  • Answer questions such as “What’s this?” and “What colour is the cat?”
  • Get a “Yes” answer with a question such as “Do you like cats?”
  • Make a true statement about their partner such as “You don’t have a cat”
  • Describe the position of some of the other objects in the tower, e.g. “The dog is between the elephant and the vase”
  • Follow a partner’s instructions on where to put the cat, e.g. “Please put the cat in front of the number 2”.

 

The simplest non-stacking game with picture blocks is simply racing to find the picture that represents a word that has been said or shown. The fact that only one side of each block is on top at any one time can also be useful. For example, the students could make a story from the top picture of each block, either after rolling them like dice or just choosing the best of the six sides each time.

 

Letters on blocks games

Many blocks have letters on at least one side, in which case the students can try to make true statements (“Your mother can play the violin”, for “V”) or ask questions to get answers starting with those letters (“What’s your favourite flavour of ice cream?” to get “vanilla” for “V”) in order to play the stacking games above. There are also quite a few extra games you can play. For individual letters, the students can race to find the letter that is said or the first letter of the object that is held up (finding a block with “P” on it if you hold up a pencil, etc). If the blocks have letters on all six sides, you can also use them like a kind of letter dice. This makes it possible to play games such as having the students racing to shout out or touch an object that starts with the letter that comes up when the block is rolled.

Combining letters from several blocks, the students can race to spell a given word or the name of an object which you show them. They can also work in groups to try to make as many words as they can from the letters on the blocks you have given them. Depending on what blocks you have and how many and which letters they have on them, it may also be possible to play a version of the board game Scrabble, where the words have to fit together in the shape of a crossword. It is also possible to change the blocks to make any of these games easier, e.g. by putting stickers on some of the sides of the blocks to add more high-frequency letters like “E”.

 

Numbers on blocks games

With blocks that have numbers on the side, the students can race to find and arrange the right numbers to match things they hear or read, such as “The first of December”. If the blocks have numbers on every side, they can also be used as dice.

 

Other EFL stacking and blocks games articles

Blocks games for different language points – NEW

15 ways to teach English with blocks and stacking games

 

Photocopiable blocks games classroom activities

Making shapes from blocks games (numbers, shapes, nature, household vocabulary, clothes, body and feelings) – NEW

Stacking races game (cardinal numbers, ordinal numbers, dates, days of the week, months and times) – NEW

There is/ There are stacking games – NEW

Prepositions of position stacking game

 

More classic TEFL games

TEFLtastic classics parts 1 to 31

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