The Foolproof Lesson

Most teachers have a short list of foolproof activities they can build a lesson around in a pinch–and this is one of mine.

It’s foolproof because it works for all levels, all ages, and with or without prepared materials. It’s deceptively simple, so beginning students are able to expand their existing language skills and strategies without feeling intimidated. Students control the difficulty, and discover the language they need in the process of completing a task. I’ve done this successfully with both children and engineers (at extreme ends of the language skill spectrum), but will demonstrate it with a class I currently teach of beginning adults.

The basics

You need an identical set of objects for each pair of students or group. You can include objects you know will challenge your students (for example, pronunciation distinctions between “bag” and “bug” are tough for Japanese). When it’s a spur-of-the-moment lesson—you’ve brought stuff for a different class, you’re subbing for another teacher, the technology gods are not smiling on you or your tools—the materials can be as simple as what students have in their bags or things you have around the classroom, or even paper and pencil.

See how much language your students already know by arranging the objects and asking them to describe them (The pen in on/in/next to/under the book). This is also a great way to cut down on level gaps—you make sure that all students start with the same knowledge. You need a screen of some sort, to create a genuine need to communicate. This can be a cardboard box, an open book, or even simply having students sit facing away from each other. If they can see each others’ objects, the activity becomes communication practice, not communication, and isn’t nearly as valuable.

The activity

Give each group an identical set of objects. Place the screen between groups. Group A arranges their objects in any order they like. The only restriction is that they have to be able to tell Group B how to duplicate the arrangement in English. Group A instructs Group B, and Group B asks for repetition and clarification, and checks their understanding. When Group B is satisfied, remove the screen and allow students to compare.

Have students identify where communication broke down, and figure out what would have helped (additional vocabulary, asking for clarification, paraphrasing to check their understanding, etc.). I provide the language they ask for, add it to the board for reference, and let them try the activity again.

While I start students out with a list of basic location words on the board (as we review at the start), I provide additional language as they discover the need. Not only does this help keep the task at my students’ challenge level, but they remember the language better when it fills an immediate need.

I usually stay quiet during the activity itself, so the focus is on communicating and understanding information, not on correction. One of the problems I have with students in Japan is convincing them that it’s okay to make mistakes. So, it’s important for them to experience success with their imperfect English. It’s a confidence builder, and encourages them to take risks in other English activities later. By taking risks they get more (and better) practice, and do improve.

This first video shows my students discovering a need for “upside down” in describing the position of the bug. I let them struggle through to see how they communicate around the missing word. You’ll hear them speaking a fair bit of Japanese as they pool their knowledge, and make sure that a new (very low) student is able to follow along.

preposition activity part 1 from Barbara Sakamoto on Vimeo.


They got better at explaining, and at asking for clarification, each time they did the activity. They could see improvement as their arrangements more and more closely mirrored each other. In this second video, you can hear how much more fluent and detailed the descriptions have become.

preposition activity part 2 from Barbara Sakamoto on Vimeo.

Students knew they’d succeeded not because I told them they’d done well (which I did) but because they could see that their arrangements matched. They’d successfully communicated information in English, had been able to clarify and ask for clarification, and had been understood.

What else?
pair work with screenIf you’re teaching very young learners (before they get the concept of right and left), you can use numbered squares, divided by a screen. Student 1 places one picture card or object in each square, and tells Student 2 where to place his or her cards. The activity point is to give them a reason they have to communicate, and a task they can succeed at in English, using their current level of language skill and linguistic strategies.

If you’re taking over an existing language class, this is a great way to discover how much they already know, and what strategies they rely on in communicating.

If you need to assess students, listen and take notes. For example, I can tell that my students need additional practice to become comfortable paraphrasing and checking their understanding in English (they switch to Japanese to be extra sure of meaning) and a bit more vocabulary, even though I was thrilled that one of them thought of trying a familiar word (central) to substitute for an unknown expression (in the center of). They got their meaning across, which was the goal.

What about you? Do you have a foolproof lesson? Please share!

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13 Responses

  1. David says:

    Wow! Wonderfully “communicative”.

    I see so many so lessons paraded as “communicative” but are really just activities to be done and finished with…. I like how you put the emphasis on the teacher NOT intervening too much and allowing students to try and communicate for themselves and negotiate/struggle to arrive at mutual understanding.

    Equally wonderful is that you are using real things and text (to a large degree). That’s a truly functional approach.

    I’ve been focusing lots on gap and especially these 2 way task activities with teachers this year. I’ll be sure they read this! Thanks Barbara.


    • Barbara says:

      At first, it’s hard for a teacher to not jump in to “fix” language–makes us feel like we’re slacking off on our jobs 🙂

      But, fixing every error reinforces the idea students get that they can’t use English until they’re much better, which often means they’ll never try using English outside of class (where they have someone to rescue them).

      I’m glad you enjoyed the lesson idea.

  2. Anne Hodgson says:

    I really like the way you do this with real things (instead of rods and drawings). I’ve never done anything with a group like this, only pairwork, but the dynamic is great!

    • Barbara says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Anne.

      I’ve done this with rods and drawings, and they allow for some advanced distinctions that some learners appreciate (the red rod is at a 45 degree angle to the blue one). But, I found it too easy to forget the box of rods before class, and got tired of putting them back into the box after they’d been knocked over….again. And, while rods are real objects, there’s something different that happens when you use every day real objects.

      With higher level students, it’s fun to include similar objects that students will have to distinguish between in their explanations (the red mechanical pencil, the whiteboard marker, the thick paper plate).

      Two things I’ve found that I appreciate about the group dynamic—it encourages students to share knowledge and it decreases the concern about failing. If the group puts the eraser in the wrong spot, no one person made a mistake. I’ve found it makes it easier to talk about where things broke down when I’m not talking about any one student’s error.

  3. I think this was a lovely post Barbara. All the things you talked about – developing confidence, tasks that allow students to participate at their level, a strong sense of accomplishment at the end, and materials light – are excellent. Definitely the kind of foolproof lesson all teachers should have.

    I use the create a country lesson on my site with all but absolute beginners. Always a winner.

    Having students bring in a picture of their family and talking about it is another one where students always rise to the occasion although you need a day’s notice.

    Cool post and nice lesson 🙂

    • Barbara says:

      Thanks, Nick. I just popped over to your blog to check out the create a country lesson. You’re right–that qualifies as a foolproof lesson, too!

      (It’s #11, here if anyone else wants to check it out)

      I like the idea of family photos, too. Another fun twist a friend taught me is to let students “borrow” a family to talk about. I’ll either put together some “snapshots” of people cut out of magazines (regular folk, or celebrities) or let students make their own.

      Students can exaggerate and use vocabulary talking about these fake family members that they don’t usually feel comfortable using with their real families (rich, ugly, fat, famous), and everyone knows it’s all in fun.

  4. Hi Barb!

    Thank you so much for another winner- a lesson versatile and useful enough for almost every age and level of student, and quick enough to prep on a moment’s notice! I’ll be trying it out with my kids soon enough, especially those who are going to the US this summer. I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes, and I’ll try to incorporate Let’s Go chant “Where’s the Classroom”!

  5. Sputnik says:

    Fantastic idea and great videos, especially the first one where you can see how much fun they’re having. I really like your made-up family idea too as it never ceases to amaze me how involved students get with role-play situations. Cheers!

    • Barbara says:

      Thanks, Sputnik. I’m glad you enjoyed the ideas! I’m lucky my students are so willing to let me share videos of them.

  6. tatiana says:

    Thank you, Barbara! I’m looking forward to using it in class. I’m pretty sure my four-year old puils will love it.

  1. March 22, 2010

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