Monday, 25 October 2010

Pulling Lesson Plans Out Of Your.... Mind

Hey there, campers.

So I was thinking today about what you can do, as an ALT, when a lesson is sprung on you last-minute. On Tuesday mornings, I meet with one of the JTEs at the school I don't like so much to "make an arrangement for lessons", as he likes to call it. While sometimes I have a week, even two, to plan lesson activities and games, sometimes he says to me "well, we need to do this topic in the next lesson (IN TEN MINUTES), can you come up with something?"

I know that other ALTs have been thrown into a room of students, like a terrified Christian into the lion's den, and asked to do something. While planning activities is all well and good when you have time (and the internet) at your disposal, what do you do when a last-minute lesson is sprung upon you? Flounder around like a fish out of water... or whip out something from your bag of tricks?

So, this is my suggestion. Create a "bag of tricks"! A series of games that are generally to do with English, but not a specific grammar point. Perhaps a game that can be adapted to any grammar point within seconds. A set of materials that can be utilised for any purpose. I'm hoping that commentors will have some more input, but here are my own ideas. If you have a spare afternoon, perhaps you can start building your bag-o-tricks.

1) Spelling/Meaning Battle!

As much as I hate to say it, this is stolen from the teacher that I don't really enjoy working with.... although this particular activity can be fun. Basically, you choose random words from the current textbook (ones they've already studied) and students have to spell them out, or (if you have the JTE's co-operation) say what it is in Japanese. There are a few ways to play this. All students can stand up, write down the answers and then those who were wrong have to sit down. The winner is the last one standing. Another way is to pick one student, and ask them to choose vertical or horizontal - i.e. rows and columns. All students in their row or column stands up. The fastest to raise their hand and answer correctly gets to sit down. When one student is left, they have to choose their own row or column. This can continue for as long as you want. The third way is to divide the class into teams (lunch groups) and give them points for the fastest answer. I've seen it done with white boards and pens for answering, so if you have them around, try that!

You can also get teams to line up in front of the board and write words with chalk as quickly as possible. One of my friends writes a word down the side of the board, i.e. APPLE, and the first student has to write a random word beginning with A, the second one with P etc (like an acrostic poem)! That, or they spell the words you've said. Start easy and build up to the harder ones, but if they're struggling, throw in something easy. Sometimes the JTE will start saying Japanese words, and they have to write the English word down (which tests meaning AND spelling ability).

2) Word games

Hangman or Countdown (anagrams)... The only materials you need are your chalk, a board, and some charisma (optional). This is great because you can use the words they've most recently learnt, so it's a review as well as a bit of fun. The main idea behind Countdown is that you make as many words as you can from the letters provided, so if you have time, make a bunch of letters (laminated and with magnets on the back) that you can draw out. In Countdown, they're divided into vowels and consonants, so students could choose which pile you draw from (take about 10 letters each time) - and give students a time limit for writing as many words as they can. Most games seem to work better when you divide them into teams and take scores on the board.

Another good game is ... I forget the Japanese name, again. The one where you write a word, and the next student has to write a word beginning with the last letter of your word. So you get something like this: chicken-nose-egg-goat-tomato-orange.... they ALWAYS put "egg" for E, so apply penalties for repeated words! Add a time limit, perhaps have a soft ball that you can throw at students so that they answer when it lands in their hands (or in their face).

3) Grammar games

The same idea as word games, but with grammar. I always used to make entire sentences when I played Hangman, just to make it a bit more "fun" (I'm from Wales). You could give them one of the words, already, and use sentences from their textbook, i.e. "Are you a junior high school student?" and other such amazing pieces of literature. In Countdown-like fashion, you can pull a bunch of random words out of a bag, stick them on the board and see how many original (and grammatically correct) sentences your teams can make.

Another favourite of mine, although it involves more preparation, is to give each team an envelope containing a ton of words (all the same as each other, of course). I will have some pre-prepared sentences that test the current grammar topic, and will ask the JTE to say the sentence in Japanese. The teams then race to create the English sentence, and the first one to get it right win 3 points, the second 2 points, and the rest 1. It will tip you off as to which grammar points they struggle with (e.g. "What movie do you like?" often ends up as "What do you like movie?"... if you're lucky) so you can perhaps run over them later, explain them, give examples, and test them again afterwards. If you have a large number of versatile words in there, you can use the same ones week after week with different sentences. Sometimes I also just ask them to create original sentences and give points for every correct sentence (and maybe an extra point if it's funny OR they can correctly tell the teacher the Japanese meaning, to show that they actually know what they're saying).

4) Hot potato!

All you need is a soft ball, or maybe an empty pencil case or a soft toy. After a demonstration (with the JTE or a terrified student), use it for conversation. For example, you say "Hello, how are you?" and throw it in the air. Pretend to be another student, catch it and say "I'm hungry. How are you?" and then throw it to someone else. Prompt them to give an answer, say "how are you?" and throw it on to someone else. Warning: rowdy students might get a bit out of control. Don't do it with crazy classes! You can use this for a variety of grammar points... using my current classes, for example, we could use "My friends make me happy. What makes you happy?" - "Eating ramen makes me happy. But, rain makes me sad. What makes you sad?" from the third grade. Maybe "what did you do yesterday?"... or "do you like ____?" - a lot of things will work! Maybe add the pressure by timing each student, if they don't answer within 10 seconds, they have to sit down. The champions are the last ones standing!

5) Blank worksheets for emergencies!

My most overused activity is bingo of some sort. I will get the students to interview their classmates, collect their signatures and complete a grid. So, for example, you could have twelve blank squares, get the students to randomly write the names of each month in one of the squares, and then use it to interview their classmates with "When is your birthday?", the reply being "it's in ". Then, the first student goes "oh, sign here please!" and they sign the appropriate box. You can assign points for filling in all the boxes, vertically, horizontally or diagonally, and of course if they get all 12 they finish and get bingo! Spice it up by having a really cool stamp that all the kids will want on their paper, if they get a full house. My JTE and I often make a big circle on the board in exciting colours (i.e. yellow and red) and write FULL HOUSE on the top. The kids will race to write their names in there once they have completed it.

If you carry some blank bingo worksheets around with you, you could whip them out at the last minute. Just get the students to write the title, tell them the key question/answer format, and let them fill in some blank squares. For example - "Do you like ?" - they would just pick, say, 12 different food items and find someone who likes each one of them. Or "where are you from?" and they pick 12 different areas.

The other one is just "interview game", which has no real purpose other than to interview the key amount of people (usually 3 or 5) in a set amount of time, and feel proud of yourself for doing it. For these sheets all I have is a table, where you write your friends' names down the first column, and fill in their answers to 3 mystery questions... this can be ANYTHING... whether the students choose their own questions, or you tell them to write them beforehand.


I was going to make this tidy and have 5 points, but I just remembered my other old trick. Skits! If you have no material, just tell your students to get into pairs or groups of 3 or 4 and create skits. They can use any grammar that you have covered so far, or you can pick a specific grammar point. Perhaps give them characters. We were doing "do you know how to ___?" with third grade students, so I got them to be a Japanese person and a foreign exchange student, which of course leads to many racist stereotypes ("Do you know how to use chopsticks?" "No, please show me!") but gets them talking. All you need, if you have no worksheets prepared, is some blank paper for them to write their dialogue. Sometimes, students will ask how to say very strange things, but this is good, it means they're learning the things that they WANT to say. In the last 5-10 minutes, get volunteers to perform their skits to the class (or pick on individuals). Results can quite often be hilarious - and hey, you've pretty much done nothing except walk around the room and check their grammar/spelling!

So, I hope that helps. Like my lessons, I pulled this article out of my British arse in about 10 minutes. Perhaps next time I'll let you know what I do when I DO plan my lessons, but this is a large part of it, because I'm lazy!


  1. We used to play countdown a lot in highschool and I always enjoyed that. The other thing we did was wordfinders.

  2. Good options! I've utilised a fair number of these, though thankfully I don't often get random lessons popped on me at the last moment. And...having said that, it's now almost guaranteed that this will happen at least once this week.

    The game where you begin the next word with the last letter of the previous word is "shiritori." Even my 三年生 get excited about that at JHS, which is nearly impossible to do.

    Another game I've had great success with is a kind of play on the game Scrabble. Draw a grid on the board, put kids into lunch groups (best for 2nd or 3rd year JHS), and then write a single word in the grid. I don't bog them down with ALL the long as it makes a word in one direction, I call it fine. Go until you use the whole grid up, and it'll take almost an entire class period. Award one point for each letter a team adds to the grid.

  3. I see you've been trained well, Padawan.

  4. shiritori was a fun idea until my clever little students said yes followed by say ...followed by exciting to watch my entire class repeat the same two words... lol