There are two countdowns in this post. The first is one of my absolute favourite games to play with a class. You know the game, Countdown / Des Chiffres et Des Lettres / Cifras y Letras, depending on where you happen to watch it! This is great as a lesson-starter or -finisher when there are a few minutes to spare or for one of those days when several days have hit you at once and you know you just haven’t got the energy for the lesson you’d planned! Not that this is merely a ‘filler’. On the contrary, the game holds its own amongst many other activities for spelling and vocabulary. It’s also a very good way of getting a class engaged on something while we wait for the rest to arrive – they can join in too as soon as they land on a chair – or for where you’ve done everything you wanted to do in a lesson and stretching it out until the bell would be, well… stretching it a bit.
Well, that’s one Countdown, but there’s another one in this post… More on that later.
Back to the game. Everyone has a scrap of paper to write on. It’s not going to be kept, so I don’t bother with giving out rough books or exercise books for this. All I need is a board to write on and I’m good to go.
I call on individual pupils to say to me ‘Vowel’ or ‘Consonant’ (this is a perfect moment to remind my native Spanish-speaking students here in Madrid that in English we distinguish between ‘b’ and ‘v’!). I choose a letter at random and write it up. Once we’ve got twelve, the class has a minute to make the longest word they can with the letters they have, without repeating any letters that only appear once on the board. Once the Countdown music has run its course, it’s pens down and everyone counts the letters in their longest word.
“Put your hand up if your longest word has 12 letters, 11 letters, 10 letters, 9 letters, etc.” I start with the longest word in the class and work backwards. The words are written up until the board is filled with suggestions from the class, everyone is congratulated, and it’s on with the lesson.
- The TV programme uses 9 letters, I use 12. 3 extra letters make it much easier to find words and usually everyone gets at least something. If, for a particular class, you want to vary the level of challenge, changing the number of letters is one way of doing that.
- I have sometimes played it with letter cards, sorted into a pile of vowels and a pile of consonants. Each pile is shuffled and letters chosen according to the category called. I used small cards with a visualiser so that they can be turned over where they are on the table and everyone can see them on the screen. Nevertheless, I prefer just to write the letters up as they occur to me – partly so I can influence a bit which letters are used. Sometimes you get an impossible combination of letters and hardly anyone finds anything. Not particularly satisfying as a lesson-starter!
- Sometimes the class plays it with the letter cards from the activity ‘How do you spell…?’ Pupils can either work in pairs or on their own, depending on what you want to get out of the activity. The kinaesthetic element is good for those who appreciate the opportunity to be able to move about a bit. Sometimes they can ‘see’ words if they can move the letters around in a way they can’t with a pen and paper. Whether I do it this way or not is determined by how much time I can give in the lesson to this activity – giving out and collecting in the materials doesn’t take long, but it does take time.
- Once I’ve taken a few answers from a few pupils I pause proceedings for a moment for a little twist: Can they spot any prefixes among the letters on the board? Any suffixes? Any verb endings? I write up the ones they say and add a couple more of my own if they haven’t already seen them. Very often they will be able to see longer words, mainly because half of the word has already been found as a unit. This is good for showing pupils the links between different word forms of the same basic meaning, e.g., boire / boisson / boit
- Can they make a different word just by changing one letter of a word already suggested?
- If I can, I pull out a couple of words to comment on. These tend to fall into one of these categories: new vocabulary (described to them, not translated); pairs of words with the same pronunciation but different spelling (homophones), e.g. (French) fois / foie / foi; vers / verre / vert; soi / soie / soit; père / paire; (Spanish) bienes / vienes; tubo / tuvo; (English) threw / through; fort / fought; weak / week; or pairs of words with the same spelling and pronunciation, but different meanings (homonyms): (French) joue, bois, livre; (Spanish) como, vino, capital, corte; (English) bat, bear, miss.
The Other Countdown
So, what was the other countdown for?
I’m counting down to the launch of All Aboard! All Abroad!, the first 4 volumes of a new DVD series I’ve been working on for the last 18 months looking at a whole range of techniques and principles involved in teaching communicatively through the target language. They will be on sale for the first time at the Association for Language Learning London June Event on Saturday 16 June, to be held at the London School for Economics. Click the link for more information about the event and how to register. I’ll have a stand in the exhibition where all of my methodology DVDs will be available at discounted prices, and I’ll be presenting a new session, ‘Sowing Seeds for Spontaneous Speaking’. I’ll be looking at how to use the first half of the autumn term for a class going into secondary school (Year 7 in the UK) to set them up linguistically for the year ahead through songs, routines and content language. Come along if you’re near London! It’s going to be a great morning – I’m really looking forward to hearing Rachel Hawkes and Jeremy Harmer who will be presenting their sessions too (I’m the only one I haven’t heard of!).
Hope to see you there!