Word Games & Tiny Twists #4: The Countdown Begins…

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 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.

Tiny Twists

  • 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, blue

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!

Word Games & Tiny Twists #3: How do you spell…?

This is one of my favourite games which you can use at all levels and for a range of different purposes.  In a nutshell, you call out words and pupils spell them.  Sounds riveting, doesn’t it?  Well, there’s a bit more to it than that.  The basic questions which underpin any activity on this blog include: How can it be done in a multi-sensory way?  What motivation do pupils have for engaging with the activity?  How are pupils involved?  What opportunities does the activity provide for developing interaction language?  We’ll look at all of those points as we go through.

Pupils will be working together in pairs in competition with the rest of the class, so you need a set of letter cards per pair.  This set of letter cards is the alphabet repeated three times and cut up into individual letters.  You also need letters with accents as appropriate for the language you are teaching, hyphens and apostrophes.  I don’t bother with capital letters, although you can if you want, but it makes for quite a big pack.  The cards need to be small enough to fit into a small “dinner money” envelope and so that they all fit on the desk when spread out.  They also need to be large enough to be picked up easily.  The envelope will be quite fat when all the cards are in, but that’s good – it’s a pain when a few fall out and you don’t know which envelope they came from.  On that point, it’s worth printing the sets onto as many different colours of card as your reprographics unit has.  Cards will definitely fall on the floor during this game and they could easily get mixed up with the odd card from the next table’s set (if your tables are set out horseshoe-fashion as mine are).  Having the sets on different colours of card solves that problem.  It’s also worth making enough sets for a class of forty or more, so that as sets get destroyed with use, you can just throw them away and you still have enough for the next time you play it without having to remember to make another.  When it comes to cutting them up, the class can spend a minute doing that – it will save you an hour, and a minute in class is neither here nor there in the grand scheme of things, especially if you make a race out of it (make sure they count their fingers afterwards).

All of these envelopes of cards for a class fit into an A4 envelope.  Tip #1: Don’t tuck the flaps in, the cards can fall out, fold them over instead.  You also need a box of thumbs-up points cards.  I use these in team competitions all the time.

This series is looking at ways of kicking off the lesson, so in this case, as pupils come in they collect an envelope from me, sit down and spread the cards over the table.  As soon as I have two pupils in the room, I start the activity.  As more pupils arrive, I hold out an envelope and they come and get it.  No need for me to stop the activity to set them up.  The first time, they can easily work it out from what everyone else is doing.  After that, they know.

To run the activity, I call out a word and the pupils have to find the letters on the table, arrange them so that they spell it correctly and cover it with their hands so the cheating pair sitting next to them can’t see it.  I say the word three times, a few seconds apart, while the Benny Hill music (Yakkity Sax) blares out of my computer.  After a few seconds I count down from 10 to 0.  On zero, the music is silenced, a bicycle horn is sounded loudly and everyone has to put their hands on their heads so they can’t move any more cards without me seeing.  If they do, they’re out, no negotiation!  I can whizz round the room, points in hand, checking the spelling and dropping points on the desk if it’s perfect, withholding them if not.  Once I’m back at the front, someone tells me how it’s spelt, they earn an extra point for their efforts (if they get the spelling and pronunciation of the alphabet correct, of course) and I write it up on the board.  Then it’s on to the next word.  By the time the last pupil has arrived, I do another couple of words, then everyone counts up the points, the winner is announced and celebrated, we clear away and it’s on with the lesson.

What language will we need?

  • Where’s the ‘i’?  Here it is!  No, that’s the ‘e’.
  • No, the other way round.
  • I haven’t got a ‘t’.
  • Grave / acute / circumflex accent / cedilla / apostrophe / hyphen
  • Does it have an accent?  Where does the (accent/apostrophe) go?  Over/Between/Before/After the ‘e’
  • What’s the ending?
  • How do you spell…?
  • That’s right / wrong / almost right
  • How many letters does it have? It has/there are …..
  • How do you pronounce it?
  • Don’t touch (the cards)!  You touched the cards.  You’re out!

Multi-sensory, involvement, motivation, interaction

It would be much quicker and easier just to call out words, pupils put their hands up and tell you how to spell them.  Job done.  Well, not really done, but it would feel like it.  There would be little to engage them.  All pupils would have the opportunity to think about the question, but over the whole activity, few would have the opportunity to give their answer and, of course, only one at a time.  Those pupils who need to see a word to know it’s spelt correctly would only have that opportunity after the answer is given.  The only interaction would be between one pupil and the teacher at any one moment. The only motivation to take part would be because the teacher has said so.

Run in the way described, this activity addresses those weaknesses.  The motivation is competition and the music, bicycle horn, variation in noise in the classroom (controlled by the teacher), keeps up the pace.  But there is also collaboration another pupil.  The interaction there has to be set up carefully so that they activity doesn’t run only in English between them.  (The second time we play it, later in the lesson with everybody there from the beginning, we get the cards out, spread them over the table, and I shout out letters: “Where’s the ‘i’?”  They rummage around and hold it up in the air: “Here it is!”, “No, that’s the ‘e'”, and so on.  Visual support is essential for this if it is to stick).  The problem of involvement is addressed, too.  Everyone is busy, everyone gives their answer and I can check them all.  True, only one gives their answer in front of the class, but everyone gets to express their answer on the table.  The best part of it (compared to writing it down on paper) is that when we move on to the next word, the previous one is wiped away and all mistakes disappear – a pupil does not have to spend the rest of the activity looking at what they have got wrong previously.  The activity is completely multi-sensory.  Visually, it is very appealing – pupils get to see their answer before they give it, lots of colour everywhere, everyone busy.  The auditory element is the calling out of words, listening carefully to the pronunciation and trying to match it up with an acceptable combination of letters.  The kinaesthetic pupils have a ball in this activity.  If you find it difficult to get pupils to do mimes to accompany vocabulary, this isn’t an issue with this activity, where they are moving the whole time.  The printing, photocopying and cutting up may seem like a burden the first time you do it, but once you’ve done it, it’s done and you can use the set for a good couple of years before you need to make another one.  Definitely worth it, I wouldn’t be without it.  And coming soon, I’ll explain some more activities you can use with the same set of cards, so you get the value out of the time you’ve put in.

Tiny Twists:

  • You can use this for any age and any level.  You can use random words or vocabulary from a topic you are teaching.  I sometimes run it with difficult-to-spell words, although it’s a good idea to alternate them with simpler words, otherwise some won’t get any points at all!  Not exactly the best start to a lesson.
  • You can use homophones (words which are pronounced the same but have different meanings/spellings, e.g., their/there; vert/vers/verre).  If you do this, it’s useful to have a prepared list to work from – it’s not easy doing it off the top of your head.  What you can improvise, though, is a sentence in which the word appears.  Using the context, pupils can identify which spelling they need.
  • This is a good one in Spanish for teaching school subjects: most school subjects need an accent, so it’s a good activity for helping pupils to work out where they need to go.
  • After each round, have a quick look for cards on the floor, and definitely before collecting in the envelopes at the end.  I always go round and collect them rather than having them passed to the front.  If you spot some cards on the floor that the pupils using them did not, it’s quicker to find the right envelope than if everything arrives at the front in a muddle.  More often than not, when the game is over and we move on, I leave the envelopes on the tables where they are and collect them later while the class is involved in pairwork so pace doesn’t drop in the transition.
  • This doesn’t have to be a lesson starter, of course, you can use it at various points in a lesson, but it’s a good one to set the pace at the beginning with something active.

Running time: as long as you like, but 7 mins. is about right for me.