How Many Different Fruits Can You Name In Two Minutes?

Need a quick warm-up for your lesson and don’t feel like preparing in any way, shape or form? Lists are the saviors of the slothful!

Put students in pairs and make sure only one of them is writing (the point is to have them working together.) Give them two or three minutes to make a list on any given topic. Get a stopwatch app for the computer (or phone if necessary) so your students can see the time ticking away. And make it competitive. Whoever can can list the most things is the winner.

What topic should they write about? Connect it to your theme or your grammar point, if at all possible. Teaching fruit? Make a list. Teaching about hotels? List everything in a room. Teaching Simple Past? List as many verbs as possible, or things they did last week.

This activity works for all ages and abilities, from children to adults, beginner to academic, but the best part is that can be adapted to virtually any topic. If you truly can’t think of one, have students list all the reasons they hate you. They’ll need more than a few minutes, of course.

7 Ways to Spice Up Boring Listening Activities in the Book

I hated listening activities when I first started teaching. I had no idea what to do with them besides just listening and answering the questions. That’s the point of listening, right? You hear it or you don’t. Check the answers and move on.

My students’ weaknesses in this particular skill discouraged me more than it did them. Only a few of the students were able to hear or understand anything. The gap between their abilities and what was being taught in the book seemed insurmountable. I got through the exercises as fast as possible and moved on to speaking activities which were far more manageable, productive, but most of all, fun.

I was slow to learn the answer to this problem, and we both know you’re lost in the weeds, so I humbly offer my hard-earned lesson as a bit of direction out of the morass:

Make your listening activities speaking activities.

Let’s be honest, listening is boring. Few of us in everyday life can listen for more than a few seconds before we have to commence our own blathering, particularly you, as if you had something interesting to say. So you can imagine how difficult it it is when you’re attempting a three-minute-long listening activity about a boring topic in a language that isn’t your own.

Break it up.

If you ever hear of the term ‘scaffolding’ in an EFL context, just know that it’s a stupid word that was invented by an armchair academic to make himself feel smart. It means nothing more than breaking difficult tasks into small, more manageable parts.

Have a look at the following listening activity:

listening activities

The coolest thing about this exercise is that it’s made for pairs; students A and B listen for different information in the same conversation. This instantly turns into a Q&A speaking activity, but more on that later.

What you don’t want to do is just play the audio and have students start filling in blanks. That is precisely the opposite of scaffolding. Start small and simple and go slow. Let’s see how many different mini-activities we can make out of this one listening exercise.

Activity 1: Pre-teaching vocabulary

Vocabulary is always a good lead-in. Don’t assume your students will know every word in the recording or even the questions in the book. Identify a few of the more difficult ones you think your students will struggle with and teach them the meaning beforehand, remembering of course to show rather than tell. For more advanced classes, this activity can be done first in pairs by asking if the partner knows the meaning of a particular word.

Activity 2: Predicting Answer Types

Newer teachers give predictions short shrift, if any notice at all, yet this is one of the few ways students can actually improve exam-style listening activities. Even elementary students can begin learning this all-important skill.

Start with Student A.  Ask them what they can predict about the answer. Given that this is from an elementary book and skills are weak, they’ll need a lot of modeling and prompting.

  1. He works for a ____________ company.

Ask them if the answer will be a noun, verb or adjective. Here, it could be an adjective or a noun collocation with ‘company’. Perhaps write a few examples on the board. (e.g. ‘big’ company; ‘insurance’ company etc.).

2. He has ___________ daughters.

Ask them what the answer could be. A number, perhaps. Or an adjective.

For lower-level or weaker classes, you may need to walk through each question with them as a class, making predictions together. Pre-intermediate students and above, though, should be able to work in pairs, making predictions together. A minute or two should suffice.

Activity 3: Predicting the Language

In listening activities such as this, each of the statements appears to be the answer to a question. Why not try to anticipate what those questions will be? Again, for pre-intermediate and above, this is another pair activity. Give them five minutes to write out the questions together (writing alone is boring and uncommunicative.) For beginners, do the activity together as a class.

1.  He works for a ____________ company.

A question might be, “What kind of company does he work for?” Write it on the board.

2.  He has ___________ daughters. “How many daughters does he have?”

And so on.

Activity 4: Drill

Don’t let a good drilling opportunity go to waste. You’ve just written some questions on the board. Drill them chorally and individually and in groups. Clap or tap the stressed words. Above all, make it quick and keep it natural.

Take notice — students haven’t yet begun the book exercise and we’ve already done four activities. Boom, scaffolding.

Activity 5: Listening

We’re finally at the objective — listening and filling in the blanks. Listen twice, minimum. Be responsive to students who may want another crack at it.

Activity 6: Checking Answers

After your students have listened and completed the gap fill, you check the answers as a class and move on, right? Of course not. That’s just what new (i.e. bad at teaching) teachers do, like you. You’re missing another short speaking activity. Why not have students check their answers together in pairs? This is a bit harder to do in activities like the one above where students A and B listen for different information, but we’re not so unimaginative we can’t make it work, are we? I’ll speak for myself I guess.

One easy way to do it is to swap listenings. Just trade books and listen again. Student A now listens and checks B’s information and vice versa. They discuss together for a minute and then you can check it as a class.

But wait. Rather than just having students call out the answers, listen again and have them tell you to stop when they hear the answer. You stop the recording, then they tell you what the answer is.

Activity 7: Q & A

Remember those questions you had your students write in Activity 3? Let’s come back to those. Have students swap questions, so that Student B is asking about Student A’s information and vice versa.

For example:

Student B: What kind of company does he work for?

Student A: A marketing company. Where does he work?

Student B: In London.

At this point we’ve squeezed seven listening activities out of one, and our short little book exercise is all of a sudden at least half an hour long. Of course, not all of this needs to be done for each listening, but some does, otherwise picture your students perched atop rickety scaffolding, holding on for dear life in your disaster of a lesson.

Scaffolding Listening Activities

Chanting isn’t just for religious weirdos

Chanting has always scared me. Whether done in religion or a protest ruled by mob mentality, chants have always conjured in me images of irrational masses calling for blood. Like that scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where the priest rips the still-beating heart out of a sacrificial victim to the delight of a chanting, brainwashed cult. Yikes.

But this unthinking nature of chanting that disturbs me is its strength in an EFL classroom. Mastery only comes through repetition, and chanting ingrains language in a way that allows students to focus on sounds rather than meaning. Chanting lends itself well to absorbing intonation and sentence stress, and phrases that are difficult to pronounce are often rather easy once a rhythmic component is added.

Suppose your target structure is ‘I want _________’, and the vocabulary is fruit. Have one student leave the room so he/she can’t see as you hide a flashcard (e.g. apples). Invite the student to come back in and look for the flashcard while the rest of the class chants ‘I want apples.’ The group chants louder if the student is approaching the flashcard and quieter if walking away from it. They keep on chanting until the student finds the flashcard.

For added fun, put the class in teams and time the students as they look for the flashcards. The team with fastest time wins. The winning team can then rip the hearts out of the losers, chanting all the while.

Temple of Doom Heart Ripped Out
Kali maa shakti de!



One Breath

Struggling with ways to make reading fun? One Breath is a nice change-up from the standard ‘read aloud’ activities that accompany a typical reading lesson.

Put students in small groups. One student reads aloud at a time, the objective being to read as far as he/she can using only one breath. The winner is the one who can go the furthest. Then invite the winner from each group to have a go in front of the whole class, making it a tournament of sorts.

Don’t forget to model it! Students love watching the teacher go blue in the face.


Two fatties in butt floss bumpin’ bellies in a ring. No, I’m not referring to your love life. I’m talking about sumo, the earthquake inducing sport of Japanese wrestling. It’s fun to watch, funner to play and a great activity when you have five minutes to kill.

Students are in two teams, A and B, which sit in one large circle to form the ring. One student from each team plays at a time. They start face-to-face, holding flashcards behind their backs which neither of them can see. The objective is to see your opponent’s flashcard by maneuvering around him/her without letting your own flashcard be seen.

Sumo works best if it’s timed; one minute is plenty. Warn the rest of the class that points will be taken, or the game ended, if they try to cheat by telling their teammate the opponent’s flashcard.

This game’s flaw is that it only features two students at a time and very little English is used. For these reasons, use it sparingly and keep it short. Not every student needs to play.

Choral Q&A Substitution Drill

If your students have little exposure to English outside the classroom, one of the main goals of your lesson should be providing opportunities for production in class. Practice and repetition are prerequisites to mastering anything, and drilling is one of the best ways to give learners intensive practice.

Suppose your target grammar is a question and answer: ‘Where are you going?’ and ‘I’m going to the _______.’ The target vocabulary is probably places in this example (e.g. bank, hospital etc). Pictures or flashcards can be used as prompts.

Put students in two groups, A and B. Repeating after you, group A asks group B the question, “Where are you going?” Group B responds by repeating after you, “I’m going to the bank.” Now it’s group B’s turn to ask the question.

Keep going back and forth, drilling at a natural pace. Eventually you can remove yourself from the drill and let them take over, prompting them with the flashcards.

Because drilling is repetitive by nature, keep it short. Five minutes or so. Anything longer tends to drag. But don’t be afraid to come back to it later in the lesson. Drilling is one of the best ways to increase student talking time and enliven an otherwise flagging lesson.

For more info on drilling, head over to British Council’s blog here.

Musical Chairs

A staple of children’s classes, I’ve seen adults play musical chairs and love it. Music, movement and lots of spoken English, what’s not to love? The only thing that could go wrong with this activity is one student giving another a forearm shiver as they wrangle over the last remaining chair.

First, find the target language. Question and answer is what you’re looking for. For instance: ‘What did you do yesterday?’ ‘I went to school.’

Have 20 students? Take away one of the chairs so there are only 19 available. Play a song while the students walk round in a circle. Stop. Students scramble for a chair. Those who are sitting ask the question while the lone stander answers perhaps based on flashcard you show. Swap it. The stander asks and the sitters reply. Rinse and repeat.

Introduce them to some Western culture with a tune, or grin and bear a few minutes listening to a song they’ve chosen. Maybe your school has modeling clay. Perhaps a project making earplugs before the song?

Hot Potato

Fun for kids, teens and adult classes alike, hot potato is just like what you remember playing as a kid, only this version puts an emphasis on focused speaking practice.

Hot potato is perfect for when there’s a simple question and answer you’re practicing. It’s even better with flashcards which function as the potato. In effect, it’s a substitution drill, but it’s fun enough that students won’t mind the repetition.

Suppose the theme of the lesson is food, the question is ‘what do you want?’ and the answer is ‘I want soup.’

Put you students in a (standing) circle and give your instructions. You will play a song while they pass a ‘soup’ flashcard. When you stop the song, everyone who isn’t holding the flashcard will ask the holder the question ‘what do you want?’ The holder must respond, ‘I want soup.’

Put another flashcard in the mix and play the song again. Stop. Now there are two questions and two students answering. Next time there are three and so on.

A game that counts.

If you’re teaching numbers to elementary classes, be they children or adults, it can be difficult to come up with a way to make numbers and counting interesting. Enter ‘Buzz’ — a fun, lightning fast, last-man-standing (or last-person-standing if that warms your cockles) game that keeps students on their toes.

warning sign  Students should have solid pronunciation practice before attempting. The minimal pairs (13 and 30, 14 and 40 etc.) can cause absolute fits for students who can’t hear the difference and spasms of frustration for the teachers who can’t understand why. But that’s a whole other post.

Get your students up and standing in a circle. Tell them that they’re going to go around the circle counting student by student, but that instead of saying 5, 10, 15 or any multiple of 5, they’ll instead say ‘buzz’. Of course they won’t understand your instructions, so you know what to do:


That’s right. Model that shit.

Point at the students as you go round the circle counting. “1, 2, 3, 4, BUZZ. 6, 7, 8, 9, BUZZ. 11, 12, 13, 14, BUZZ.” Model it a few more times if they’re still unclear.

If a student makes a mistake by either forgetting the count or to say ‘buzz’, he or she sits down and the game continues without them, the count resetting back to zero. The winner is the last student standing.

Just when students start getting a bit too confident, increase the level of difficulty and frustration by changing from multiples of 5 to 3. Boom. Buzzkill. Don’t forget to check out the look on their faces when they realize they’re not as smart as they thought they were.

Confused Student

Just a Minute.

Ahh one of my favorite activities. The name alone takes me back to my youth, debating politics with my father. Whenever I’d start talking bullshit, which was admittedly most of the the time, he’d stop me with a steely look, a raised hand, and a firm ‘now just wait a goddamn minute.’ Listening for bullshit (mistakes in this case) is the essence of this activity.

Just a Minute is an EFL classic. It’s rare to find a speaking activity that also gives specific objectives to the listeners.  It’s even rarer to find one that focuses on both accuracy and fluency. But the truest standard of excellence by which any activity is judged is whether or not the students like it, opt in and engage, and by that standard, Just a Minute is a diamond.

Just a Minute works best in Intermediate levels (or a really good Pre-Intermediate class) and above. The idea is that in small groups of three or four, one of the students will speak on a given topic for one minute timed with a stopwatch. What the listeners must hear, and what the speaker must avoid, is a mistake on a particular teaching point that you’ve established beforehand.

Perhaps you’re teaching Simple Past. After you’ve introduced the concept and done some focused practice (perhaps not necessary for higher levels), you think your students have the hang of it. Write a speaking topic on the board which has something to do with the past. For instance: ‘Talk about your last vacation.’

Give your instructions. Tell them that in small groups they will take turns talking for one (timed) minute about their last vacation. If the speaker makes a Simple Past mistake, the listeners say ‘just a minute’, and the speaker must go back to the beginning of his or her story. The speaker must keep telling the story until he or she can do so for one minute without making a Simple Past mistake. Once they do so, it’s the next student’s turn.

Model it.

T: “My last holiday I go to China –“

Ss: “Just a minute!”

T: “My last holiday I went to China for a week. I flew to Beijing and stay there –“

Ss: Just a minute!

T: ” My last holiday I went to China for a week. I flew to Beijing and stayed there three days. I see the Forbidden City –“

Ss “Now just wait a goddamn minute!”

They should get the point, but don’t forget your ICQs. Once all of the students have had a turn, put another topic up on the board: talk about a time you were embarrassed; talk about what you did yesterday; talk about what the other students have said about you, the teacher, behind your back. You get the idea.

The teaching point doesn’t have to be limited to grammar. Depending on your country, students might struggle with final consonants or the dreaded ‘th’ phonic. Part of improving pronunciation is learning how to listen. Fluency, too, can be the objective — any pause longer than three seconds warrants a ‘just a minute.’

Because Just a Minute is all about building fluency and speaking at length, encourage your students to lie if they have to (or want to). A lot of teens are embarrassed about talking about themselves, so this gives them a facade to hide behind. Maybe they don’t remember the last time they went to the cinema. No problem. Make it up. Exaggerating, fabricating and wholesale lying aren’t just good skills for exams like IELTS or TOEFL, they’re life skills that just might take someone to the Presidency.