Teaching English Overseas?: Here are Some Activities That Any Human Will Understand

This article is about the games that get them talking for hours. Many times when I was teaching English to foreign students, I always had this dreaded fear about what would happen if I ran out of ideas or activities to do with the kids. My biggest fear was being in a room of mostly fluent students because they already knew most of the language, the grammar, the structure, the syntax, and the tones. I couldn’t be much help to them. In other words, I had the imposter syndrome. And actually, many times these fears were totally legit: Some students really didn’t need me at all! And even worse, they knew it! It’s one thing to feel needed even when you know deep down inside you can’t help a person but it’s an entirely different story when you’re not needed and they also don’t feel like they need you!

So, with the more fluent students I really had to bring more to the classes because it wasn’t enough to just give basic grammar, structure, alphabet, colors and things that you would teach to maybe babies. And faced with this reality, my biggest worries were that I would run out of material, run out of ideas and kind of hitting the cliff and get to that point where I would ask the class, “Okay, so what do we do?” Maybe you feel this way too?

However, I found some really interesting books along the way that really helped me to ameliorate and ease some of the fears that I had. One great book I can heartily recommend is Teach Business English by Sylvie Donna which helped me get a grasp on teaching more fluent students. Other books would be Learning One-to-One and Personalizing Language Learning. These three books formed the basis of my basic approach to speaking to fluent students.

There were a number of strategies, tips, tricks and ideas in these three books which I’m going to promote here in this article for you to consider when you’re faced with teaching students who don’t need the alphabet anymore.

It would seem that many TEFL programs tend to prepare you to teach younger students who have basic needs. And there’s not a whole lot going for you, as far as I can tell in the curriculums I observed, when you’re tasked with teaching older students who have a lifetime’s worth of experience (and English-talking).

So in this article I will provide tips and activities that are great for different age groups. And activities that will even interest your older students.

Teach them what they what to know

One thing I really liked about Teach Business English was the fact that she recommends and includes surveys in her book that you can give to students at the beginning of the semester. These surveys ask them what it is they would like to learn. What is their goal? What is their objective? Giving them a list of things that they could circle in terms of what they would like to improve, giving them a kind of open field section of the survey where they can actually write in their own personal responses. They could talk about things that have helped them. What kinds of strategies they liked the most, whether it’s watching videos or sharing worksheets or learning to talk at the post office.

Once you analyze the completed surveys, then you can make your lesson plans according to their answers. The point is, every English learner has a different need for being in the class. And when you’re teaching older students, you need to learn why they’re there instead of projecting onto them why you think they’re there. I’ve had countless numbers of students walk into my class and I decided right then and there that they really needed help with learning the names of animals, just because that’s what I thought. You need to find out what their purpose is, what their goal is and how you can go for that. And at all times you can keep assessing yourself by giving feedback forms along the way.

Maybe you give one form at the beginning of the semester, one in the middle and one at the end. One at the beginning to assess the needs of the students. One in the middle to find out how you’re doing and what can be improved in the class. And then at the end, you can give an evaluation form to see how the experience was overall.

This, of course, could give you misleading results because students don’t want to hurt your feelings, and because of that they may not give you honest answers. A solution is to have somebody that could give the survey to the students on your behalf, which is a better way of doing it. However, even if it’s just you that can hand out the surveys, you could still get a lot of information that you would have otherwise not had.

Activities for When There’s Still More Time

Let’s say you’ve finished your objectives for the class, but there’s still more time.

Not everybody, I will admit, has timing issues the way I did and it might not be an issue for you. But for those of you who begin your teaching career and you’re just uncertain about how much time you’re allotted, no matter how many lesson plans you’ve come up with, then this article can prove helpful to you in the long run. So, here we go.

Map and locate game

My first activity is a map and locate game. I got this from Personalizing Language Learning and it’s also in my teaching course, Teaching Without Technology, which is available on Udemy. In this game you basically set up the class to look like the town and then you point to a particular part of the room where the school is and then you kind of orient the students. From there you tell the students to move to where their house is within the room. It’s like you’re making a map of the room and the students have to go to where they’re supposed to live.

After you have the students go to their houses, from there you can explore a little bit of the town. For example, you can have the students move to their favorite restaurant or their favorite cafe or you can have the students move to their favorite arcade. You have the students move to their favorite mountain or their favorite friend’s house. You can mix up the different topics by which you learn about the town. You can even get information about the town.

In this game, you learn about the people in it. You learn about the people’s interests. You can even do the negative of this too, which is to move to a place where you don’t want to be. This is an easy one, actually, because invariably all the students move back to the school location within the room. But you can vary this up and it’s fun for the students. It gives them exercise because, if you’re teaching in Asia, most of their lives are going to be sitting at a desk and so getting them up and moving them around can also reinvigorate the energy of an otherwise drained student populace, keeping the momentum going.

You can even invite feedback which gets them talking more. Rather than actually moving them around and doing nothing with that, you could say, “Oh, so this is your favorite restaurant. Why is that your favorite restaurant? Why do you like it?” And you can kind of engage students in conversation. You can ask them where they are, what they’re doing. Why they like that place? Why they don’t like that place? What’s around there? Tell me if there is a burger joint nearby in that area.

Now, of course, this game is more for younger students, less for older. Not necessarily teenagers, but definitely not for adults who are not used to getting up in a classroom where learning is business.

However, this game becomes a great starting point for continuing conversation with your younger students. I love this activity, because it has been a success many times in both my middle school classes and also my high school classes, even in big and small classes.

Survivor games

The second activity I can recommend is the stuck on-the-island scenario. There are many PowerPoints floating around the internet which have different scenarios where you’re stuck on an island or you’re in a hot air balloon and someone has to get off before the hot air balloon keels over and everybody dies. Lovely, isn’t it?

These kinds of survivor games are also mentioned a lot in many of the Cambridge books, such as Grammar Activities by Petty Ur. Her other book, Discussions That Work, mentions this activity a lot. Teaching Large Multilevel Classes mentions this too. So, it’s a very popular game and there’s so many versions. Everyone wants to survive, so it’s fun to play on this death fear with your very young students.  

Survival games give a chance for the student to talk and interact with each other. In various versions of this game, people can talk in discussion and decide who gets voted off. Sometimes every participant has to give reasons for why they think some people they have selected should stay. Sometimes you give people an identity card where they have a list of facts and then you have the student debate why they, themselves, should stay on the island or why they shouldn’t get killed and be cannibalized or whatever scenario you can make up.

Now, I advise that when you do give an activity like this, it’s good to say at the beginning why you’re giving it and what the purpose of it is, especially with older students, since it can be easily misunderstood as a game just for funsies.

A thing I really like about these types of games is that they can be altered for different age groups too. For adults, you don’t have to necessarily do stuck on an island but in a similar fashion, you could do Who-Should-Get-the-Electric-Chair or have them act as jurors and decide which of the defendants gets to go free. You can vary the theme but the basic premise is that there are limited resources (Malthusian concept) and some people have to be extricated, shall we say, to make room for the more productive members of society.

Also when playing this game with adults you could do a more business-like setting where students defend their position for a corporation to move forward on possible projects.

The great thing about survival activities is that they can be shaped and evolved and take form in any classroom setting that you have to work in. After all, some classes will have screens for PowerPoints and some will not. Some will have projectors and some will not. Some classes will have nice whiteboards and some won’t. As long as you know that this game is available to you, it will always be there for you when you’re teaching English. As long as you have your brain as a resource, it will always be there and that’s what I love about this activity, especially because all you need to think of is just surviving and there it is. The game that’s perfect for you!

The Venn diagram

Another activity that I recommend is the Venn diagram activity. This I did for my private lessons and I got this from the book Teaching One-to-One. At the very beginning of class, usually at the beginning of the semester with your individual student, you draw a Venn diagram and you put your interests, their interests, and then in the middle of the Venn diagram is the shared interests. From there we would use the shared interests as the basis for follow-up lessons. You use the Venn diagram to plan out your whole semester.

So, if after this Venn diagram game I only had 15 classes with this particular student, I would probably put down soccer as one of the things they wanted to talk about or food. Something like American food versus Korean food. Or whatever the shared interests were where I would make that kind of the basis and topic for one of the classes.

Ultimately, because of the Venn diagram, I was never really at a loss for what to say to my students because I knew what their interests were and I could play off of those and use those as a basis for inspiring even more conversation and more lessons and jumping off points to other types of activities. In larger classes, you could probably pair the students up and have them do this together and then present their findings.

And you could also do this for adults too, using more complicated subjects to put in the Venn diagram.

Maybe it’s not their interests, necessarily, but the pros and cons of a complicated business negotiation. What company A likes, what company B likes, and where you guys can create a win-win situation. Totally possible with the Venn diagram.

And that’s again what I like about Venn diagrams! They are virtually universal. You can use them anywhere in the world, in any English class and people generally get them. They understand the whole yin-yang principle of the Venn. They’re not that hard to follow and people understand that there are likes and dislikes and differences and similarities.

The good thing about activities like this one and the survivor game is that they really highlight also the commonalities that we all share between us in different cultures and countries.

Which-Doesn’t-Go-Together

For this activity you have to create a group of things and include one kind of thing that stands out and see if the students can find out which one doesn’t fit. I’ve done this in PowerPoints, but it doesn’t have to be a PowerPoint. It could be just on the board. You could just create a list of countries, one that stands out the most. Maybe you could do a list of countries in Asia and include one that isn’t in Asia. For example, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Italy. Some can be more obvious than others. To make this more complicated, don’t just have them pick it out, but also ask them “what is the difference?” And elicit more detailed explanations. Pretend you’re an alien and you really have no idea what the difference is between Italy and Korea. Perhaps there really IS no difference, but you get the students to explain to you what their own narrative is telling them about these places. And it just becomes fascinating.

In addition, you can create different ways to play this game. You can write on the board, you can put it on a PowerPoint, you can have students make their own lists and test each other on them. You can have students look at countries and see which one doesn’t match or you could do colors if you’re doing it with more basic students. You could do scenarios for the more complex and fluent students.

For many of my high school students, I used to just give a PowerPoint that would show different countries, different flowers, and different animals. I would have different events, different seasons. And some of them were just really not that easy to determine what the actual differences were; some were actually a collection of concepts or words or ideas that were not that easy to decide which one didn’t belong or which one didn’t match. Yes, I am evil like this.

Sometimes these activities opened up debate which was very useful for many of the fluent classes. The more complex you get, generally speaking, the more ripe for discussion your classes become.

You can actually find some really good complicated ones in many of these standardized assessment tests that are given to young students in high schools across America and UK. Like the SATs. Even in many teaching books, lists are provided where there’s one that just doesn’t fit. This activity spans all ages, all countries.

One side note before I continue: recording the class for more fluent students can be a very excellent approach to figuring out what they really need and then also describing for the students in your own words what you noticed in the recordings as you were listening back to them. It’s advised by many of the Cambridge people and it has worked for me. It shows that you really care about the improvement of the students. And when students witness that, they appreciate it. It shows them that you’re thinking about them and that you’re monitoring them.

Doing this also in some ways holds you accountable to them because learning is an entirely individual approach and it’s very personal to different people and by showing them and describing for them the problems that they are having gets them a little bit motivated and spirited enough that they might take their learning into their own hands and their own control as they witness the evidence of their own needs.

At all times, I try to encourage the students to learn for themselves, to do their own thing and take control of their own education. You can’t wait around for Mr. Right or your next business partner or the most amazing mentor that just doesn’t ever materialize for you or the amazing school that’s supposed to provide you with the best education. It just doesn’t exist. Life is not linear, it’s complicated. People have different needs. They’re fickle. They’re water (FACT).

Therefore, try to give the students something that they can work with that is reflective of the real world.

What Just Happened?

The next activity that I recommend is, What Just Happened? Don’t you love these names? I love this activity because again, all countries, all cultures, great for the human brain, great for expressing all sorts of ideas and all sorts of goals.

You basically give a pictorial stimuli, a kind of picture, and you can ask the students, “What just happened?” And it’s just a still-life picture of humans or of a cartoon, and the students can make up stories based on the picture. It could be a verbal exercise, it could be a written exercise, or it could be a reading exercise where the students write and then they share their feedback with others. So the reaction piece is something I use quite a bit in all levels of my classes, whether it’s on a PowerPoint or a discussion. Sometimes I make it a memory game. I hold up the picture for five seconds and then I take it away and ask the students what do they remember or what happened in the picture without them looking at it.

Many of the younger students love recall games because most of their life is regurgitating and recalling facts and information that their teachers give them. So, when I give them even more of that, they feel like, “Oh, this is something that I’m going to have to do in the real world.” Obviously you have to give only stuff that the students deem as relevant for them, in their own reality, especially the young students or else they’ll get bored.

Many of my older students had to make reports for their businesses and many times they had to recall what they witnessed. They had to be sort of like eye-witnesses. So, I would use this activity a lot and I would say what happened and many of the students would then either do pair work or group work where they would decide together what it is that just happened in this situation. Because what’s interesting about the human brain is that no two people will ever experience the same event in the same way. Everybody kind of experiences something of the same event in a different way from a different vantage point, so it could be fun and interesting to play around with that strange phenomenon.

So again, this activity spans multiple cultures, multiple countries. Can be used anywhere and can take shape and form in any respect. And the good thing about this is that it gets the students talking no matter what their fluency is.

Improvisation

The next activity is improvised talking for a certain amount of time. I don’t really use improvisation a lot, at least not at the beginning of my classes. I’ll sometimes give an activity where the students are forced to speak any English whatsoever for a set period of time. Thirty seconds, two minutes. Whatever they can handle. You can just make it a game. And you could make one round just for 30 seconds of speaking each and then increase it to a minute and two minutes, and then everybody tries to just talk as much English as they possibly can, extemporaneously, whatever comes to their mind. Free association is the Freudian term for this.

And this could be a good way of gaining confidence, having the student feel more confident that they have the English accessible in their brains and also not feeling like they have to put on a certain persona for the students. Doing this activity with the students encourages them to just relax with this game and be silly.

This could also again relate to any level of students because you could use stimuli to provoke the improvised speaking. For example, you could put a picture on the PowerPoint and then have each student speak for a set period of time based on what they’re looking at. So there are many modifications you can make to this activity that make it easier for you to make the other students speak, no matter what their fluency is.

I’ve used this for basically all levels of teaching, except for maybe elementary because I never taught elementary. I would imagine though that this would probably not be appropriate for the younger students who probably are just learning about what the world is about and require other sorts of skills before they can start improvising in English, but you never know.

Another good thing about this activity is that you don’t even have to use technology to do it. You could just do it as a conversation or whatever you have available in the room. You could do it on the scenery that you see out the window or just the pictures that are on the wall in your classroom. Whatever is at your disposal, you can use this activity wherever you are, no matter what you have. And I really liked that a lot about this activity because it just can be used so much and it can inspire so much talking in other people. I got this activity from the book Teaching Large Multilevel Classes.

Arrange-the-Seats-and-Make-Peace

The next activity is Arrange-the-Seats-and-Make-Peace. This game is kind of similar to the survival games that I was speaking of earlier, but in this situation nobody dies. Nobody leaves. Nobody is out of the group.

You describe the profiles of different people and then you say that these people are going to meet at a dinner and they all are going to be around the table and you have to discuss who can sit next to whom based on their personalities and interests and needs, based on their demographic, their age, their gender, their immediate circumstances that led them up to this dinner gathering.

And you could even make it an even trickier game where you can stipulate some rules like Jane can’t sit with Matt, but Matt can sit with Alice. And you can make it kind of tricky like that so that way the students are left thinking for a while about who can sit next to whom and why. And this is just another great comparing and contrasting activity which can be done anywhere in the world without technology.

And a really great book that has a really refined version of this game in it is Discussions That Work by Penny Ur. I really recommend this book. I would also mention that I have a list of activities just like this in my Udemy course as well.

This activity can really be helpful in problem solving as well, for all groups of students—young, old, middle. Whatever! All students love solving interesting problems and mysteries. There’s something about the mystery aspect and component of storytelling that is just irresistible to many humans. We all like unraveling plots and solving puzzles. Our brains naturally want to connect pieces together and make patterns and chunk things together.

This activity also invites collaboration and teamwork, which could be useful for many people who are going into the workforce afterwards because sometimes you need to work with people and play well with others. So I really do like this activity.

Speed-sharing game

The next and final activity is the speed-sharing game and I like speed sharing because it gets the students to know each other and which becomes very useful for future teamwork and splitting people up. I found that in younger classes many students, of course, want to sit next to their friends. Naturally, this could pose some issues for your class because friends tend to be talkative, and this could lead to the disruption of class.

So, I always tried to, when I was teaching in middle school in particular, break up the students so that they would always be on edge. So cruel, I know. And they would always kind of wonder where they would go next and that kept the momentum and energy going because every week they’d be in a different spot and they would have to interact with different people.

The speed-sharing game, again, is another way for the students to open up and interact with others in the class. You conduct the speed sharing activity by pairing up the students and having them interview each other. You can either give them a form that they fill out that guides them with questions if they’re younger or if they’re older, they can think of their own questions and then they report to the class what they learned. That’s it. So simple, so easy. And you could switch up the pairs and have each one take turns reporting on different facts and features about the student.

Most of the time I will admit that teachers use this activity as an opener more than the basis for an entire lesson, but it doesn’t have to be an introductory lesson. It doesn’t have to be an activity that you use to get to know the students themselves. It could also be an activity that again compares events. What do you remember, what did I learn from this person? It could be fact-gathering where each student learns a different part of an article and they each share the information of what they were told by their partner, so there are ways of modifying this.

Conclusion

What I want to impart upon you in this article overall is that you are only limited by your imagination with several of these activities. Each activity is the basis for spiraling into several other activities. These other activities can be unique and more relevant and personalized for each of the students that you’re teaching. So it doesn’t have to be just the one thing that I’m saying in this article, but you could use these activities as a jumping off point to help the students practice their fluency and their conversation skills and whatever basic structures you need them to go over so that they’ll know it.

And again, this is always going to be slightly different depending on which environment you’re teaching in. It might be that you have to teach by the book and then you’re only given a limited leeway into what activities you can introduce and that’s totally fine. Work with the book. It’s easier. You don’t have to think so much and that’s a wonderful thing.

But if you’re on your own and many times you will be, and many times the activities that you’re given in the book, if you’re given any level of autonomy, will not be relevant to your students or they won’t take them seriously, then you at least have these activities to fall back on. And I did say at the beginning that I do want the students to take control of their own education and in many cultures that’s an easy thing and in many businesses that you might be teaching in that could be very easy too because you’ll get students who are naturally motivated. Sometimes, even despite their tiredness and their fatigue from studying so much.

However, sometimes you have to confront an upward battle with students who don’t want to be in the room, don’t see the value of what you’re doing and they don’t want to learn English and that could be the worst situation of all. When that happens, these activities can cover the worst case scenario and if you’ve got the worst case scenario covered, then you’re game and you’re ready to teach anywhere in the world.

And that’s what it’s all about.Consumer Resource Guide

Arming yourself with the skills that can be used and inculcated and internalized in you, so that when you’re going all over the world as a nomad and you’ve got nothing but your basic teaching skills, you can take them anywhere in the world. Even if it’s on a remote island, like Kiribati, or a more developed city like Seoul, you could still have everything you need right in your own mind. And your mind is something you never part with, unless you subscribe to the teachings of Ekchart Tolle, but that’s an entirely different article.  

And honestly. If you’re hospitable and amiable and you’re smiling and you’re doing everything that you’re supposed to be doing in a culturally sensitive way and you’re interacting with the students outside of class when they want to be interacted to, then there’s no reason why these activities within the class should not help you and serve you over the long haul of your teaching career.  

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