Teaching World Languages: 20 Zero-or-no Prep Activities
One of my very favorite things about teaching world languages is that while you need to be really structured and focused on the skills we’re teaching, we also get a lot of opportunities to have a lot of fun. The time that we spend in the target language is absolutely critical. For most students, the only time they get in the target language their learning is in our class so it is essential to maximize every second.
These 20 no-prep activities are great to use when you find yourself with some extra time, want to stay in the target language, have some fun, but don’t have a whole lot of time to prepare something. These activities can also be adapted for teaching world languages at all levels.
This basically involves one person or group of people acting out a vocabulary word or a situation, and others guessing what it is in the target language. Great fun. Cut up slips of recycled paper and hand to teams to act out and guess.
A great way to learn vocabulary. Someone illustrates a word and someone else guesses it.
Draw What I Say
Exactly what it sounds like. Another version of Pictionary that serves as great listening comprehension that you can do as the leader, or students can do in small groups. I have small whiteboards, but paper, or anything else you can draw on, works well, too.
Post-Its are one of my very favorite tools for no prep world language teaching activities. Use Post-Its in a little competition and set a timer. Each team has to label everything they can find in a classroom.
Use them to organize writing activities, too. Everyone in a group writes down a different part of a story and they put it all together, and then tell the story.
Use big Post-Its to illustrate a story and have an entire group present. It then it becomes an oral presentation.
This is fun. Beginners will need a lot more support than more advanced learners (as in all the activities), but you can still play this with almost absolute beginners if they’ve got access to a textbook or other tool to find vocabulary.
Essentially, you give the theme and a time. Groups brainstorm to find as many things as they can that go into that category. For beginners, an example might be vegetables. And within that time the group wants to write down as many vegetables as they can in the target language.
My understanding of this game is that it’s basically charades and Pictionary with the use of props. Basically, whatever concept or vocabulary they want to illustrate or they want people to guess, they can use any of those things. They can use drawings, visuals, props or actions.
Recording is a fantastic way to measure your own progress and your fluency, and it’s just as great to do with your students, especially done on a fairly regular basis. They will have something tangible to hear how much they’ve learned and progressed. They might listen in September, and feel terribly embarrassed. Record every week, and by May they will hear the huge progress they made. You can use this to record conversations. They can even record themselves. Reading a dialogue with a classmate is a great way to document fluency. They can even record voice messages to each other and send them and copy on them.
Dr. Stephen Krashen is a huge proponent of reading to learn languages. It’s an amazing resource. I wrote an article on how to do so on Fluent in Three Months. Here’s a link for some really specific ways to use it.
Dr. Krashen talks about having a reading cart in your classroom. It can have anything- it doesn’t have to be just academic. You can have your textbooks, textbooks from other levels, magazines, realia, scrap books, comics- anything that would interest the student. Give them time to peruse through the reading and just read for pleasure. It’s a great way to teach world languages with no prep.
You can also put newspapers on this reading cart. As they’re pretty complex, students who are so inclined to read the newspapers might have the skills to do this on their own. However, less-advanced students can make a tiny, simple newspaper. They can report news about something that happened in their community, or even create a small story. They can even report about events in the school. For example, divide your class up into three groups. One group can talk about sports, the other one can talk about what social events are going on and another group might want to talk about what’s going on in the arts department. But keep it simple. In journalism, they teach you to write like a fourth grader. Everyone does a little block of text on a Google doc for their part, find a photo and you (or the students) put it all together in Publisher.
Surveys are one of my very favorite tools for all levels of languages. They’re very easy to make. Open up any online document or word processing program if you have the ability to project from your computer. If not, no worries- you can take just a piece of butcher paper or one of those big sticky Post-It notes and make it there. Either way you want to use think columns, rows and tables. For example, one survey might be what eye color everyone has. You would take a piece of paper or document, and you would divide it into three columns. Then you’d have essentially two rows. You’d list everyone’s name. You’d be asking them the questions and compiling the results right in front of them.
You can do this with anything. How many people are in a family, favorite activities, or favorite foods. The possibilities are endless. It makes for a great interactive experience. You can also add Language Experience Activities. Essentially, they’re speaking and you get to write down the correct answers. It stays entirely communicative. You’re completely communicating with the students in a real authentic context and you’re able to give them lots of comprehensible input, correct them, as they communicate real information about themselves.
The first time you do these surveys you don’t need to do any prep- it is being created as you teach. You just need to think about what you’re going to talk about and how many columns and rows you’re going to have. You can basically build it right in front of the students and use it and then you’ve got it forever.
I have these little hotel desk bells, but really anything that makes a sound will work. Essentially, if you’ve got a bit of time, you can use these in a couple of ways. Let’s say that you’ve got ten minutes left of class. This is a great way for students to be interactive with vocabulary. Let’s say that you just started a unit and you want them practicing their vocabulary. While I love flashcards, you can actually have them connect with one other person in class. They can ask each other about all the new vocabulary in their book. You ring the bell they have to talk to someone else. Great way to incorporate movement and build community.
In an intermediate class, they have to ask at least five questions about a certain topic or a certain theme. It gets even more rich when it’s more advanced. You ring the bell and they have to do this with someone else. You can even combine this with your survey. If you’ve got a survey that you’ve done online you can then print it out, make copies and hand it out. Ring the bell to speak to someone new.
Journals and Fluency Writing
These are two of my very favorite activities as both a learner and teacher of languages. Regular writing is a great way to build your language skills at every single level. Fluency journals can be done about any topic.
You can either have them turn them into you daily, or maybe turn them into you once a week. For absolute beginners, you can even do some labeling activities. Even a few months into a language class, they can do quite a bit of independent writing. You might set the timer for six, seven or eight minutes, and have them write about a variety of topics. Their family, their school, their daily routine, their favorite foods, for example. It could be anything.
Think about what this looks like for intermediate or advanced learners. It can be something far richer. Perhaps the weirdest dream you ever had, the worst day of your life or the best day of your life. What would the world be like if Hernan Cortes had never gone to what’s now in Mexico? You think about the range of activities and the communicative richness. It’s similar to the recording activities we talked about where you do them on a regular basis. You really see tremendous growth. One of the things in particular I like about the fluency writing again, apart from being no prep, is that there are lots of opportunities to help them fill in the gaps. They might go to their textbook- or whatever resource you want to use- and then they fill in the gaps. It’s a great way to do self-assessment. You’ll see their vocabulary and writing grow exponentially.
Use any type of card, but I’m thinking index cards are often best. You can make flash cards. We might do it with different languages on each side.
Another way that I love to use language flash cards as a teacher, is to have just the picture or just the picture on one and the word on another one. After they have made the cards, they can play Concentration (they turn them over and match pairs). Play a game like Pass It, where they sit in a circle with the cards that they made that have the pictures of their vocabulary on it and they pass it around to music. When it stops, they have to say what the word is. You can even get a fun Hot Potato on Amazon. You literally press it and pass it around. Whoever’s got the Hot Potato has to answer a question, or a series of questions. In this case, it could be the cards they made and you show them.
Cards for More Advanced Activities
You can have people use the card to write a letter. You can have people use the cards to write out some really advanced situations for activities like Charades or Pictionary. You can also have them write out situations. A fun activity is to use a card and to write a letter outlining a problem. Let them have fun with the problem. We put them in a hat, we pull them out, we read the problems and everybody gives advice.
Using those same cards, as you collect them, you can play a game like Fly Swatter. This is super fun for beginners. Take your cards and put them in a circle. The students, you put the cards in the center. Have them touch the pictures that you say. Add on as they’re learning. Even if you don’t use Fly Swatters, play Touch It, which is basically the same game. It’s really interactive and it’s really fun.
Those cards that we talked about before you can choose to make pairs. Picture on one card or drawing, target language equivalent on the other. Those then become pairs. Those same cards that you used for Concentration, you can use to play Go Fish. Shuffle them up. Everyone starts with seven. Put the extra ones in the middle. Say in the target language the equivalent of Do you have?, Yes I have…, I don’t have…. If you don’t, go fish.
Visuals are the language teacher’s best friend. They help us communicate so much. A picture says a thousand words couldn’t be more true. They are such a useful tool. You don’t have to use translation. You can use these photos to make cards or have your students make cards. You can also print them out and do great TPR activities like the Fly Swatter we just talked about or the Touch It. Whatever your vocabulary is, you can print them out. Do fun TPR quizzes where they start by identifying. You might choose six or eight pictures. Then you can move into another version where they’re reading and maybe matching the word. I even saw somebody end the activity with writing the word. This goes with our natural order of language: listening, speaking, reading, and writing comes last.
You can also use these photos to do fun presentations about trips, whether they be real, wish trips, dream trips or bucket list. They have to write someone else a letter in class talking about all the things they saw in a certain place, all the things they did, using an image they found glued to an index card.
Whatever theme you’re doing, you can print out pictures and make it a little fun race where students are having to identify, write down or label as many things in the scene as they can. Rich and fun. You can also show them lots of ways to use different vocabulary tools.
Two sites with photos completely free online.
I want to talk this word in a couple of ways. Play is a hugely important component of learning. This is where you might take a day, or half a day of your class, to do nothing but play games in the target language. Guess Who? is a great game you can play in the target language where you’re having to guess the mystery person all in the target language. You can even games as centers, where students can go around move through different games.
Another way that I like to present the word play is as in drama, a seriously useful tool for learning and teaching languages. We know so many of our materials have plays in them, right? They’re basically dialogues. At a restaurant or a hotel. That’s great. Students can work in small groups. They rehearse and perform that tiny little two-minute play by the end.
For really advanced learners, you can have them take a short story, or write something from their life, and do reader’s theater. All that input and that repetition and practice- you’ll see astounding results. The person who does the work-in this case our actor/writers- does the learning.
The Can Do Game
I love the Can Do statements. If you’re unfamiliar with them, here’s the link. Essentially, they illustrate many different tasks that people can do as they’re moving in the stages towards fluency in a language. It’s absolutely amazing. You need to judge he level your students are at, of course, before playing this. Write these tasks down on a piece of paper, or even cut them up for the document. Fold the papers up and have people pull out of a bag. They do those tasks. You might even want to start with letting them read through and practice in groups, and then play the game. It’s very valid assessment for real life.
Back to the reading cart. Sometimes it’s not as easy for students to read on their own, and especially not in a foreign language, but it’s an amazing way to build vocabulary.
Get something for them to read. For example, they might read in groups. As they read, they create 10 questions and answers from the text. When they go back and read again with the larger group, they’re going to ask each other those questions. You can have them change their reading into a reader’s theater, too. They might also list 10 facts, for example, or create a storyboard from the activities.
This is always a sticky point. On one hand, we want to teach students to do things correctly and let them know they’re making a mistake. On the other hand, it’s really important for people to be allowed to make errors to hit fluency in another language. Moving through errors is a critical component of learning a language to fluency. You have to fail to succeed. You have to fail forward. How to do it can be a little bit tricky.
One of my very favorite activities is to do an error correction game. You might want to write down errors from observing and listening to an activity, or just write down common errors. These could be from their writing, homework assignments or speaking.
Write down those errors and the students have to correct them. They find them really fun. You get to do a lot of in-context grammar correction. You can even make this a game. You can incorporate numbers or money. They’ve got points that they’re earning from when they get right or losing for whatever they get wrong.
3 Truths and a Lie
Students create sentences about three things that are true and one lie. For example, a beginner might say I like oranges, I like cucumbers, I like green beans– whatever it is that you’re studying. Whatever they say has to have three truths and a lie. They share and everyone tries to identify the lie. This activity is very fun, and can become very complex and advanced for students at higher proficiency levels.
I hope these activities can transform your downtime into learning time, and get the students excited about class when you’re too tired to put on the show so many language teachers give every day. I also hope these activities become a useful part of your repertoire for teaching world languages.
For more authentic resources for learning and teaching world languages, be sure to check out the blog: