Fun Language Learning: Activities for Class

Fun Language Learning

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Fun Language Learning

Welcome to The 5-Week Linguist Show. This week, I wanted to talk about fun in language classes. So I wanted to talk first of all, about the intense expectations that there are in a lot of language classes and about what reality looks like. So if you’ve taught languages in any kind of a traditional academic setting, the vast majority of people are required to work with a set of materials. So it might be a French program that has three different books or a Spanish program, et cetera. And the idea of course, from the very beginning, there’s some survival language in that very beginning of that first level book. Surviving in a classroom, learning about what’s in a classroom, learning how to function in a classroom in that target language. And then go to the end of book number three, and there’s some really advanced grammar, perhaps the equivalent that not necessarily is used in even common speech among teenagers.

So it’s basically this whole journey of structures and vocabulary. And I think it’s really useful in many ways. I know there’s a bit of a backlash about it, but it’s really just sort of a whole language sequence compressed into three different books. And I don’t think it’s realistic that everyone’s going to finish and master those things. I do think that it’s a nice guideline for people working in schools or districts or certain states to kind of know, or have some sort of an expectation of what material has the student been exposed to. So we all know then we’ve got some guidelines to work within.

And if you’ve been teaching languages for a while, you’ll also probably agree that some students just like it more than others, and they’re going to be a lot more inclined to do those really deliberate activities, the rote activities, to help them move faster, farther. And that the majority of your class time is going to be spent on acquisition, right? That teaching students through comprehensible input, helping them understand this new language through understanding language you’re exposing them to, whether that’s through speech or presentations, reading.

I wanted to talk about… there’s a lot of expectations, right? We all want our students to do well. We have high expectations of ourselves, and we know that communities and districts and states and actually, they all have high expectations of us, right? That we need to just keep doing what we can to grow languages because we know how great it is for people. And I wanted to talk about fun.

So I came to language teaching with a degree in drama and theater arts and with one in foreign languages. And I was really lucky to get an opportunity to start teaching at a private school. And that’s basically how I pursued my credential, through classes and testing sort of while I was on the job. So some of that training that a lot of really well-trained language teachers from college would have had, I didn’t have in my undergraduate education. I learned a lot of it on the job, or learning theory and then putting it right into practice, and then taking my practice and coming up with my own theories over the years.

But I literally… plays where one thing that I had, appearing in plays, writing plays, directing plays, designing costumes for plays. Everything that goes into putting on a play was something I knew how to do. And at its most basic form, the most basic level, I knew that if I could get students to approach languages like a play, write these skits and these dialogues, bringing those words that are black and white to life, to a place where they remember them really well, that will bring them up to… that will get them learning languages, right?

Acquisition’s important, but that deliberate learning, that memorization of words and phrases, can also work to bring you from zero up into the intermediate level, to where you’re creating with your own language, which is what many of us consider to be fluent. Also, accent and ear training. I knew that that had a place in it, but as I’ve moved forward in my career, every day play and fun show me how valuable they are in learning languages, in comprehensible input, in getting students engaged.

I started to really try to open my eyes and my ears to the research and what big companies were doing with play because I knew that what I was doing was working. So, as an example, I felt that I had to take something that was hard and make it fun. I needed to take something that was hard and make it fun for some very selfish reasons in that I wanted the time that I spent at school to be enjoyable and that kids aren’t dreading languages. And then the results, they were speaking, they were understanding, just kept coming to me.

So one game I play in beginning language classes is Guess Who? So that game for children where everyone… You have a little board and you put up pictures and both people pick a secret picture and you ask your opponent yes/no questions. Does your person have long hair? Does your person wear glasses? And you use process of elimination. Well, using cards with pictures on them and the target language, students play against each other. And they play in groups, and they play everyone in class to really well be able to understand in context all that vocabulary and grammar to describe people. That’s one of many examples.

The more and more of this I did, the more and more I scaffold and the more and more activities and experiences I created for them that were immersive, but not submersive, they weren’t going to drown in language, were helpful. So I wanted to talk about… for two reasons, some fun activities for you to do and that can be adapted to any level. And this can be used in any language. So charades, this can work for beginners where you’re just acting out vocabulary, and it can go to really advanced levels where you’re acting out idiomatic expressions.

Just cut up some slips of recycled paper and hand them to teams to act out. You can take your vocabulary right from your book, put kids in teams, and they have to act it out. Pictionary, it’s a great version of this too. Draw what I say, you use comprehensible input for them to say things. In a version of, basically, charades and Pictionary together, as I understand it, is Cranium. I’ve not used it before, but you can use drawing visuals, props actions. A really easy, low prep activity. Post-its, have people label as much vocabulary as they can. It’s active. There’s movement. It’s fun. It’s great for beginners.

As people become more advanced, Post-its can be used to review grammar. For example, everyone has to ask one or two questions they have, and you put them all up on the board, sort of like a parking lot. And then you use that. That’s an instant quiz game. When they’re more advanced, you can use it to organize writing. People can write, groups take five Post-its, and they can bullet point out what they’re going to write in the target language for an introduction to an essay. They take the next three, and they write how they’re going to develop those ideas that they mentioned in their introductory paragraph. And then take another one and bullet point out their conclusion and make notes all over them. Get those bigger ones. They can then take those, sit down and write in target language. A great scaffolding activity.

Reading cart. Stephen Krashen talks about reading all the time because it works. He recommends that people have a free, voluntary reading in their class. And it does take a bit of organization and working through some kinks and establishing some norms to where people are on task, but they’re also enjoying themselves at the same time, right? They’re having fun, but finding interesting content, novels, books. I love magazines, newspaper articles, right? Investing time, letting students read. Newspapers…

Recording. This is another really low prep activity. So once you’ve established that you have a low risk classroom, right? People are allowed to take risks. You can then get into recording. I don’t recommend this until everyone’s affect is down. And if you do these fun games, the affect will lower. The stress levels will lower. You’ll hear laughter in your class. Recording’s a really powerful tool. And just know that everyone’s going to be really resistant, or a lot of people are likely going to be really resistant. And you’re going to find that there’s lots of, “Oh, I couldn’t record it. There’s this tech issue. There’s dah, dah, dah…”

Recording is an amazing way to document your progress and to learn how to talk to other people and to get over shyness. So obviously you’ve got to speak to practice what you’ve learned, right? You’ve got to have some kind of output to practice what input that you’ve gotten. It helps you self assess. It helps you fill in the gaps, and it helps you build your fluency. So a few activities that I like to do for recording, I really like to have students… and these are all things I do myself as well. I really like to have students start recording some of the activities from the book instead of writing their responses. This is a good bridge to getting that recording going.

And this is where you’ll probably have to deal with lots of tech issues and teaching kids how to use this stuff. The coronavirus pandemic, I know a lot of people who maybe didn’t know how to record, a lot of kids know how to do that now. I like to use The quality isn’t great, but it’s easily accessible to them. I can always send them… have a link. They know where it is. They can download it and send it as an attachment. They can also have it emailed to you. Voice memos. But start there, something that has a lot of scaffolding, right?

It could be they recorded dialogue, right? Or they record some exercises by themselves. And then they get into recording their dialogues and turning them in. As you progress, and as they progress, have them record them talking to themselves, right? After you’ve gotten over the initial discomfort of talking to yourself because most people I find hate listening to themselves being recorded. They hate it. So, that’s a hurdle. Then the tech part’s of hurdle. But then once you’ve done it a few times, they’ll be fine. They’ll get really used to it. When they start recording themselves, be intentional in how you teach them how to do it and why you’re doing it.

So recording myself, having students record themselves, you got to offer them something to work with, meaning maybe some input, some material. Because it’s going to be a while before they can do it independently. So this material can be material from whatever you’ve provided for them, whatever you work with. But you can also have them create their own materials. So sit down and bullet point out, maybe using Post-its, some things to talk about, and thinking about it before, and then simply recording. Use that same technique with groups of students. Again, they won’t like this at first, but they’ll get used to it.

Talk for three minutes about whatever you want, but it has to be in Spanish. And make them take the time out to bullet point out some of the things, to give them ideas, so they don’t feel that they’re lost. Maybe greeting and asking everyone how they’re doing. And then asking everyone what they did last weekend, perhaps if you’re studying the past tense, or about travel or some different questions. There’s lots of ways to do that.

There’s a few purposes of this. Recording yourself is going to help you get over your shyness, right? You’ll just get over it. It’s uncomfortable to listen to, fumbling through in a language, but once you do it enough times, you’re just going to… it’s not going to matter anymore. Right? It’s that first few times that are really difficult. And the more of it you do, the more comfortable you’ll feel with it, right? It’s just the discomfort to work through. You also need to be able to document your progress.

So I love this, particularly when I’m in the novice level and students are in the novice level, do this with some sort of regularity, and then go back and listen. They’re unbelievably great documentation of your progress, right? You’ll keep hearing yourself getting better and better and better and better and better. And that’s really going to give you that motivation to keep going. Listen to yourself in November, do it once a week, and then listen to yourself in May. You’ll be stunned, and you’ll be stunned at your students’ progress.

I love to do some other activities, similar with journals and doodling, right? Spending some regular time in a learning journal. A really regular way to work on tasks is something I like to call the Can-Do game. So if you are familiar with the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages Can-Do statements. They’re all tasks. Take them, print them out, cut them out, appropriate to your level, and have groups of students try to do them. And you can even print them out for them beforehand. And they can sort of study them and check them out.

Interactive reading. So when we about reading earlier, I really love to have… Whatever reading you have, you got to think about how to scaffold it for learners. Because they’re not just going to sit down and read the way an advanced learner would. So you’ve got to teach them some really deliberate skills that they probably don’t think about. Regardless of how strong a reader they are, they probably don’t think about all the deliberate strategies that they use. So give them a highlighter, give them Post-it notes. Have them cut out a piece of paper, like a frame and put it around if you can’t write in the text. And they can write all their notes that they want in the margin.

You can have them… I love to do reading in groups and in pairs. So, for example, if I’ve got a reading I know is going to be challenging to them. It’s foreign language, isn’t it? They’re not going to read like they do in their own language. I divide people up into groups, small, three or four. And they have to do something. So they might have to make 10 statements, and they can be true or false, that come right from the reading, that you can find in the text. And so then as we come back together and essentially read for the second time, the students share their statements and the other groups have to decide if they’re true or false. You could do this with questions and answers. You can do this as jigsaw, but it’s interactive. It gets the kids communicating, and they help problem solve together all that language.

I love to play the error corrections game. So you can play this at almost any level. If you’ve got beginners, you’re going to have to wait at least six months before you can start playing these games because they won’t recognize. I usually start this in year two at the earliest, but this is great for people who’ve been studying for more than a couple of years and beyond. But the most important thing is that they’ve had to have enough time to get comfortable with making errors. That’s the most critical thing. That’s the most. And they have to appreciate it.

So I like taking whatever their essays were. I like taking whatever assignment they have: essays journal, a speaking test maybe. And I’ll write down common errors, and then we’ll play a game with it. You can do this on whiteboards. You do this on a piece of paper. And you display an error. Of course, you don’t say who it is. And the students have to correct it. And they get a check. They get a point for every one that they get right, or whatever your system might be. But it’s a great way to teach corrections in context. It works so much better. It makes it interactive and fun instead of just writing in red what was wrong. They’ll look at it, but maybe not so deeply. This makes it interactive. Everyone’s correcting each other.

There might be a little bit of embarrassment there at first, but if you’ve created an environment where people are really ready to take risks, the embarrassment will turn into fun. I didn’t really like this the first time I played it. I felt like I was getting called out. And then I realized towards the end of the first time I played this as a student, a professor taught this to me many years ago, I realized how valuable it was. If I could make this game and make it really light and fun and keep the focus on learning, it would be really powerful.

I have for you more games, and I’m not going to sit here and talk about all of them. I blog, I put on Instagram, I’m constantly publishing games that I’m coming up with because I’ve really used this, not as a distraction from learning in my classroom, but to make that learning as fun and engaging as possible. And I have several. I’m going to link to several different resources for you. I have some instant games and 20 fun activities for the classroom. And I’m also going to link to you some resources on end of the year fun as well as five different weeks of no and low prep fun. So I’m not, I mean, I think I could sit here, and I think there might be… there’s hundreds of activities just in the resources that I just mentioned.

I also created a collection of activities that can be done out of Google Drive. You can do them in person in your class, but you can also do them out of Google Drive, and they’re all really student-centered, and they can be adapted to an online environment. And I’ll link that for you as well. Until next time.

Thank you for listening to The 5-Week Linguist Show with Janina Klimas. Join us each week here, and visit us at for more resources for learning and teaching languages.

Low and no prep activities

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