Low and No-Prep Language Lesson Activities

Ideas for when we’re short on prep time

I love sending time planning and preparing creative and engaging activities and resources to use in my languages classroom, but sometimes we all need a go-to activity, which we know will give us the learning outcome we need with a minimal amount of preparation. All of the activities below work well as starters, as well as part of a sequence of activities within a lesson, and are also great for those spare five minutes (do we really ever get them?) which we can use to embed previous learning or revise content that needs refreshing.

Speaking:

The detective:

I’ve never met a class who doesn’t love this game and it’s a great way to practise questions and responses. Choose a question to focus on (for this example, we’ll use “What is your name?”) Practise the question as a class along with the response. Get the children standing in a circle and then send one member of the group out of the classroom to act as the “detective”. Choose one of the children within the circle to act as the “imposter” and change their answer (in this example with names, everyone would respond with their real name except the selected person who would change their name to something else). The inspector returns to the room and has to try and find the imposter by asking the focus question repeatedly to different members of the group. I usually like to impose a limit to the number of times the detective can ask the question to add a bit of interest. If the detective guesses correctly, they retain the right to the role. If they don’t, the imposter becomes the detective and the game begins again. This doesn’t just work with names, of course. Questions about age, where you live, pets and many more would work well too.

What am I hiding?

This is a nice whole-class activity to check individual pronunciation of focus phonemes/graphemes, words or longer phrases. All you need are a set of flashcards (eight to ten works well as it gives opportunities for lots of guesses) with images, words or phrases on them, one of which is chosen and placed face down at the bottom of the pile. The class then tries to guess the hidden card. The person who guesses correctly, gets to come up and hide their own card, which the rest of the class has to try and guess. A really adaptable game which works as well with Year 3 as Year 6, as the complexity of vocabulary and phrases can be changed.

Dice games:

These great foam dice with pockets (which I found hiding at the back of the maths resources cupboard) are perfect for practising a range of questions and responses. Simply write six questions onto post-it notes or squares of card and insert them into the pockets. Then, have the children work in groups to role the dice. Whoever roles reads the question aloud to the person on their left. If it is answered correctly, the pupil giving the response gains a point. The dice then moves on to the next thrower in the circle. The aim is to get as many points as possible in an allocated time period.

Twenty-One:

This is one of my favourite activities for practising numbers and is very popular with language-learners of all ages and stages. To begin, get pupils standing in a circle and have them take turns counting up from zero to twenty-one, saying either one, two or three consecutive numbers. The person who says twenty-one is out and counting begins again. This game is easily adapted to lower or higher numbers, depending on the level of the group playing.

Higher or lower:

Another really simple game for working on numbers. The teacher chooses a number range, for example 0-21, multiples of 10 from 0-100, or any other number range that the class needs to practise. Choose a number and write it onto a mini whiteboard, without the class seeing. Pupils they try to guess the numbers in the target language, whilst the teacher prompts them with the clues “higher” or “lower”, helping the children to eliminate numbers as they go. The pupil who guesses the number correctly secretly chooses a new number and the game begins again. Make sure you have a slide on the board showing the number range so that they can be physically crossed off, which helps children keep track of which ones have and haven’t been eliminated.

Pictionary:

This game works really well for a range of vocabulary, from sports phrases to food and drink items and body parts to weather phrases. Pupils are split into groups of four and each nominate a “drawer” for the first round. The teacher shows the drawers only the item of vocabulary that they are to depict and they all go back to their groups. On the teacher’s signal, the drawers begin to sketch out an image which represents the item of vocabulary on their mini whiteboards. The first team to correctly guess the word or phrase wins a point and a new round starts.

Pictionary is a fun way to practise a range of words and phrases in the target language.

Hotter, colder:

Always a winner, no matter which year group I play it with, this game gives children permission to use loud voices in the classroom and that is very motivating for many! Send a “seeker” outside and then hide a flashcard with a picture of a vocabulary item, or a whiteboard with a word or phrase written in the target language somewhere in the classroom. Once they are invited to return to the classroom, the rest of the group must guide their classmate to find the word or phrase by repeating it over and over again, more quietly if they are far away and getting louder as they get closer. Don’t forget to have the key words or phrases on the whiteboard for the pupils to refer to, which turns this a reading activity as well as a speaking one.

Listening:

Show me:

A game that gets very competitive and noisy! Children work in pairs and need a group of objects (pencil case items, for example), coloured pencils (if you want to practise colour names), or mini flashcards (if you have the time to prepare them), in front of them to practise key vocabulary. In the target language, the teacher calls: “Show me…” and finishes the phrase with an item of vocabulary (e.g. “montrez-moi un crayon.”) The children compete together in their pairs to be the first to hold up the item named by the teacher (no snatching allowed though!) The winner marks a point onto a whiteboard. The person with the most points at the end of the game, is the winner.

Practise colour names by getting children to be the fasted to hold up a crayon of the correct colour.

Whiteboard bingo:

A classic of every language classroom, whiteboard bingo works to practice a range of graphemes, individual words, longer phrases, numbers, verb conjugations…the possibilities are endless. Pupils write a range of digits, words or phrases on their individual whiteboards and when they hear them read aloud, either in English or the target language, cross them off their grid. The first to cross off all six items is the winner.

Phonics towers:

This is a great game which I picked up from the fabulous ‘Games for Teaching Primary French’. All you need to play is a class set of unifix cubes and a group of key words. It works brilliantly for recognising specific phonemes (especially if children are struggling to differentiate between two, which may sound very similar to a non-native speaker). Tell the children which phoneme they should be listening for and then slowly say a list of eight to ten words, which the children must listen to really carefully. Each time the pupils hear the target sound within a word, they add a cube to their tower. At the end, they can say how many cubes they have in their tower, a nice quick way to assess how accurately pupils are able to identify particular sounds in the target language. This can be repeated several times with the same sound, or a variety, and can be played individually or in pairs if you want to encourage a bit of discussion and collaborative work.

Guess the topic:

I’ve only recently started doing this activity, but it’s a challenge that pupils seem to enjoy. Songs are a go-to way of embedding key vocabulary in the target language and I would usually introduce them to a unit of work early on to support the learning of the new vocabulary. However, some songs (especially those containing lots of cognates) work very well played at the start of a unit of work to get children listening carefully to the lyrics and guessing what the upcoming topic is about. I freeze my interactive whiteboard and play the song to the children with just the audio, asking them to put their finger on their nose when they think they have worked out what the song is about. Then we feed back. A good variation on this is to play a song that pupils are already familiar with and then stop it at various points, before a key word or phrase, which the pupils write on their whiteboards.

Can children guess what the song is about, in this case by using their knowledge of cognates?

Reading:

Half-words:

Another game inspired by ‘Games for Teaching Primary French’, I often use this as a starter to get children revising items of vocabulary or phrases that they have already learned in previous lessons. On the board, have a set of pre-prepared vocabulary written, but make sure that half of the word or phrase is obscured. Pupils work in pairs to try and identify the word or phrase which is hidden. You could allocate a points value to each one, if you like, to give the game a more competitive element. Once the children have had a chance to discuss in pairs, bring the whole class back together to see how many they managed to identify. I like to move the blocks covering the words or phrases so that we can talk about any tricky graphemes or accents in more detail. You can see in the example below that I have colour-coded the vocabulary according to gender and also made sure that silent letters are in grey, as this is something we had been working on as a class.

Ask pupils to identify the vocabulary which is partly hidden under each block.

Odd one out:

This wonderful activity was shared by the inspirational Angela Smith at a recent meeting of the Association for Language Learning Leicester Primary Hub and has proved to be a great success. It takes a tad more prep but generates some fantastic discussion. Pupils each have a grid with a range of vocabulary written within it. They must all choose a row, column or diagonal line and select the word which they consider to be the odd one out. There is really no “right” or “wrong” answer, as long as the pupil can justify their choice – an idea which children seem to find very empowering. Example answers for the grid below might include comments on the gender of the nouns (“Une grenouille is the odd one out because it’s the only one which is feminine.”), discussions around silent letters (“Un chat is the odd one out because it’s the only one which ends in a silent e.”) or even where the animal lives (“Un poisson is the odd one out because it’s the only one that lives in water.”) I find it very interesting to see what sorts of answers pupils come up with, some of which can be very original! Colour-coding of nouns according to gender, greying out of silent letters, as well as supporting images could also be added to the grid to support SEND/EAL learners.

Odd one out grids are quick to prepare and generate incredibly interesting discussions between children and as a whole class.

One pen, one dice:

A fun translation activity which I initially saw being mentioned by secondary MFL teachers on Twitter several years back. Like many reading activities, this one involves a bit of preparation in that you need to create a text for the pupils to translate. They may be translating a chunk of text if they are further into their language-learning journey, or filling in missing gaps with individual words or short phrases lower down the school. Pupils work in pairs, each with their text in the target language in front of them. Each pair also has a pen and a dice between them. One starts with the pen, the other the dice. The pen-holder starts their translation task whilst the other player roles the dice until they get a six. Once they do, they take the pen and begin their translation whilst their opponent roles the dice repeatedly until they get the next six. Then the dice and pen swap over again. The aim is to be the first player to complete the translation. However, I always stress to the class that whilst speed is important in the game, accuracy is even more so. The pupil who finishes first is always awarded three points, but additional points are also gained through accurate translation so you might find the slower translator actually wins in the end. I find pointing this out at the start of the game usually encourages children not to rush too much. To avoid the noise of multiple dice hitting the tables repeatedly, I use these small, soft dice, which are much easier on the ear!

Writing:

Back writing:

I use this activity a lot in Years 3 and 4, particularly to practise grapheme writing, as suggested in my go-to phonics resource, Physical French Phonics. Pupils have a range of focus graphemes displayed on the board and must choose one to write (with their finger) on their partner’s back. If their partner guesses the grapheme correctly within three go’s, they win a point. If they don’t, the writer gains a point. Then they swap. The winner is the child to gain the most points within an allocated time period.

Whiteboard dictation:

Another activity which can be easily adapted, depending on the level of the pupils, dictation is a great tool for assessing spelling and the use of accents. I tend to use it further up Key Stage Two. Read out a phrase, using the vocabulary and structures that the class are currently practising (or perhaps incorporating elements from previous units) and ask pupils write them on their whiteboards. Then it is time to compare what pupils have written with the actual sentences, as displayed on the board. One point is gained for each correctly-written word and I usually deduct half a point if an accent is incorrect. I find this really helps pupils to focus on the accuracy of their accent use, which can easily be forgotten when pupils are in the early stages of learning a language.

Running dictation:

A rowdier version of the traditional dictation activity, this one needs a bit more space but involves pupils working as a team to produce a final group product, which can relieve the pressure on pupils to produce an individual translation. Create and copy a short text (or sets of individual sentences) that are at the right level for the class (the content should be familiar to the pupils). Divide the class up into groups of 4 or 5, with one student being the designated writer. Each pupil in the group will take turns at being the ‘runner’. Pin up around the classroom walls as many copies of the chosen text as you have groups of pupils. When the game starts, a runner from each table group goes up to their sheet of paper and tries to memorise as much of the text they can before running back to their table and dictating the text to the writer. When the writer has finished writing that sentence, the next runner from the group runs to the text, reads and remembers the next chunk and brings back to the table to be written down. Once all the sections of the text have been dictated, the members of the group confer to check the final version of their text for accuracy before the class reviews it together.

Do you use any of these activities in your lessons? Do you have any to add? Pop your ideas into the comments section.

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