I have a whole bunch of anxieties and grumbles going round in my head in the whole work related department, mostly to do with exams and the filthy murk of exam backwash. However, there’s a time and a place for that, and anyway, I’ve blogged about it before. So instead let’s talk about a nice lesson what I taught yesterday. It was a game of two halves, with the beginning being a session based around a listening task on following instructions from the lovely folks at ESOL Nexus, followed by one of my favourite fun filler lessons that just happens to link to the notion of instructions and sequencing.

I need to put my hands up and admit that it is a total steal. The idea first appeared in a book called Ideas which was published in 1984, and written by a gentleman called Leo Jones. It’s a speaking and listening activity book; the kind of book you can pick from as and when you feel the need. Naturally, for a book over 30 years old, sections are dated: the technology chapter, as always, is a corker, but the methodology and the ideas are all generally sound. This task, ironically, comes from the technology section, and is devastatingly simple.

The essence of the task is this. You set up the tables so they are one metre apart from each other. You’ll need one pair of tables per pair or group of students. Each pair gets the items below and have to use these to successfully transport the ping pong ball from one table to the other. They can’t carry, lift or throw the ball.

 Yes, that is a box of matches…

I like it for lots of reasons. It’s fun, and a bit silly, and probably as a result, the students usually get into it. It’s also highly flexible. Low level students can just do it and perhaps prepare a simple report on what they did, or simply do it as a straight speaking task, following on from prepositions of place, sequence markers. High level students can give a formal presentation of a proposal for their project, for example, before building it. Or afterwards, describe the stages in instructions to another group. Yesterday, I used it with what is probably a mostly Entry 3 group but which various local, national and institutional policies dictate can only be called Entry 2 (another of those grumbles), and it properly flew. It was the last hour of the afternoon, and the students spent most of that time discussing, arguing and collaborating to build assorted bridges.
Woah, I hear you say, but weren’t you only the other week bitching about the pointless time wasting of posters and the such? Isn’t this just the same? Well, yes, it is. It’s exactly the same, but as I’ve always said, and if you had been reading properly you would have noticed, I’m not automatically opposed to stuff like projects, posters and displays. What I’m opposed to is doing it for the sake of the wall display, not for the sake of the learning and language development. And that is exactly what this lesson activity was about. The bridges, while excellent, were pretty much incidental. Instead we had students practising their instructions, their prepositions, their arguing and discussion skills and generally using English to communicate. It was also interesting to see some of the practical engineering/design backgrounds of some of the learners coming out; interesting and also pleasant, I hope, for them.

So there it is. I’m not sure I’d use this with younger learners, at least not with the matches, but it was a jolly enjoyable way to practice some speaking skills. I’ll leave the grouches and the grumbles for another day. But for now, let’s say, we had a good lesson.



  1. Thanks a lot for this. I tried it twice today with a pre-entry group and an E2/3. It was so nice to see all the different constructions! I think I need to think about language they might need more beforehand though as I found that there wasn’t a lot of English being used. They did it mostly either in silence or in their L1s. After an initial agonising few moments thinking I may have to abandon it, most of the class were really engaged and some got really carried away with it. For the E2 group, I tied it with some work on prepositions of movement. There are lots of new students too so I wanted it to work as an ice breaker type task for them to get to know each other. Thanks a lot!

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