Alphabet (Don’t Teach It!) Alternative

Months ago, I witnessed a classically ineffective language learning lesson. The good news is that the person in charge wasn’t actually a language teacher, and didn’t have pedagogical training at all. The person was a local substitute who gave the kids something to do, which has its own merits. The truth, however, is that many language teachers spend the first few classes teaching the alphabet. Don’t.

I’m in a TESOL (Teaching English to Students of Other Languages) Certificate program and observed a fantastic alternative to the standard boring alphabet lessons that pervade our profession. This game is a variation on the Name Game (e.g. “my name is Lance, and I’m local,” then the next student says “his name is Lance, and he’s local. My name is Christa, and I’m calm” etc.). This is often used an icebreaker, or brain break designed to lower that affective filter. Here’s the variation:

Going Shopping
Person 1 – “I’m going to the supermarket to buy Apples.”
Person 2 – “Person 1 is going to the supermarket to buy Apples. I’m going to the supermarket to buy Bananas.”
Person 3 – “Person 1 is going to the supermarket to buy Apples. Person 2 is going to the supermarket to buy Bananas. I’m going to the supermarket to buy Caesar salad dressing.”
etc.

The first and most obvious feature of this activity is the output. For whatever reason, the students learning English in my TESOL Certification program know far more English than any student of any second language I’ve taught or observed anywhere, which would include high school seniors after 9 years of Spanish. I suspect this is because students of English have prior knowledge given the global position of English, even if it’s only in the form of pop music, movies, and transportation signs in their home countries. Alternatively, we just might not have beginner English learners at the school right now. Whatever the reason, this activity must use language on a level that’s appropriate. Keep reading for a formula to help you figure out what that might be.

Again, if you plan to use this just be sure your students can do it. Each item the student says could instantly turn into Personalized Questions and Answers, and possibly lead to a partially-communicative activity, or fully-communicative task. You don’t even need to convert their item into the target language. N.B. This confused me recently, thinking that only proper nouns could remain in English, but Terry Waltz reminded me that it’s up to the teacher’s discretion about whether or not to keep something in English since  “there is absolutely no evidence that code-switching into the native language (i.e. English) messes anything up.” In fact, there’s a really good reason to focus only on the phrases in lower levels instead of searching for potentially random low-frequency nouns and adjectives in the target language. Instead, post and focus on the phrases in the model sentence used in the game, especially if they are new:

I’m going
s/he’s going
to the
to buy

Next, let’s deconstruct the activity to a formula so you can adapt it any topic:

X [verb] Y, [for the purpose of] Z, and/or Z [verb]

Why would we want this? Well, the supermarket example is the kind of activity you would use if you have a textbook with a “shopping” or “food” thematic unit. These are typically boring, so we need the formula to create interesting variations on the activity that follows the alphabet. The variations on Going Shopping could range from changing the tense (e.g. “I went to the supermarket and bought Apples”), to changing the entire message (e.g. “I want to go to the mall because they sell Aardvarks”). This game can exist independently from any thematic unit, and instead hilarity can ensue just from hearing what everyone comes up with. Here are other variations:

I was in the store and saw someone stealing Almonds (e.g. Butterfingers, Clocks, Dentures, etc.)
I see a girl who’s wearing Animal earrings (e.g. Blue slippers, Colorful shoes, Dockers, etc.)

I wrote a letter so the teacher would Allow me to leave (e.g. Be nice, Call home, Drool, etc.)
I have a car because I enjoy A drive (e.g. Being free, Cars, Doing things away from home, etc.)
I would like to visit Russia when All is lost (e.g. Britain falls, Clowns fly, Dennis wakes up, etc.)

This activity might fall into the Low Prep/No Prep catagory that Justin Slocum Bailey has written about. Read about more low prep/no prep stuff over at Indwelling Language.

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