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5 Ideas for interactive language learning tasks in Zoom

5 Ideas for interactive language learning tasks in Zoom

Whether you’re teaching online by choice or because it’s no longer possible to meet your students face-to-face, you’ve probably been spending a lot of time thinking up ways to keep your lessons fun and interactive. While it’s true that online teaching comes with plenty of constraints, there are also opportunities for adaptation and experimentation. Some of the things you try will have disappointing results, but others will hit the mark and become staples of your lessons for months and years to come. 

The list that follows may be short right now, but I’m confident that it will continue to grow as I learn from others and continue experimenting with the new technology.

  1. Charades – I’m willing to bet that most of you are familiar with charades, but you may be surprised to learn that the game is not especially well known among young people. Although they may never have heard the name, the concept is something they grasp quickly enough. Back when I was regularly teaching young learners, I used to introduce the game by simply asking the students, “What am I doing?” Further explanations were rarely required, and the students immediately began shouting their guesses. Although I’m accustomed to playing this game as a warm-up activity in the classroom, I was happy to find that it was no less effective when done online. Charades never fails to loosen learners up and get them talking. To increase the challenge, encourage them to frame their answers using a particular tense. For example, you could ask, “What did I do last weekend?” and have the students express their answers in past tense. Be creative with what you mime to make the activity more fun and challenging. My current favorites are putting on make-up and taking a selfie. One last thing, don’t forget to share the spotlight and let the learners practice a few charades for you to guess.
  2. Grass Skirts – This is one you may not have heard of… Even if you have, you’re probably wondering how it could be done online? First I’ll explain the original task and then how I’ve adapted it for online learning. Grass skirts is an activity aimed at drawing student’s attention to common errors in their writing. Following a writing assignment, the teacher gathers a selection of sentences that contain representative errors. These sentences (usually around 10) are typed into a document and printed. The teacher then makes horizontal cuts in the papers between each sentence, leaving only a small bit attached at the left-hand margin. The papers are then taped to the wall or the blackboard in landscape orientation. (The strips of paper containing the sentences resemble a hula skirt, which is how the activity gets its name). Usually in groups, students come to the front of the class and tear off a sentence, which is then corrected and taken to the teacher to be checked. The object of grass skirts is to be the first to correct all of the sentences. The online version of this game lacks the pace and movement of the original, but it can still ignite the competitive spirit if you are teaching small groups. Instead of strips of paper, place each sentence on its own Google or Powerpoint slide. Have the learners type their corrected sentence into the chat. Whoever is fastest gets a point. In my experience, it’s best to choose sentences that have two or three errors. Afterwards, be sure to take a moment to explain why the sentence is wrong with reference to any grammar rules the students may have been studying. Don’t forget to keep track of points and declare a winner at the end of the task.
  3. Taboo – For those of you who have never played it, taboo is a verbal guessing game in which a clue-giver provides hints to the other players to try to get them to say a keyword. The keyword is printed on a card along with a list of forbidden or taboo words that the clue-giver must not speak. For example, if the keyword is “hospital” the list of forbidden words would likely contain “doctor”, “nurse”, “sick”, etc. It can be quite challenging to explain the keyword without using any of the taboo words, so you might want to take on the role of clue-giver and let the students do the guessing. However, if you have more advanced students, giving them a turn at being the clue-giver will really stretch their speaking (and lateral thinking) abilities. With larger groups of students, you could attempt this in breakout rooms, but I would only recommend trying that after they are familiar with the game. 
  4. Sentence Scramble – Most language learners will have encountered this task at some point in their studies. The concept is simple: words are presented in random order and the students must unscramble them in order to make up a sentence. There are several ways to turn this task into a game. If you are teaching more than one student, you can make it a simple race. Whoever types the sentence into the chat first gets the point. You can also show the words for a limited period of time (e.g., 10 seconds), require them to answer orally, forbid the use of pen and paper, and so on. However, you choose to play, most students find this task challenging and fun.
  5. Karuta (Fly Swatter) – This game is traditionally played with cards, but an online version is possible with a simple grid of images (or words) displayed on the screen for the students to see. In Karuta, players sit opposite each other and cards (50 in total) are arranged in rows between them. These are called “grabbing cards” because they are grabbed by the players during the course of the game. There are also “reading cards”, which contain clues that describe one of the grabbing cards. Reading cards are drawn from a pile and read slowly and clearly by a designated reader (not one of the players). As the clues are read, the players scan the grabbing cards. The first one to locate the correct card and grab it, gets to keep it. The player with the most cards at the end of the game wins. Before you begin, remember to enable annotations, as this is how the students will indicate their answers. Describe one of the images or words in the grid, starting with vague clues that gradually become more specific. When students think they know the answer, they make a mark on the appropriate spot on the grid. If you like, you can add a punishment for incorrect guesses. For example, I usually provide an extra clue to the other players before allowing the student who answered incorrectly to rejoin the game. Karuta is fun for the learners and quick and easy to make. Many years ago, when I first came across this game, I made about a dozen grids of words and images. Although time has passed and technologies have changed, I’m still using them with students today.

Video conferencing tools like Skype and Zoom have been a part of online language teaching from the beginning, but the recent COVID-19 pandemic has made them an essential service for more and more teachers and learners. At Poodll Net we realize how important a good video conferencing platform is to the success of your online lessons. At the time of writing this, we are hard at work on a Zoom integration, which will make it possible to conduct your online lessons from right inside your Poodll Net course. If you are interested in trying Poodll Net with your students, be sure to sign up for a free account

About the Author
the Poodll Guy
The Poodll Guy has been designing software for language learning for the better part of a decade. He believes that the best way to help students to master languages is to equip teachers with the best tools.

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