Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down

By Tamara Jones
EAL Instructor, British School of Brussels

I always felt cheated as a child because my mother would never follow the advice of that lovely nanny, Mary Poppins. (She also refused to fly, too, to my great irritation.) In the movie, Mary Poppins has asked her charges to clean their room. The boys don’t want to, but she convinces them that a little fun can make a dull task palatable by singing that “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” Well, I am no flying nanny, but I can certainly appreciate Ms. Poppins’ message now that I am teaching young learners.

Grammar?!? Again?!?
After years of teaching adults who masochistically yearn for the pain of English verb tenses and the passive voice, I assumed that everyone cared as deeply about grammar. Not so! Have you ever tried to convince tired tweens and teens that the answer to their prayers lay in memorizing the simple past form of irregular verbs? Let me tell you, it is easier said than done. I tried everything from practice worksheets to tests to flashcards and more. Nothing could make these students learn their lists of irregular verbs. Nothing, that is, until I broke out the dice and the markers. Apparently the nanny was right all along; turning grammar into a game makes learning easier. The trick is to make the games as easy on the teacher as possible; no one wants to be cutting flashcards at 3:00 in the morning, that’s for sure! Following are some of the easiest games I know that have tricked my students into learning grammar again and again.

The Dice Game
First, give students a long and boring grammar handout. Then, divide the class into teams of 4 or 5. Pose the first question from the handout to the first students from the first team. If the student answers it correctly, he or she can roll the dice and the team gets the points shown. If the student is incorrect, the turn moves to the first person from the second team, and so on. For this game, a little dice will do, but it is much more fun when played with a big dice (I make mine from cardstock and stuff with tissue paper), especially when the dice goes from 0 to 5 instead of 1 to 6. Imagine the thrill of knowing that even though the other team just answered the question correctly, they still might not get a point! The winner is the team with the most points at the end of the exercise.

The Snakes and Ladders Game
First, give the students another long and boring grammar handout. Depending on the size of your class, you might divide students into teams and give each team a marker or just give each student a marker. Again, ask the first student to complete the first question on the handout. If correct, the student gets to roll the dice and move around the board. If incorrect, the student has to stay in place. Then, move on to the next student. The winner is the student or team that finishes the game first. I use Snakes and Ladders, but you can use just about any board game out there that involves moving around a board with markers and a dice. I just like the element of chance involved in Snakes and Ladders.

The Dot Game
Again, give the students another long and boring grammar handout. Then, draw a grid of dots, 5 across and 5 down, or more or less depending on the number of questions you have on the handout. You’ll need more dots than you have questions, but it’s a pretty imprecise science. If you realize halfway through that you have too many, cross a row out. If you realize you have too few, add a row. Again, divide the students into teams of 4 or 5. If the first student from the first team correctly answers the question, he or she draws a horizontal or vertical line connecting two of the dots. Then, move on to the first student from the second team, and so on. The lines don’t necessarily need to be connected. The goal of the teams is to make a box by drawing 4 lines. However, students aren’t confined to using their own lines, they can make boxes from another team’s lines. (It may take a while for students to catch on to this, but successful teams will quickly realize that they don’t want to leave a box with three sides for the next team to finish.) After a team makes a box, they write their team name in the box and they have to draw another line. If that line makes a box, too, they continue until they can’t make another box with their line. The winner is the team with the most boxes when the grid is finished.

I know the biggest criticism that can be leveled at using games like this in the class is that it makes for a teacher fronted activity. Yes, that is certainly true. It is a price I am willing to pay to bamboozle my students into enthusiastically completing a grammar practice activity that would normally been a struggle. After all, the kids are all engaged, they are all writing the answers in their books, and they are all learning. What more could I ask for?


Comment from Barry O’Leary
January 29, 2012 at 6:29 am

Thanks for the useful post. Doing grammar revision next week so they should come in handy. Cheers

Comment from Tamara Jones
January 29, 2012 at 11:19 pm


Comment from Keltie
March 3, 2012 at 12:46 pm

Snakes and ladders is always fun. I did run across an electronic version that you need to have Respondus to use at
You can use it for anything. Keltie

Comment from Tamara
March 4, 2012 at 3:08 am

Thanks for sharing!

Comment from Elena
September 5, 2012 at 2:26 am

Much fun out of a boring task, yet simple and not a distraction. Very good ideas, thanks.

Comment from Tamara Jones
September 5, 2012 at 9:01 am

Glad these ideas can help!

Leave a comment on this post