Thursday, October 29, 2015

A-MAZE-ing Activities are a BALL

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

Don’t you just love those professional development sessions when great teachers sit around and share practical teaching ideas? I always walk away with ideas for fresh ways to prompt student practice. Even better, instructors often remind me of old activities I used to use but now lie moldering in a file somewhere, and they often suggest ways to tweak these old activities for use in other lessons. That happened to me recently when I was at a PD session for instructors at the English Language Center at Howard Community College, where I work, and I walked out with one new idea and one resurrected idea.

One of the teachers talked about a way she promotes class involvement when reviewing grammatical forms. Now, I have experimented with using a ball in class before, but her take on this practice was fresh, at least to me. She bought a big cheap ball (in my mind, this would work very well with an inflatable beach ball), which she wrote target grammar prompts all over. She was working on forming questions with her class, so she had written question words on the ball. In the lesson, she had the class stand up in a circle and she tossed the ball to a random student. When the student caught the ball, she had her make a question with the question word that her thumbs were touching or closest to. So, if a student caught the ball like this,

Question Ball

the question might be, “Why are you studying English?” After receiving any necessary corrective feedback from the teacher, the student who made the question then threw the ball to a different student. The catching student had to answer the question and then make a new question with the prompt that was closest to his thumbs.

I thought this activity was an innovative way to involve the entire class in the practice, and it afforded the teacher a nice opportunity to hear the students using the target grammar and to offer feedback. I could also see this working well in a variety of different lessons. I could use it to review verb tenses, to prompt students to define or use newly-learned vocabulary, or to practice vowel sounds or word stress patterns. The options are endless, really. If I wanted to use a sturdier ball, I could simply write numbers all over it and then project the corresponding target grammar or vocabulary. If I wanted to give students more of a chance to talk (always a good idea), rather than doing it as a whole class activity, I could divide the students into groups of 4 or 5, give each group a ball and have them practice together. Needless to say, I am really excited to use this in my classes as soon as possible.

Another one of the teachers reminded me of an activity used in a limited way in the past but had forgotten about – the maze. Basically, she drew a bunch of little plus signs all over a piece of paper, like this:

Rough Blank Maze










You could also make a blank maze on the computer, like this:

Blank Maze










Inside each “box” she wrote a target grammar structure. In her lesson, she was working on contrasting gerunds and infinitives, so her boxes were filled with verbs that only follow gerunds and only follow infinitives. (To make this activity work, there has to be a contrast, like simple past –ed verbs versus irregular verbs, adjectives contrasted with adverbs, or words spelled with “ea” and are pronounced either /ɛ/ or /iy/.) The key to preparing this activity is that the teacher needs to first decide what pattern to focus on. For instance, if I wanted to review open versus closed syllables in my spelling class, I would choose open syllables to form the path through the maze. I would write all the open syllables on the maze in a path from the “start” at the top of the page to the “finish” at the bottom of the page, like this:

Then, I would fill up the maze with the contrasting form, in the case of the example, closed syllables.

In class, the instructor put the students into pairs and gave each pair copy of the maze. The students had to move from the “start” at the top of the paper to the “finish” at the bottom of the paper by moving horizontally or vertically (not diagonally) through the openings in each box containing the focus structure. So, the spelling class students in my example above would try to identify the path of open syllables without going through any boxes containing closed syllables.

As I said, this was not a new activity for me. There are some great mazes I’ve used in published teaching materials, and once they understand what to do, the students really love them. I even made my own in a chart in a word document on the computer, but the formatting took forever. I hadn’t thought of creating them so easily myself just by writing plus signs on a paper. It was genius, and I quickly dashed off two mazes (contrasting the /w/ and /y/ sounds we use when we link vowels to vowels in fluid speech) for my pronunciation students to work on while I administer an oral quiz with individual students at my desk.

So, my questions for you are: Have you used either of these activities before? To teach what? Did you tweak it? How?


Comment from Claire
October 30, 2015 at 5:57 pm

Thanks for sharing another great activity Tamara. I’ve used cubes instead of balls, but I like the idea of using the ball for tossing purposes.

Comment from joris
October 31, 2015 at 11:39 am

Hi Tamara,
A very witty title if I may say so.
Thanks for the ideas!

Comment from Tamara Jones
November 3, 2015 at 6:04 am

I wanted to share another idea I got from a reader via email:

Barbara Taylor wrote: I liked you idea about using the ball and wanted to let you know that I do something very similar. I use a beanie baby to throw to students and have them practice the grammar. Lately, I’ve used one that’s in the shape of a pumpkin; next month, we’ll move to the turkey. It’s something fun and festive to enliven the class. When I took some Teaching ESL classes at our local community college (NOVA) earlier in the year, this idea was shared with us to get the students talking to each other. A good way to keep them interacting. I’ve used this countless times and it really really works. Sometimes, the students even try to ‘stump the teacher’ and throw the beanie to me. It makes me smile.

I was really happy to receive this email from Barbara for a couple of reasons. First, the tweak on the idea of using a ball that she describes is creative and fun. Second, because she points out that she learned about this tweak from other teachers. Isn’t that what it’s all about? Teaching can be such an isolating profession. We are in the classroom with our students all the time and rarely get to share ideas with other teachers. When we do get together, though, watch out! None of “my” ideas are truly mine. Just like Barbara, I’ve spent a lifetime learning from other teachers. It is always such a pleasure for me to share with such generous professionals. So, thanks, Barbara, for your email and for sharing!

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