No handouts…no problem.

Going into the classroom with little in the way of materials can be an unnerving experience. A series of activities committed to paper can give us, as teachers, a sense of security. There is something reassuring about going into lessons armed with enough material to teach for hours – but is it always in the best interests of our students? Certainly ‘winging it’ isn’t, and of course it’s good to be prepared. However, there’s a lot to be said for reducing the amount of work we do which is pre-decided by the teacher, and instead making more use of activities where the students, rather than the materials take centre stage.

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In this post we’re going to look at a few activities which don’t require a lot of ‘material’ in the traditional sense of the word, and examine how we could use them to build a coherent lesson. From those activities we’re going to pull out some general principles and techniques that we can apply to other lessons.

First let’s look at some activity types.

1. Brainstorming

Brainstorming is when students freely generate any and all ideas or language on a given topic.

Handled well, brainstorming has lots of things to recommend it: it’s a great way to recycle previously encountered language, can give students confidence and make the lesson more student-centred. Brainstorming is an effective activity to use near the beginning of a lesson and can provide a jumping off point for lots of linked activities and peer teaching.

2. Categorising

Once students have a pool of words or phrases to work with, they can organise them into different categories such as:

  • positive and negative connotation
  • nouns and verbs
  • formal and informal
  • adjectives to describe appearance and adjectives to describe personality

There are plenty of category ideas to exploit, and with higher level groups the students themselves could decide on potential categories. Depending on the categories chosen, we may be either contributing to understanding of meaning (like the categories given above), or developing students’ discussion / persuasion skills (when the categories are more subjective for e.g. films we want to see and films we don’t want to see).

3. Ranking

With a bank of language or ideas students can discuss and rank things according to pre-determined criteria such as best to worst, most suitable for a particular job / person etc. This activity is most effective when students have to rank with their partner, therefore creating discussion and deeper engagement with the language.

4. Odd one out

Students are presented with groups of three or four items of language and they have to decide which one doesn’t belong. This works best where there are several different possibilities. For example, in the group; a judge, a jury and a robber, we could say that a robber is the odd one out as a robber does something which is against the law, and the other two don’t. Or we could say that the jury is the odd one out because it’s made up of several people. Students can be asked to find as many odd ones out in each group as they can. This could also be made into a game, with two students playing against another pair.

5. Pyramid debates

In this task students make decisions first individually, and then in groups that get larger as the activity progresses. A classic example of this might be that students have a long list of things that would be useful on a desert island. They choose 8 each and rank them in order of importance. They then work in a pair and have to do the same again with their partner – coming to a joint decision. Then in their pair they have to agree the items with another pair and so on. This need to come to an agreement creates a communicative purpose and generates discussion as students try to justify their choices and persuade other students.

What do all these task types have in common?

  • they require very little in terms of material
  • they can make good use of student generated language
  • they help deepen understanding
  • they provide good opportunities for the teacher to error correct and upgrade the students’ language (although this does mean the teacher needs to monitor very carefully and be more responsive and flexible in their clarification of language)
  • they involve a lot of student interaction and communication
  • they are flexible and can be used with a wide variety of topics and language areas

How to put them together

Below is an example of how a lesson on a particular topic might look, using some of these activities. Some or all of the activities could be included, depending on the time available.

In this case the topic is crime. The aims are for students to recycle and extend their knowledge and use of vocabulary to talk about crime, and to develop their fluency on the topic.

Stage 1 – introduce the topic and generate interest

A lead–in to engage students, such as pictures / headlines / simple discussion questions on the topic of crime.

Stage 2 – brainstorming

The teacher needs to monitor very carefully here, taking notes of anything that is causing the students problems with the words, whether meaning, form or pronunciation.

Stage 3 – peer teaching

Now rearrange the groups so that in the new groups there is at least one student from each old one. The students share words and explanations. They should only write any new words onto their sheet once they have clarified the meaning, form and pronunciation as far as they can. Again, here it’s very important that the teacher monitors very carefully, as this will determine what needs to be clarified in the next stage.

Stage 4 – clarification and upgrading of language

Based on what the teacher saw and heard in the previous stages, they provide any further clarification that is needed of meaning, form and pronunciation of the words the students came up with. At this point the teacher can add in any they think students didn’t know, but would be helpful for them.

Stage 5 – categorising

Based on the words or phrases students generated in the brainstorming, the teacher can determine and tell the students the categories he or she wants them to organise the words into. Alternatively, ideas for these could be elicited from the students. In this lesson, suggested categories could be crimes, criminals, places related to crimes, verbs related to crime. Students work in pairs / groups to categorise under those headings. Once more, the teacher should monitor and note any problem areas.

Stage 6 – feedback

The teacher checks the words have been categorised appropriately, does error correction if needed and feeds in any missing / helpful language.

Stage 7 – pyramid debate

By this point students should be much clearer on the language and now need more opportunities to put it into use. Here, this could involve students first individually choosing the ten most serious crimes from those in the lesson and then agreeing on ten with a partner. Following this, a pair joins another pair and repeats the process.

Stage 8 – feedback / focus on useful language

At this point, the teacher could do some feedback on content (Did the groups choose similar crimes?), and on language use (error correction). In addition they could choose to feed in some useful chunks of language that students may want to use in the next stage.

Stage 9 – ranking

Now that the students in groups of four have agreed on their ten crimes, the next task is for them to reduce the list to the six most serious and additionally rank them from most to least serious. All four students in each group must agree, meaning more discussion and persuasion. This stage could be followed by further feedback if appropriate.

Stage 10 – further speaking task

Building on the previous stages, the students either in pairs or their fours should decide on the most appropriate punishment for each of their six crimes.

Stage 11 – feedback

At the end of the lesson, the teacher needs to leave a little time for additional feedback on content and language.


These activities could easily provide sixty minutes or more of meaningful language clarification and use either with this vocabulary set or others. Some or all of the tasks could be adapted, as could the amount of language input and feedback. As a teacher, it’s a very useful skill to be able to run a beneficial and engaging lesson without the need for photocopies and coursebooks, and perhaps more importantly, it makes us re-focus on the students and their needs.




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