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Improv Games for ESL Students
In a previous blog, I talked about the use of improvisational Theatre (Improv) techniques in an ESL classroom. Here’s another class activity based on the same idea.
Game – Props
One popular game on the Improv comedy TV show Whose Line is it Anyway? and its various successors involved the performers using an unusual prop in as many ways as they could think of. There is one school of thought in Improv that physical props shouldn’t be used, as all props, furniture, etc, should be conjured out of the imagination and endowed with qualities by the performers. However, there’s a lot of fun to be had finding clever and humorous ways to use a random object.
I’ve used this in class as part of topic-based lessons on technology and similar subjects. It works best with upper-intermediate to advanced level speakers. The students are divided into pairs and given an unusual prop. This could be anything. I’ve used bits of junk from home or the teacher’s room, stuff I’ve picked up on the street (the broken visor of a motorbike helmet), basically anything that doesn’t seem to have an obvious function.
The students are then told that what they’ve been given is a piece of cutting-edge technology that they have just designed, and are now going to present at a technology trade fair. I’ve often used this activity in conjunction with other activities, such as a reading. The students have a time limit (15 minutes max) to prepare a short presentation describing what their object does, how it works, and how to use it.
After their prep, the pairs are drawn at random to speak. I don’t usually correct them while they’re giving their talk, saving any language-specific feedback until the end. After all, speaking in front of people in a second-language is nerve-wracking enough as it is; they don’t need their teacher interrupting and destroying their confidence with corrections at this stage. I can always make a note of any mistakes and go over them later as part of the activity wrap-up.
After every pair has given their demo, individual students can vote for whose product they thought was the best. They aren’t allowed to vote for their own, and you can have them vote anonymously if they like (usually it’s not necessary). I tend to reward the winners with a prize – I’ll buy them a tea/coffee/other soft drink or a treat of some sort in time for the next class.
There’s no specific grammar point to this game, but it does lead to the students standing up and giving a short presentation, which is always a useful exercise. Certain sentence patterns could be introduced, for example the use of noun clauses and gerund phrases (“This product is great for dealing with big cockroaches.”) depending on the curriculum and the students’ proficiency level. Sometimes they’ll ask for interesting and unusual vocabulary in order to express their ideas.
Tying it all Together - Teaching Philosophy
As part of the wrap-up you can introduce any new vocabulary that a team asked for and used in a game. What’s more, the nature of the task tends to focus students on dealing with the problem and coming up with creative ideas using English.
This is actually one of my main teaching philosophies. I think of it as “learning by stealth,” with the idea being they’re too busy trying to achieve something to worry about making mistakes. This helps to build fluency, and it also makes the classroom a fun place. I like to think that the students learn something without realizing it.
I’ve got a few more classroom activities that involve the assignment of a task that will end in a presentation, all of which include elements of improvisation. Again, most are topic-based and depend on the lesson. The next Improv-related blog will look at how to teach conversation starters. Have fun in class!