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Standby activities

Things can sometimes go wrong at school. The computer doesn't work, you have to teach a lesson you weren't expecting, you didn't get time to plan that lesson you intended to, the photocopier broke down so you couldn't print those worksheets, you're covering for a colleague and no work was set, the ICT room was double booked. I'm sure you can identify with some or all of those!

That's when you need fall-back or standby activities you can call upon, lessons which you know will work and can be adapted to various levels. So here are ten I would recommend which you could include in your toolbox (oops, I used an "in" word there).

1.  Jacques a dit

This is Simon Says and it is a hit at all levels. You can use it to teach body parts from scratch or to revise them at any time. You can adjust the pace to suit the class, it encourages careful listening and it's good fun.

2.  Bingo games

Here some variations you can use:

Mental arithmetic bingo
With this one, instead of reading out a number, you give classes a simple mental arithmetic sum to solve which leads to the number which may be on their card. You need to teach them simple terms like plus, moins, muliplié par, divisé par. The advantage of this variation is that it provides more mental challenge. The downside is that pupils don't make the immediate link between the number you read and the number written in front of them. You might also need quite a good class to do it.

Reverse bingo ("death bingo")
In this variation all the class stands up. You call numbers and if a number comes up which is on a child's card, they must sit down and they are out of the game. This variation goes by quite quickly and is a fun alternative, but the obvious downside is that once a pupil is "out" they have no more motivation to listen to numbers.

Number sequence bingo.
Instead of just reading a number, you read simple sequences of numbers and pupils have to work out what the next number would have been. You can make this as simple or as hard as you want, depending on the class. e.g. 1,2,3,4 ___ . Or 64,32,16 __. You can cater for any number easily e.g. 5,4,3,2 __. I like this version because students get to hear a lot of numbers, so you are maximising input. the minor downside is that, as in mental arithmetic bingo, pupils do not make an immediate match between the number they hear and the number of the paper.

Group bingo
Just break the class into small groups and get one person to act as caller. This has the advantage of allowing some students to do the calling. The downside is that students may hear poorer models of pronunciation and there is the danger of an over-noisy classroom.

Number in a sentence bingo
In this variation, instead of reading out a number, you read a sentence containing the number. e.g. Il y a 30 personnes dans la classe; j'ai deux frères; le numéro soixante est intéressant. This has a greater level of challenge and is an opportunity to provide input at the sentence level, allowing pupils to hear numbers in context. Some classes may find it too hard and the teacher may need to do a bit of thinking beforehand about the nature of the sentences which are feasible. This may be a version to do with classes who have been studying at least a year.

3.   Aural anagrams

Read out anagrams to the class, letter by letter. Give points to the individual or team which guesses the word first. You can make your choice of words as hard or as easy as possible and fit them to a recently covered topic. Good for all levels.

4.  Word association

This can usefully fill up to 15 minutes. You can do it as a whole, round the class activity or, once students get the idea, they could do it in pairs or groups. I would usually demonstrate the technique in English first. Needless to say, this is good for vocab revision and quick thinking. Good for all levels.

5.   "Just a minute"

You can do this from intermediate level upwards. Demonstrate it to the class first yourself. Students have to try to talk for a minute on chosen topics without hesitating, deviating from the topic or repeating themselves. Once demonstrated, the class can play the game in groups. One person begins and if they go wrong (which usually means they dry up), other members of the group buzz in and continue. Someone needs to time the task. This can be super for practising conversations or presentations. Good for intermediate and above.

6.  My holiday in....

You tell the class what you did during a holiday in some detail. Students may take notes in the target language or in English. You then give them true/false or not mentioned statements. You will need to keep a careful mental note of what you have said. You can then get students to report back to you, or a partner, what you did. This is a good comprehensible input task. You could talk about other topics: last weekend, my pastimes, when I was young etc. Good for intermediates. They may be interested to hear what you did - you can make it all up, of course.

7.   Dictation

You can make these up on the spot and jot them down as you go along. This is a particularly good task for French. You can adjust the level for the class in front of you.

8.  One word at a time

his is where you get the class to make up a story one word at a time. This may be bets done as a whole class task. Pupils can only add a word at a time and everything should work grammatically. Pupils may use the word for full stop if the a sentence has come to a natural end. You can adapt this to the topic or grammar you have been working on. it can lead to amusing accounts. Good for low intermediate and above.

9.   Baccalauréat

This where you give pupils a list of categories and then a letter, with a time limit. they have to come up with a word in each category. This can be played with dictionaries and, as such, build up dictionary skill. You can have a scoring system where an original word gets 10 points, and a word chosen by others gets 5. This perhaps best played in pairs. Marking can get time-consuming and noisy if you don't manage it carefully. Good for low intermediate and above.

10.  Instant vocab quizzes

You tell the class you are going to do a giant vocab quiz with 100 words (TL to English). You then simply read out your words, jotting them down as you do so. Go quite quickly and tell the class not to worry if they miss any. Keep up the pace. Choose your words to allow as many as possible to get a decent score, but do include hard ones. they should all be words the class have come across, but you could throw in some cognates they have never seen or heard. Classes enjoy this task and can be competitive about their scores at the end. A quiz with 100 words takes about 35 minutes to do and score. Good for low intermediate and above.


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Listening (Foundation/Higher) (Foundation/Higher) (Foundation/Higher)