Is it a Bird? Is it a Plane?

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Want something for lower-level ESL students that is fun and informative?

When I taught benchmark one classes, I did something that increased their vocabulary by about 100 words in a month or so. It was also fun. It’s not a very original idea. In fact, I borrowed it from my days as an occasional teacher when I had to teach kindergarten.

In many kindergarten classes, they have show and tell. A child brings in an object in a bag, and the rest of the students have to guess what it is by asking questions. I decided to do this with my ESL class.

We sat down and thought of all of the properties that might be associated with an object, things like shape, size, colour, age, and material.  I got poster paper for each attribute, and then had them make one for each. They supplied me with the words, and I supplemented those words with new ones. For example, they used animals and paper cups for size – tiny, small, medium, large, extra-large, and huge. For materials, they needed some help. Everyone knew the word plastic, but things like ceramic were foreign to them by name. Since I am terrible at art, I let them do most of the creative work. Great idea! They felt more ownership of the project, and had a tactile experience making the posters.

Once we completed the property charts, I put them on the wall.  Hopefully where you work this practice will be allowed.

The first time I brought in an object and said, “What is it?” they would ask yes and no questions. “Is it heavy?” “Is it yellow?” Often they would reverse the subject and verb for the question, but by the end of the month, they were getting it right most of the time. They could ask questions until they got a “no” answer.  At the end of the questioning, or if they guessed the object, we would name it and review its properties. It’s a book. It’s rectangular. It’s paper. Sometimes an object would have multiple properties. A pen might be metal and plastic, for example.

After a week or so of my doing this, it was their turn to bring in their objects. I helped them a bit at first, but after a while, I was able to participate in the game, too. There usually was a story to the object they brought in. I encouraged the students to ask questions about it. “When did you get it?” “Where did you get it?” “Was it expensive?” There were lots of good conversations and questions!

From time to time, I would take a turn to make sure that some property that hadn’t been discussed had an object to match it.

As I said, the idea isn’t that original, but it has worked very well for me when I taught the lower levels. Have you tried something similar?  Tell me about it.

Hi, I’m John Stevens. After adventures working in radio and television, teaching computer courses in Canada and internationally, managing the Canadian Association of Journalists, and acting as the technical director of Softball Canada, I have settled into teaching ESL. As well as experiences teaching in Ottawa and London, I have had stints in Harbin, Jeddah and Istanbul. Since I am currently trying to find a full-time teaching position in Ontario, I help my wife with our bed and breakfast business in St. Marys, Ontario.


3 thoughts on “Is it a Bird? Is it a Plane?”

  1. John, I think this is brilliant.

    Yes, I recently did something very similar with a group that is quite high in reading/writing but who struggle a lot with listening and speaking. I was trying to convey the concept of “talking around” an unknown word. I brought in odd items from around the house for a guessing game similar to the game Taboo. It’s part of our new “Listening / Speaking Boot Camp.” I’m hoping they will build up their ability to function without the electronic dictionaries, to which they seem attached as if by umbilical cord! Thanks for this great extension to the idea. I’ll let you know if I do it with them.

    1. If I remember correctly, in the game of Taboo, you have to get your team to guess the word that is written on a card that you are looking at, but there are certain words that are “taboo.” There are many word guessing games similar to this one, and even the classic “charades” could probably be grouped in with them, don’t you think?

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