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25 ideas for using unit word lists in the classroom

Teacher and young adult students developing their skills with classroom activities

Many ELT series have unit word lists, either in the student book, or available in the teacher resources. However, few teachers make active use of these unit word lists on a regular basis. In an attempt to address this situation I have produced a set of 25 activities which teachers can easily incorporate into their regular teaching practice.

All of the activities have the following three principles:

  1. they can work with almost any ELT unit word list;
  2. apart from the students having access to unit word list itself, they require only basic classroom resources i.e., pencil, paper, board and marker;
  3. they require no previous preparation from the teacher.
Example from: Smart Choice 2nd edition, OUP

Note: Unless otherwise stated, students need to be looking at the word list to do the activity.

  1. Which words do you know (before starting the unit)? – Individually, before starting the unit, students put a tick (✔) on the right next to all the words they know.
  2. What is your favorite word? – Individually, each student identifies their favorite word from the list. Students explain their choice in groups and/or to the whole class.
  3. Which ones are similar to words in your own language? – In small groups, students look through the unit word list and identify all the words that appear to be similar to words in their own language. These could be cognates or false cognates. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  4. I don’t like this word because… – Individually, each student identifies a word from the list that they don’t like. Students explain their choice in groups and/or to the whole class.
  5. Rapid underlining – The teacher chooses between 5 and 10 words from the unit word list and calls these out quite quickly. Individually, students listen, find and underline these words in the list. Students then compare and check that they have found the correct words.
  6. Find the word in the unit – The teacher chooses a word from the word list and calls this out and the students need to find the word in the unit of the course book. This can be done as a race.
  7. Which is the most useful word? – Individually, each student identifies from the unit word list the word they think is the most useful. Students explain their choice in groups and/or to the whole class.
  8. How many of the words are things you can touch? – In small groups, students identify how many of the words in the unit word list are things that can be touched. The teacher elicits and discusses. There might be many different ways to interpret this and can lead to interesting discussion.
  9. ‘Killing’ vocab items – In small groups, students decide on 3 words they want to eliminate from the unit word list and which will not appear in the next test. The teacher then elicits from each group the 3 words they chose. The teacher writes these words on the board and identifies which 3 words are the most frequently chosen from all the groups. The teacher promised not to include these in the next test. (Dudley, E. & E. Osváth. 2016. Mixed-Ability Teaching. OUP)
  10. Rapid translation – In pairs, students take it in turns to choose a word from the unit word list. The other student has to try to give the translation in their own language.
  11. How many have you seen today? – In small groups, students identify how many of the words in the unit word list are things / concepts / actions they have seen today. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  12. Identify the words from a definition – The teacher chooses about 5 words from the unit word list and then one word at a time tells the students a definition of each word. Individually, students look at the list and underline the words they think the teacher is describing. The teacher elicits, checks and discusses.
  13. How many have 3 syllables? – In small groups, students identify how many words have 3 syllables. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  14. Which word is the most difficult to pronounce? – Individually, each student looks at the unit word list and identifies the word they think is the most difficult to pronounce. The teacher elicits and helps students pronounce the words they chose.
  15. Bingo – Individually, students choose any 5 words from the unit word list and write these on a piece of paper. The teacher reads and crosses off words at random from the list until a student has crossed off all of their 5 words and calls out ‘bingo’.
  16. How many words have the stress on the second syllable? – In small groups, students look through the unit word list and identify how many words are stressed on the second syllable. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  17. Which is the most difficult word to spell? – Individually, each student looks at the unit word list and identifies the word they think is the most difficult to spell. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  18. Test your partner’s spelling – In pairs, one student looks at the unit word list and chooses 5 words and dictates these to the other student (who is not looking at the list). After the dictation of the 5 words the students both look at the list and check the spelling.
  19. The teacher can’t spell – The teacher choices 5 words and spells these aloud to the student but makes a deliberate spelling mistake in 2 or 3 of the words. Students listen while looking at the word list and try to identify which words were misspelled.
  20. Quick spelling – In pairs, students take it in turns for one student to choose a word and spell it aloud quickly to other student. The second student tries to say the word before the first student has finished spelling it aloud.
  21. Which word has the craziest spelling? – Individually, each student decides which word, in their opinion, has the craziest spelling. The teacher elicits the words from the students and the class identifies which word was the most frequently chosen.
  22. Which are the 3 longest words? – In small groups, students look through the unit word list and identify the 3 words with the most of letters. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  23. Guess my word – In pairs, students take it in turns to choose a word from the unit word list. The other student needs to ask yes/no questions to work out the word.
  24. Can you make a sentence using 4 of the words? – Individually, each student makes a sentence using any 4 of the words from the unit word list (combined with other words to create coherent sentences). Students then compare and decide which sentence they like best.
  25. Which words do you know (after finishing the unit)? – Individually, after finishing the unit, students put a tick (✔) on the left next to all the words they now know. They can compare this with the number of words they knew before starting the unit and see their progress.

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Philip Haines moved to Mexico from England in 1995, and currently works as the Senior Academic Consultant for Oxford University Press Mexico. He has spoken internationally in three continents and nationally in every state in Mexico. Philip is the author/co-author of several ELT series published in Mexico.


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Bubbling Under: Helping ideas to surface in speaking classes Q&A

School children writingEdmund Dudley is a teacher trainer, materials writer and teacher of English with more than 20 years of classroom experience. Based in Budapest, he has extensive experience of teaching EFL at both primary and secondary levels. He works with teachers from around the world as a freelance teacher trainer and as a tutor at the University of Oxford’s ELT Summer Seminar. He is the co-author of OUP’s Mixed-Ability Teaching and has also contributed materials to several OUP textbooks and training courses.


What can we do if our students are afraid of making mistakes?

Ask yourself what it is that your students are actually afraid of. Is it making mistakes? Or is it the consequences of making mistakes? In many cases, I think it’s the latter. Students are afraid that if they make a mistake when speaking, the teacher will embarrass them, or that the other students in the class will make fun of them. There are two things that we can do:

  1. Be encouraging and supportive
  2. Refuse to tolerate it when students make fun of each other in class.

What if students don’t understand the question?

Asking for clarification is an important aspect of successful speaking, and should be practised in class. Teach students phrases such as I don’t understand the question or Can you repeat that, please? Again, it is entirely natural for students not to understand our questions on occasions. It is only a problem, however, if the students do not have effective strategies for dealing with this situation.

We can also take steps to help students understand our questions. We can do this by:

  1. ‘Modelling’ the question to demonstrate its meaning before we ask individuals
  2. Repeating the question with added gestures
  3. Rephrasing the question using simpler language
  4. Writing the question on the board
  5. Asking another student in the class to clarify the meaning of the question
  6. Asking students to say what the question means in L1.

What if they refused to take notes?

Teenage students are usually only reluctant to write notes if they cannot ‘see the point’ of writing something down. In this case, there is definitely a point. Taking notes gives students time to prepare and to organise their thoughts. It makes the job of speaking much easier – and less embarrassing. When practising in pairs, I find that quieter students are much more likely to speak if they have already written something down in advance. As you practise doing activities like this, students will be able to see the benefit for themselves.

And if they still refuse? I think that in the rare situations where a student ‘refuses’ to carry out a reasonable request from the teacher, then the problem is not merely connected to the task. There is something more complex going on there.

Why do students love to talk about something/someone they hate, and not vice versa?

There’s a straightforward answer and also a paradoxical one. The straightforward answer is that students get bored of being asked about their favourite things all the time. The paradoxical answer is that it is more difficult for teenagers to talk about the things which they love, because there is more at stake: they can be judged more harshly by their classmates for giving an ‘uncool’ answer.

Although it was based on your experience with teenagers, this could also work with adults, right?

The techniques we looked at in the webinar can all be used – or modified for use – with adult learners, too. Adult learners of English can also suffer from a lack of confidence, and they too can benefit from activities designed to give them time, ideas and language resources to use while speaking.

How do you assess speaking as a skill?

Set specific goals and make sure that the students know beforehand how they are going to be assessed. You might evaluate their task completion, in which case the emphasis is on fluency and communicative competence. Alternatively, you might be doing controlled practice of certain structures, in which case the emphasis would be on accuracy.

What’s the most effective way of monitoring during a speaking prep? How much do you want to interfere (to give them more confidence in what they’re about to say?)

It depends on what the task is. As a general rule, let students speak. Intervene afterwards. Remember that the teacher’s role is not always to correct. Sometimes, asking students to repeat what they have just said can be an effective and face-saving way of helping them to self-correct.


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Bubbling under – Helping ideas surface in speaking classes

students talking speaking smiling in classroomEdmund Dudley is a teacher trainer, materials writer and co-author of ‘Mixed Ability Teaching’ in the “Into the Classroom” series. In this article he looks at ways to create the right environment for effective speaking classes and offers some practical advice to manage them, ahead of his webinar on the subject on 12th and 13th July.

When they go well, speaking activities can bring life, laughter and energy to the language classroom, providing a real sense that the language is being put to use in an enjoyable and authentic way. When they go badly, however, speaking activities can be immensely frustrating – and not only for the students. Have you ever set up a speaking task with confidence, only to find it fizzle out before it even begins? Are you familiar with the experience of scanning the faces of your silent students, trying to read the thoughts they are struggling to put into words? Have you ever wished you could find a way to help them express all the thoughts and ideas that are clearly bubbling under the surface?

Helping students find the confidence

With teenage students, the first thing to be aware of is that difficulties with speaking are very often exacerbated by inhibitions that they have about themselves as learners – and as members of the group. Speaking is an inherently ‘social’ skill: everything that is said is heard – and judged – by the teacher and the rest of the class, making already self-conscious teens reluctant to put themselves in a position where they can lose face in front of their peers. Putting students at ease and providing a supportive atmosphere in the classroom is essential if speaking activities are going to work.

Responding to seemingly simple prompts often requires a lot of confidence on the part of the student. Think about questions such as “What’s your favourite pop group?” or “What did you get for your birthday?” Giving an answer requires not only marshalling language but also sharing private information which might cause others in the class to sneer or laugh. It’s hardly surprising that these kinds of questions often produce only mumbled, one-word answers. In order to avoid such situations, we need to think hard about the kinds of questions we ask and be sensitive to the potential difficulty of certain topic areas. A simple tweak to the question is often enough. The same teenagers who hate talking about things they like often love talking about things they hate. Try asking “What’s the worst song on YouTube?” instead of “What’s your favourite pop group?” and watch the hands go up.

Creating space and time for language and ideas to emerge

The feeling that they are being ‘put on the spot’ is another factor that can make speaking activities challenging for students. Unless they are given adequate time to think and prepare, it’s unreasonable to expect a typical student to be able to give a spontaneous, extended answer to a spoken question. For short answers, one simple idea is to give students the chance to ‘speak, pass, or nominate.’  Those who do not wish to speak can instead choose to ‘pass’ – in which case we move on to someone else, or ‘nominate’ – in which case they can bring a classmate with a good idea into the discussion.

How can students best make use of the time they are given to prepare a spoken answer? Well, it depends on whether they are stuck for language or ideas. If it’s language they need, having access to appropriate reference materials and task models can make a big difference. They might just be stuck for ideas, though.  ­­At intermediate level and above, it is surprising how often students say “I wouldn’t know what to say about this in my mother language, let alone English.” That’s when collaborative, pre-speaking planning and brainstorming activities can help.

Managing speaking activities

Once they have the confidence, the language and the ideas, it should be much easier for students to tackle speaking tasks effectively. There’s still a lot that can go wrong at the production stage, though. From a classroom management point of view, it’s important to remember that good speaking requires good listening. Unless there is an attentive and sympathetic audience for a speaker, s/he will see no reason to take the task seriously. That’s why we need to set up speaking tasks in such a way that they include a focused listening element. One simple way to provide this focus for listening is to give students the option of not telling the truth in speaking tasks: it then becomes the job of their partner to listen and decide whether they were lying or not. When our students speak in class, we should also strive to pay attention ourselves, to really listen. Too often I catch myself ‘waiting’ rather than listening.


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Speaking in the monolingual classroom

Group of adult students talkingMike Boyle has taught English to adult learners in Japan and the United States, and is now a materials writer in New York City. He is the co-author of the Starter level of American English File Second Edition. In this article, he shares his thoughts on creating effective speaking activities for monolingual classes.

We often hear that people who have a lot in common tend to have the best conversations. But if you teach a class of learners who all have the same native language and all live in the same town ­– and maybe even work at the same company – you’ve probably noticed that this isn’t always true.

While some monolingual classrooms are vibrant, chatty places, others can be quiet and awkward. Here are a few of the main reasons why this can happen and some ways to address the problem.

“We’re all the same, so there’s nothing to talk about.”

This is a common feeling among learners in monolingual classes. Unfortunately, some teaching materials worsen this problem with questions that assume an international classroom, for example, “What’s the most popular festival in your country?”

For a speaking activity to succeed, learners need to feel that they are saying something truly interesting that their partner doesn’t already know. In monolingual classes, this means choosing, writing, or adapting speaking activities so they are local, personal, or elicit differences. For example, the ineffective question above could be changed to:

  • What do you like about the New Year holiday? What don’t you like?
  • What’s your favorite holiday? Why? Is there a holiday you dislike? Why?
  • How does your family celebrate the New Year? Do you have any unusual traditions?

“I can’t explain it in English. Why can’t I just use my own language?”

This often happens when learners feel they have something interesting to say but lack the words to express their ideas, or don’t know how to pronounce them.

Before you set up a speaking activity, make sure students have the language they need to do it successfully and – just as importantly – feel confident with the pronunciation of that language. You could start by building up a list of relevant language on the board, for example, and practicing the pronunciation. (The Vocabulary Bank in American English File Second Edition is also a great reference for students to have nearby as they speak).

Also, it’s important to pre-teach not only topic-related vocabulary but also expressions for things like deciding whose turn it is, politely disagreeing, building consensus, adding a related point, and of course, describing something when you don’t know the word for it.

“It’s embarrassing to speak English with my peers.”

All learners need to overcome their fear of mistakes in order to succeed. This fear is often greater for learners in monolingual classrooms, perhaps because their speaking partner might be their friend, neighbor, or work colleague.

It’s essential to help students get over their fears and get them talking. Remind them that the only way they will ever learn to speak with fluency is through practice. It’s like learning to drive. You need hours of practice before you can drive confidently. If students are learning English in their own country, probably the only place where they can get effective face-to-face oral practice is in the classroom.

In addition, there are things teachers can do that will lessen the fear of making mistakes in any classroom, whether it is monolingual or multicultural. Let your learners know that the main goal of speaking activities is to build fluency and confidence rather than develop accuracy. Avoid correcting mistakes during speaking exercises unless communication completely breaks down and students need help getting the conversation started again. If a number of students are making the same sort of error, you might want to address that later, after the activity is over, without saying which people made the error.

To hear more from Mike on how to get students talking in the monolingual classroom, sign up for one of the following webinars:

  • 26 September 2013: 12:00 BST (07:00 New York / 08:00 Brazil / 20:00 Japan)
  • 27 September 2013: 16:00 BST (11:00 New York / 12:00 Brazil / 00:00 Japan)

Register for the webinar now!