Classroom Activities That Engage Second Language Learners

New ideas to jazz up your second language learning classroom and get your students moving!

Teaching a foreign language is one of the most fun and exciting content areas to teach simply because of the potential to do so many different sorts of activities. The language classroom lends itself well to Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligence's theory, because students can use their eyes, ears and bodies and engage every neuron in learning the language, regardless of individual learning style. Language learning activities can give all learning styles an equal opportunity!

Get your students up and dancing to the music in the target language. The first stage of language learning is listening, so you can teach the words to a song, ask students to stand up and listen to it, while moving to the music. Then you can begin to work movements into the experience. For example, if the lyrics say, "Raise your hands up high," then students would do that when the song reaches that point. Basically, this is using the Total Physical Response method set to music. Anything in the songs lyrics that is physical, encourage students to act out. As students begin to feel comfortable with the song, teach pronunciation. At this point, you can turn the music off and go over the song, line by line, word by word, until students are familiar with both the meaning and the pronunciation. Then, try singing the song together! Good songs for beginners will have very repetitive, catchy lyrics.

Use the target language to instruct students to draw specific pictures. First, as the teacher, you will model the process. Give students simple, but explicit directions, such as "Draw a circle on the top right-hand side of your paper. Make the circle the size of a quarter." Continue giving such directions with an end picture in mind. You may want to plan out your instructions ahead of time. After you have finished giving a series of directions, see if everyone has drawn a square-like house with a sun in the sky in the right hand corner, for example. You will find very different results! After you have modeled the activity for the class, let students pair off or get into groups and give each other instructions. The resulting pictures can be very entertaining, and students get to see the importance of precise language.

Write the words to a sentence on large pieces of bulletin board paper. Have about eight students each take a word (how many students depends on the length of the sentence) and go to the front of the class. The words should not be in any particular order, and it will be the students' job to put them in order with the goal of making a grammatically correct sentence. Other students in the class can help, by giving individuals directions, such as "Mary, move to the right of Jose!" If you want to up the ante, try timing the activity, and have teams compete against each other to complete the sentence. The only disadvantage here is that there will be no incentive for the rest of the class to help the team get it right if they are to win!

Have your students become actors. Construct a simple scenario, such as the one below.

You are going to plant a seed.

Get out a pot.

Put some dirt in the pot.

Open the package of seeds.

Take one out.

Plant the seed in the dirt.

Water the seed.

Your hands are dirty!

Wash your hands.

You can make up these scenarios to fit with any unit that you may be teaching, or to fit with the level that the students are at. Of course, they can be constructed in any language. Props are good, if you have them. Ask the students to listen to the directions, and follow along with you by doing the actions. Then practice pronouncing the script, and let students practice telling each other what to do. You can also use your scripts for dictation, as well. There are many books available that already contain scripts, if you don't want to make up your own. In addition, with absolute beginners, you can use simple TPR directives, such as "Turn on the light," or "Pick up your pencil." TPR is an effective method because it involves the body in the learning process, and is fun as well. Not many people enjoy sitting in chair listening to lectures, and research shows that lectures are definitely not how people effectively learn a second language.

Try using chants. Carolyn Graham has made chants very popular in the realm of English as a Second Language, but you can certainly use chants for other languages as well. Look for poems for a good start. Very rhythmic ones can often be modified and turned into chants. The idea is to get students repeating the vocabulary in the target language until it can be recalled easily, while having fun and clapping. I once had a student tell me that he heard the chants at night in his head when he was trying to go to sleep, and that's when I knew that this method worked very well.

Keep your language class fun. Research very clearly shows that the affective environment, that is, the emotional environment that you create in your classroom, influences language learning. If you create a fun environment where it is okay to make mistakes, then your students will pick up their new language rapidly, and will not feel as though they are making a huge effort. Language is a natural process, and you can make it feel that way for your students by using fun activities that engage the senses.

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