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The alphabet game - Ceri Jones

Average: 3.5 (8 votes)

I first used this activity with a class of teenagers in Italy.

The mixture of putting the teacher on the spot, silliness and hard work appealed to them. It has since become my number one favourite minimal preparation lesson for almost all ages from young teens upwards.

It has its roots in an activity in Mario Rinvolucri and Paul Davis’s Grammar Games but has evolved and changed over time. What I like about it is that it’s totally materials free, has a very tangible outcome and offers great opportunities for working with emergent language.

Stage 1 (brainstorming)

Ask the class to choose a letter from the alphabet. You can do this by simply asking them to shout out, or you can recite the alphabet silently in your head and ask the students to call out for you to stop. The randomness of the second option appeals to younger students.
Write the letter on the board and brainstorm words that start with that letter. Don’t stop until the board is covered in words. This could also be done as a board race, with teams passing the board pen to their classmates as they race to fill their half of the board .

Stage 2 (optional – processing)

You might want to do something with the words on the board to help students process them. For example, students categorise the words in three groups, they choose the categories. Or they to group them by word class or choose their three favourites and least favourites and explain why.

Stage 3 ( putting the teacher on the spot)

Ask the students to choose a word on the board at random. Once they’ve chosen the word, explain that you are now going to have to talk about that word for two minutes without stopping (a kind of version of Just a minute, but repetition, hesitation and so on are not penalized!). Ask one of the students to time you. Take a few seconds to gather your thoughts and then go for it!

When you’re talking, try to cover at least four or five different sub topics, linking them as you pass from one to the other, no matter how tenuously. You are basically setting up a model for the speaking task to come. You can ask students beforehand to focus on how many sub topics you cover and to take notes if you think they need a task to focus their attention. I’ve found that on the whole the mere fact of the challenge is enough to keep them listening.

Stage 4 (re-telling)

In pairs or groups the students recall the topics you spoke about and what you said about them. When they’ve had a chance to discuss in pairs, board contributions from the class, numbering the sections, highlighting the subtopics and bullet pointing any specific information. This is in order to highlight the underlying organization, so even if the topic is silly ( I’ve spoken about bananas, carnival, dictation, the adjective “eager” to name just a few) an underlying structure is teased out of it. This will lend support to the next stages.

Stage 5 (planning)

Explain that the students are now going to repeat the same task but you’re going to make it a little easier for them in three ways: 1 you’re going to let them choose the word, 2 you’re going to let them work in pairs or small groups, 3 you’re going to give them 30 seconds each to talk about their topic (this can be extended to a minute for more confident/competent classes).

The pairs/groups nominate a word from the board (I usually let the weaker or quieter students choose first). They then choose three or four subtopics and map out the information they’re going to include in their mini presentations. I ask them not to write out a full script – but to keep it to simple notes. They’ll get a chance to write about their chosen topic later.

Stage 6 (the mini presentations)

Each group takes it in turns to talk about their word, their classmates make notes about the topics covered as they listen and give a mark out of five for 1 fluency (ie lack of hesitation, not drying up) and 2 interest . After each mini presentation the listeners compare notes in pairs or small groups, or simply gather their thoughts before the next “act” is on.

During the mini presentations I make notes on any new vocabulary, recurring errors or interesting language areas to look at later. You can choose to look at these immediately after each presentation while the listeners exchange notes, in a whole class feedback session after the speaking stage, or during the writing stage.

In a final summing up stage we share notes and votes and comments.

Stage 7 ( written consolidation – optional)

This stage can be set for homework, but I prefer to do it in class because it offers such a great opportunity to work with the students’ language as they are using it, negotiating meaning, inputting new vocabulary and working with problems as they emerge.

Basically the students present the same ideas in writing. I write the opening paragraph for my mini-presentation on the board and we look at the idea of paragraphing, discussing the need (or not) to dedicate a new paragraph to each sub topic. The students write collaboratively or individually (with the teacher monitoring and offering support as the text is being written) and then hand their text to a another group who comment on whether the written version matches the spoken one. I collect the texts and use them as a basis for working on text cohesion and linking in the next lesson.

Possible follow-up task

If students seem willing/interested, they can choose a second word from the board and repeat the task at home – either recording themselves or in writing.

Ceri Jones is a freelance teacher, trainer and materials writer. She has been working in ELT since 1986. She has worked in Italy, Hungary, Spain and the UK teaching, training and managing mainly in – and for – the private sector. She is particularly interested in student-centred materials and activities. She writes about her thoughts, her experiences and her experiments on Close Up (