Stirrers and settlers for the primary classroom

Teaching in the primary classroom is very different from teaching teens or adults because of the amount of energy children have! Knowing how to channel this energy, or when to ‘stir' and when to ‘settle' children will help you achieve balanced lessons without children becoming over-excited on the one hand or bored on the other.

Sue Clarke, Teacher and teacher-trainer, British Council, Coimbra, Portugal

Teachers need to take many factors into consideration when planning a balanced primary lesson and it is important to plan varied lessons.

  • Different kinds of activities to practise the different skills need to be balanced against each other.
  • Teachers need to be aware that children have a much shorter concentration span than adults and this will affect the number of different activities we plan for a single lesson.
  • Pace and timing are important considerations - at primary level it is better to use short, sharp activities so that children can sustain their attention. If concentration flags, change the activity. Teachers need to plan a balance of ‘heads up' and ‘heads down' activities, alternating the interaction patterns between individuals/pairs/groups and whole-class activities.
  • Likewise teachers will need to take into account the learning styles of the different children in the class. Different types of activities will be more suited to visual/ auditory/ kinaesthetic /tactile learners.
  • Finally, there is often a need to build in some ‘quiet time' into a lesson. This time helps students as well as teacher sanity. Silent reading or an individual quiet activity can help prepare a class for learning - for example if they arrive after a noisy P.E. lesson. The teacher can take the opportunity during these kinds of activities to deal with classroom admin, check who knows what and/or give individual help where necessary.

Analyse a lesson!
Think about any lesson you have taught recently and analyse the pattern and balance of the lesson. Draw a graph with a horizontal and vertical axis. Write the activities you did with the class on the bottom axis and then plot the noise and activity level. Remember noise is not always negative! Then analyse your graph. Are there any parts of the lesson which needed more ‘stirring' or more ‘settling'? This technique is useful to evaluate a lesson you were not happy with and can help you to pinpoint the areas to plan in greater detail.

Settling students
‘Settlers' are activities which are designed to calm students down and settle them into a routine. Basic classroom management and routines are essential to establish as a pre-requisite for learning. Make sure children know what the routine is when they arrive in class e.g. coats off, books out, files or folders on the desk/under the chair. This is especially important in larger classes or tight working spaces so that valuable teaching time is not lost.

Have a clear signal to get the children's attention and make sure children know what it is. Clap your hands, bang the board rubber, say a signal word clearly and hold up your hand - try not to just shout at your students.

Settler activities

  • Vocabulary categorising or brainstorming activities
    For example give children 12 words randomly across the board and ask them to put them into the correct category. Revise familiar lexical sets - clothes, colours, numbers, animals or reinforce the topic you are currently teaching. Ask children to add other lexical items.


Mammals Reptiles Birds Insects




  • Prompts
    Prepare for listening or speaking exercises by asking children to copy simple prompts from the board. For example, give children a list of five food items to copy and ask them to add five more. Then use the list for simple pair work or listen and tick practice.
  • Wordplay activities
    Use matching activities with pictures and words or phrases, anagrams, missing letters, definitions games, jumbled sentences, wordsearches, crosswords. Children love puzzles so get them using their brains!
  • Whole-class listening activities or games
    Try doing a simple picture dictation asking children to draw a fun or crazy picture. With very young learners you could dictate a monster or alien to practise colours/parts of the body. With more advanced learners you could build up a crazy scene, practising all the prepositions.
  • Read and draw activities
    Give children a short reading text e.g. description and ask them to draw what they read about.
  • Stories or storybooks
    Practise your story-telling technique! Alter your classroom if you can for ‘story time'. Small classes of Very Young Learners can sit on the floor in a semi-circle round the teacher to enable you to exploit pictures and explain meaning. With larger classes make photocopies and enlarge pictures of characters and places to stick up on the board as you tell or read the story.
  • Arts and crafts activities
    This type of activity requires thorough preparation! Introducing creative and design elements caters for a wide range of learner. Give clear instructions so that children can settle into the task once they start. Try making class wall displays, mini-projects, a class book or other cut and stick activities.

Stirring students
Let your students move around as much as possible. In large classes with a lot of furniture this will require some planning. Vary pairs and groups by assigning random numbers. With large classes organise ‘Home' groups so that children move into these automatically for group work.

Encourage movement as much as possible. Even asking children to come out to the front and write an answer on the board provides variety and livens up dull exercises.

Stirring activities

  • Mingles or surveys
    Use games which encourage children to act with lots of others if you have the space. Activities such as ‘ Find someone who..?' are a good way of drilling without being boring. Try this game: Animal stickers. Prepare a sticker with an animal name for each child and stick it on their backs. Children walk around asking questions to find out what they are.
  • Action/movement games
    Word circle games e.g. throwing the ball to revise interchanges or vocabulary sets are a useful way of getting all children moving and participating. Clapping and clicking games are good for larger classes as they involve movement without too much hassle. Any team games running to the board are extremely motivating because of the competitive element. Mime games are also a good way of getting children moving.
  • TPR
    Use TPR as a regular part of classroom routines and activities. For example in listening activities : Put your hand up when you hear ...!
  • Songs, chants and raps
    All children are motivated by songs and these kinds of activities are all-inclusive, catering for all levels of learner. Sing songs or say chants faster and faster to really stir them up! A really good example of this can be found in the Learn English kids website with the traditional song ‘If you're happy and you know it'. Or divide your class into groups and allocate parts to sing or sing in a round.
  • Drama/acting out
    Puppets or masks can really bring alive a dialogue, role-play or story. Make simple masks out of paper plates for main characters. Bring in realia and props for children to use for acting out e.g. some real money and a bag for shopping. Have a dressing up box of simple props such as hats, glasses etc. Puppets or finger puppets can be used to liven up even the most boring dialogue, especially when accompanied by funny voices!
  • Technology
    If you are fortunate enough to have a computer in the classroom exploit the free resources available on the internet fully. The LearnEnglish Kids website provides a huge range of games, songs and stories to liven up and ‘stir' children. Another very useful site providing materials on a huge range of topics is ‘Enchanted Learning'. Go to

First published in 2008


Submitted by Irinaglez on Sat, 08/12/2023 - 07:52


Thank you for such an interesting article. Teaching young learners is a real challenge and ideas to help us do it better are always appreciated.

Submitted by donboni on Wed, 09/17/2014 - 07:19


It´s difficult for me as a Mexican EFL public primary school teacher to find really useful and meaningful material and activities to use in 40+ kids classrooms, you´ve shared really great ideas and recommendations, thank you for sharing these ideas!

Submitted by Boqiyeva Gulsanam on Mon, 05/30/2011 - 10:43


         Teaching in the primary classroom is very different from teaching adults I'm agree with your this point.  As you mentioned children have  much   shorter concentration than adults. So working with them is a bit difficult.

         A teacher should change the activities in the classroom from to time in order not to lose their attention.   The activities  which you offered very suitable for all of teacher. For example arts and crafts activities, read and draw activities, use drama and acting out. In my opinion your article is valuable. Especially  I liked finger puppet drama. This activity make class more funny and lively.

       Teachers should know what pupils' like, in what case they are motivated. After then teachers can work succesfully especially with young children.

        I knew that you have enough experience on working with children but  I have a question for  you. Is it possible to use  such  method for adults?  Thank you.

Submitted by KaraAharon on Sun, 02/28/2010 - 19:25


I work with pre-K thru elementary school and many of these ideas I already use, but there are a few more I will try. I agree that if we want children to enjoy and learn English the lessons must be interesting.

Research and insight

Browse fascinating case studies, research papers, publications and books by researchers and ELT experts from around the world.

See our publications, research and insight