Reusable TESOL Games and Activities: Sticky Ball and Dice

The key with TESOL games and activities is keeping them fresh. Even the most exciting activity can induce eye-rolls from your students if you return to the well too many times.

When I got my first teaching job in Luoyang in 2011, I generally only saw the same students once every two weeks. Over the course of a week, I would teach 18 different classes, and the following week I might teach 18 different classes. This made it difficult to remember all my students names and their language proficiency level. On the positive side, it meant that any game, activity, or ice-breaker I designed had a very long lifespan.

I could play a game with one class, and when I saw them again two weeks later, the game would still be new and exciting. I could use it again a third time as a warm-up, so a single game or activity could sometimes last as long as six weeks.  However, at my current school I teach my own classes, and sometimes see the same students twice a week. Now, remembering their names and skill level is easy, but I sometimes find myself running out of games to play, because the lifespan of the games is much shorter.

As a teacher, you learn to value games and activities that are reusable or easy to adapt. Games can be used repeatedly, even though you’re teaching levels, or different words and sentences. These are also useful as “fall-back” activities, for when you need to suddenly fill-in for another teacher, or you have extra time left at the end of class. I’d like to share a few with you here, today.

Sticky Balls and Dice
The sticky ball and dice are a teacher’s best friend–they’re versatile and useful teaching tools. Some schools don’t have a lot of teaching aids and materials, so you must make do with some basics to keep the class exciting. Something as simple as throwing a sticky ball on a flash card stuck on the whiteboard is something children love. Chinese students are extremely competitive, so it can infuse energy into a class. Plus, it can add a little randomness to what they want to say, because the language they use is dictated by what card they hit on the board.

With younger students, when you teach them prepositions such as on, under, in, over they can throw the sticky ball on the whiteboard, the computer, the window, a chair or even a book, and then use that to make a sentence, e.g., “Where is the ball? It is on the wall!

I also have the alphabet printed on laminated cards, and students can spell simple words by throwing the sticky ball at the letters, hitting the letters in sequence. They enjoy it because it’s spelling practice, but it’s also like a sport; they’re competing to get the most points. This works better with slightly younger students, as it takes to long to write words like “Music Performance” and “Birthday Party” when you have to throw a ball at each letter.

Similarly to the sticky ball, dice can be used in a myriad of ways. For example, I use a big plush die to play “hot potato” with my students, having them pass it to each other until I say, “Stop!” Then, they must either ask or answer a question related to the subject or grammatical point I’m teaching.

Instead of sticking flashcards on the whiteboard, I number a set of words from 1-6 and I have the students roll the dice to see what word they have to use. I also conveniently usually only have 6 students in my class and they sit in numbered chairs from 1-6, so I draw boxes on the floor with words or small assignments and then throw the die in a box to see which student has to perform the action or make a sentence using the word. These are small simple activities that are in no way topic specific and can be used for teaching and practicing almost anything. I find that simplicity is king when it comes to designing games and activities, because the simpler they are, the easier they are to modify. That way, one game turns into many games!

Do you have any dice or sticky ball games you like to play with your students? Share in the comments below, or send a link to your blog!

By: Mikkel Larsen

Mikkel Larson

Mikkel is a Chongqing based teacher, blogger, and photographer. He has lived in China since 2010, and can be found blogging here, here, and here

Make your students laugh (at you)!

Fun with students
Mikkel having a laugh with primary students.

The use of humor—especially self-deprecating humor—is a fantastic skill to have as an ESL teacher. Making sure your students have a blast while learning English is important, but you shouldn’t make “having fun” the most important goal of your lesson. Having fun is….fun—it can inspire students to work hard for you—but you also need to make sure they learn something. The novelty of being a foreign teacher eventually fades, so it’s important to balance fun and laughs with enriching content. If you learn to do this, you’ll have a captive audience every class.

Foreign ESL teachers teach English in a different way than most Chinese teachers do, and at first I didn’t understand the difference. Chinese teachers at public schools often teach students with rote memorization, while ESL style teaching is more interactive and engaging. This might be why the students were always thrilled to see me and the other foreign teachers—they see us as a breath of fresh air from an otherwise dreary day at school.

My first long-term employment was at a kids’ school in Luoyang. I worked there for about two years, and I taught two kinds of classes. For primary aged children I would visit 16-18 different classes per week, and I usually returned to the same classes once every two weeks. Total it was around 33 classes—each with 12 students—and I had about 400 students who saw me regularly. Walking into a classroom once every two weeks for 50 minutes was great. The students would expect my arrival, so it was easy to keep them interested.

Later I started teaching older students; every weekend I taught three classes of Middle School students for two hours each.

As I gained more experience my teaching style started to evolve; I became more of an entertainer while teaching. Since I was a child I always had this weird talent for making sounds and noises; this proved to be a useful skill in the classroom. I wanted to be an actor when I was a child, and as a teacher I have the opportunity to bring that dream to life.

Being animated in the classroom is useful when teaching kids. For example, when I teach vocabulary I act out every word into an elaborate scenario. Luckily, I’m not afraid to make a complete fool out myself, so I entertain the children with drama, sound-effects, and exaggerated movements. A class with me usually keeps my students laughing, smiling, and definitely learning. If I acted like this on the street I might be thrown in a mental hospital! But, for the students it’s a refreshing change, and they’re appreciative if a teacher can make learning English exciting.

Small kids will laugh at almost anything, but older students are more discerning. Entertaining teens with games and activities was more difficult because they’re at a self-conscious age—they’re more cautious than small children about making a fool of themselves. Plus, I saw them more often and for a longer time than my younger kids, so the well of games and activities ran dry faster than with the little ones. It takes a certain kind of funny, and sometimes you need let go of your pride and just lose it. Still, aside from the goofiness it’s key to create an environment of mutual respect. Older students benefit from knowing you’re never laughing at them, you’re laughing with them. As a teacher it’s important to never make fun of students, and don’t let them harass each other, either. Teenage kids in China have the same anxiety and fears as kids in the west; you should have fun, but mustn’t let students suffer or get hurt. It’s possible to be a teacher who commands respect, but is also someone they look forward to seeing.

I’ve been teaching in China for the past five years, so occasionally I have lapses of motivation. But, when I make my students smile I feel re-energized. When everyone’s happy and having a good time learning is fun for the students and the teacher. Sometimes when my students are struggling with the lesson I shift into comedy mode. Adding a bit of levity can break the tension, and if I’m lucky the joke will actually help them understand what I’m doing. So in that way I’ve found self-deprivation doesn’t only lift the spirit, but it also can be an effective teaching tool.

By: Mikkel Larsen

Mikkel Larson

Mikkel is a Chongqing based teacher, blogger, and photographer. He has lived in China since 2010, and can be found blogging here, here, and here

City Profile: Chongqing, Chongqing Municipality

Chongqing (重庆) is regarded as the industrial capital of Southwest China. With a population of just under 30 million people, Chongqing Municipality is the most populous of the four direct-controlled municipalities in China. An ancient regional trade center, Chongqing today is still a major manufacturing and transportation hub. But, don’t let that scare you off—despite being known as an industrial city, Chongqing is extremely pleasant and livable, with parks and green areas all over the city.

Chongqing has a long standing historical background—the city dates back to the Spring and Autumn Period—around 316 BC. At the time the city was known as Jiangzhou; its current name was given to the city in 1189 with the crowning of Prince Zhao Dun, who described his crowning as a “double celebration”, the literal meaning of “Chongqing”.

Regarded as one of the “Four Furnaces” of China, Chongqing has an incredibly hot and humid summer. Temperatures reach the high 30’s and the humidity is often more than 80%. At other times of the year, however, the climate is characterized by mild winters, and warm spring and fall seasons.

Unlike most big cities in China, Chongqing is considered to be a sprawling countryside, rather than a city. The lifestyle isn’t as hectic and stressful as coastal mega-cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Unlike many of the Tier I cities, Chongqing has remained affordable to live in. Eating local Chinese food is inexpensive, and a good meal will cost as little as CNY 7 (just over $1). Taxis are also affordable for getting around downtown, and the city’s thirteen districts are well connected by four major subway lines. Access to long distance buses, train stations and the airport are all convenient and cheap. A trip across the city on the subway, will set you back less than CNY 10.

The people in Chongqing don’t usually speak Mandarin, but rather a distinct dialect called 重庆话 (Chongqing hua) or Chongqing Language. It’s a local dialect similar to that spoken in Chengdu and across Sichuan province, also called “Sichuanese”. It’s common for Chinese who speak Mandarin to not fully understand people in Chongqing, and vice versa.

Chongqing is also home to the famous “hot pot” or 火锅 (huǒguō), a selection of sliced meats, fish, and vegetables, typically served in a very spicy (hot) broth. The name hot pot (literally: fire pan) comes from the spicy peppers. While hotpot is the most famous cuisine in Chongqing, you’ll find a lot of interesting and varied food in this mountain city. Their love for spicy food is apparent, but restaurants are nice enough to ask foreigners if they can handle the heat—they’ll prepare a toned-down version of the dish for those who aren’t fond of spice. In Chongqing you’ll also find 小面 “xiǎo miàn or small noodles” and other delicious and spicy foods such as 串串 ” chuàn chuàn” and 干锅 “gān guō or Dry Pot”.

Being a modern city, you’ll also find plenty of western-style restaurants and coffee shops, along with a variety of western supermarkets where you can buy imported food. If you buy a lot of food at once you can go to Metro; plus, one of the biggest IKEA’s in China opened just last year. You can buy Scandinavian furniture for your apartment, or enjoy traditional Swedish meatballs! For shopping and nightlife, most people find their way to Jie Fang Bei or Guan Yin Qiao where you’ll find a myriad of western restaurants, bars and places to kick back and relax.

Chongqing is the kind of city that mixes a little bit of everything. There’s a great mix of business and pleasure within each district, and though some parts feel a bit like a concrete jungle, you can also find quiet parks that overlook the rivers and give you amazing views at night. Chongqing has an eclectic blend of lifestyles—old and new China living side-by-side. It’s common to see business people wearing crisp suits on their morning commute walking alongside the street vendors and 老百姓 “laobaixing, or common people”. It’s a “big, small city”—it has everything without having too much of anything. Chongqing has a friendly spirit and strikes a perfect balance of old and new, making it an amazing city to live, work, and play.

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By: Mikkel Larsen

Mikkel Larson

Mikkel is a Chongqing based teacher, blogger, and photographer. He has lived in China since 2010, and can be found blogging here, here, and here

How to Run a Fun and Efficient ESL Activity

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One of the biggest challenges faced by an ESL teacher in China is trying to re-invent yourself to your students. As you spend more time with the same students, your methods will have a shorter lifespan. You want your students to learn, but no one learns well if they aren’t engaged with the lesson materials and activities.

Over the course of my four years teaching in China, I’ve used numerous activities, warmers and games. Some are instant hits, others don’t quite fit the energy or English level of the students. It’s unrealistic to think every activity will be a “home run”, so it’s important to accept that some activities will fail. Good teachers learn from those experiences as well. A successful TEFL activity takes preparation, planning, and sometimes a little luck.

Running an activity can be divided into Five Steps. Each step has a specific purpose, and following this guideline will ensure your activities are effective and run efficiently.

  1. Lead in

Before starting an activity, it’s a good idea to get the students focused on what they’ll be doing. For example, if I’m teaching new vocabulary and the words are mostly verbs, I might start by having the students brainstorm all the verbs they already know. Since kinesthetic learning is so important for children, I’ll also tell them to act out the words as they say them. This way I’m getting the students engaged, and previewing what’s next. Now they’re already thinking about verbs, so I’ve given them context when I present the new vocabulary.

  1. Set Up

Naturally, the students will not be able to do the activity without clear instructions, so demonstrate the activity first. If the activity is simple, you can give instructions for the whole thing at once. If it’s long or complex, do it in stages and have the students follow you. Never hand out papers, tools or toys before you’re finished explaining. Students will be more interested in what you just gave them, rather than listening to your instructions. To be sure your students understand what you want them to do, ask concept check questions, or ask a student to explain the activity back to you.

  1. Run

Once all your students understand what you want them to do, the activity should be able to run itself. The teacher must monitor, make sure students use the target language, and make corrections as necessary (try not to interrupt unless you have to!). Some corrections can be made after the activity, because every time you stop the students it disrupts the flow of the activity.

  1. Close

Closing an activity can be difficult. Try to sense when the students are ready to stop. It is better to stop an activity before the students get tired or bored, but make sure you give them enough time to be productive. Time warnings are a good way to inform the students the activity is about to end without suddenly stopping. Sometimes you stop when one team has finished, or when the majority of the students are done. You can’t always wait for everyone to finish your activities. Try and set a time-limit or a clear goal for when the activity will end, and make sure the students understand when the activity is finished.

  1. Post-Activity

When your activity has finished, it’s a good idea to ask the students what they learned. You can also correct some of the errors you observed while the students were doing their activity. And don’t forget to praise your students for doing a good job!

Remember, regardless of the age or level of your students, they will feed off your energy. If you’re presenting an activity with no enthusiasm, your students won’t get excited, either. Make your activity fun and interesting, and use big gestures when you’re demonstrating what to do; even if you look or feel foolish! Your students want to have fun, and sometimes you need to show them they’re allowed to have fun while learning!

By: Mikkel Larsen

Mikkel Larson

Mikkel is a Chongqing based teacher, blogger, and photographer. He has lived in China since 2010, and can be found blogging here, here, and here

Celebrate Spring Festival with a ‘Bang!’

Spring Festival Chongqing 02China’s biggest holiday of the year is 春节 (“chun jie” – Spring Festival), or Chinese New Year as it’s referred to in the West. Spring Festival is like Christmas and New Year’s Eve combined into a one week super-holiday. Nearly everyone returns home to see their family during Spring Festival, so it’s the annual cause of the largest human migration on Earth; every year China sets a new record for the most people traveling at the same time. Last year, around 260 million people traveled to various parts of the country within just a matter of days.

Because Chinese holidays are set according to the lunar calendar, the Chinese New Year doesn’t usually start until late January or early February – this year, Spring Festival started on February 18th. Unlike Christmas and New Year in the Western world, which are traditionally only celebrated for one day each, Spring Festival is celebrated from the last day of the last month, for fifteen days until the Lantern Festival on the fifteenth day of the first month. Throughout these fifteen days, people have dinners at home with loved ones, play traditional Chinese games like Mahjong, and exchange gifts such as 红包 (“hong bao” – red envelopes full of money). It is also tradition to wear new clothes at the start of the New Year, so the few days before the Spring Festival begins it’s common for everyone to go shopping for new (usually red) clothes.

The staple food during Chinese Spring Festival is dumplings. The 馅儿 (“xian’er” – stuffing, or flavor) varies by region. In the north for example, Spring Festival dumplings are often filled with pork, shrimp, and leeks. Another salient feature of Spring Festival is the hanging of red lanterns along the road, and 春联 (“Chun lian” – Spring Festival couplets) on doorways and windows. These are usually adorned with Chinese characters for happiness, health and fortune. It is believed that hanging these symbols in your house will bring good luck in the New Year.

Perhaps the most important (and loudest) part of Spring Festival is playing with firecrackers. Unlike in the west where we shoot fireworks into the sky for the New Year, Chinese firecrackers are smaller in size, but larger in number. Instead of shooting off a single rocket, the Chinese will light firecrackers that are several meters long with several thousand smaller bangs. The shooting of fireworks and firecrackers can be heard year round in China (especially during weddings or when a new business opens), but Spring Festival is when they are most prevalent. At midnight of the New Year, you will hear hundreds of thousands of firecrackers being set off simultaneously, and the festivities last deep into the night. The purpose is to scare away evil spirits with the loud noise, and as a blessing to mark a new beginning.

Although celebrations are similar across China, some Spring Festival traditions are slightly different from place to place. Big, modern cities like Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Chongqing – though in different parts of the country – celebrate Spring Festival in a very similar fashion. But each province has their own way of doing things. This is especially true as you venture further into the countryside to the small villages; there are ways of celebrating that are unique to their specific location.

Being in China during Spring Festival is indeed a remarkable and memorable experience. Aspects of it remind me of Christmas in my home country of Denmark; it’s not necessarily just about gifts and food, but a chance to spend time with family and enjoy the spirit of the season.  Enjoying this type of festive season while living abroad is very special, and is a great reminder of why I have chosen China as a place to live and work.

By: Mikkel Larsen

Mikkel Larson
Mikkel Larson

Mikkel is a Chongqing based teacher, blogger, and photographer. He has lived in China since 2010, and can be found blogging here, here, and here

A Dose of Inspiration to Start 2014

A Dose of Inspiration to Start 2014

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do, so throw off the bowlines, sail away from safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore, Dream, Discover.” –Mark Twain

Photo credit: Fotolia

City Profile: Changchun, China

Heavenly Lake outside Changchun, Jilin Province
Heavenly Lake outside Changchun, Jilin Province

When directly translating Chinese to English, it’s easy to find laughable mistakes; unfortunately technology has also proven unreliable. There are also terribly literal translations such as “冰球 ” (“ice ball”, otherwise known as “hockey”) or “枫树糖浆” (“maple tree sweet sauce”…you guessed it…”syrup”).

Occasionally however, I come across a word that strikes me as slightly romantic – literally translated, “长春” (Changchun) means “Long Spring”. Somehow the name evokes images of snow-capped mountains and cherry blossoms. Attractions like Changbai Mountain and Heavenly Lake, Jingyuetan National Forest and Nanhu Park all give credibility to Changchun’s reputation as one of the greenest and most livable cities in China.

The provincial capital of Jilin province, Changchun is in the beautiful northeast of China – near Russia, Mongolia and Korea. People often say that China, as seen on a map looks like a chicken (it really does!). If China really is a giant rooster, Changchun is the “eye”.

After overcoming  occupations by the Mongolians and Japan, Changchun has finally flourished into a modern city with a robust economy which includes automobile manufacturing and much of China’s film industry. Unlike many of China’s coastal cities, Changchun has a short history and is still very much a work in progress – because of the city’s reputation as the “City in the Forest”, there is a conscious effort to develop in a sustainable fashion. Green spaces are preserved and the air is among the cleanest in China.

In the past few years, the city has seen several upscale Western restaurants open – and although the nightlife has a long way to go before it catches up with Beijing and Shanghai, there are several good places that are friendly to expats. Changchun is a great place to live for outdoorsy types – especially in winter. Outside the city is skiing, snowboarding and you can find places for ice-skating inside the city.

The food in Changchun is well-known throughout China – ginseng is a specialty here and it is found in several classic dishes. Because of its proximity to the Korean Peninsula, there’s also a notably Korean flair to the food – lots of kimchi and chili sauce for lovers of spicy food – not to mention plenty of tasty seafood dishes.

As nice as it is to live in Changchun, it’s also an easy place to get away from. Beijing, Dalian, Mongolia and Shenyang are all reachable by train. In winter, you can hop on a train to Harbin to see the unbelievable Harbin Ice Festival. I’d show you photos myself but my Canon ‘Elf’ froze while I was there (nearly -40 degrees C)!

With its unique blend of Chinese and Korean culture, well-protected green spaces and rugged mountain surroundings, Changchun is a Chinese city unlike any other.

Come see for yourself why Changchun is such a great place to live – get in touch with the teacher recruitment team at ESL Suite to learn more about teaching jobs in Changchun!