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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Do you ever feel stuck in a rut while planning your language classes? Perhaps you spend a lot of time lecturing at the white board, use the same activities with different vocabulary for every unit, or rely on teaching students grammar because that's how you were taught. No matter your "go to" activity, we are all much more engaging when we vary our activities and make them relatable. If the speaker is engaging, a good lecture every now and then is enjoyable. However, when faced with daily lectures, students dread class, and hence, learn less. So why not mix it up?

When dreaming up new activities, our main focus should always be authenticity. If we make activities genuine, our students will be much more inclined to participate, acquiring new knowledge through the process. Many language teachers think that being authentic means decorating their classrooms with flags and other souvenirs collected through their travels. But true authenticity comes from the activities we use during class time, leaving an impact on the communicative skills of our students.

In a previous Edutopia post, I outlined how to best shape a unit around communication. Since then, many of you have reached out to me about the sorts of activities that could fill these types of units. Below, I have outlined some of my ideas within the three modes of communication.

Interpretive Mode

  • Read children’s stories. (Spanish teachers should check out CuentosInfantiles.)
  • Watch videos made for children on YouTube and Vimeo. Pocoyo is a great example of a program that has been translated into nearly every language.
  • Have your friends who are native speakers make recordings around a theme. You can then write corresponding questions which students must answer while listening in class.
  • Read news articles, literature, poems, and blogs. Check out Veinte Mundos for articles written for students in French, Spanish, German, and English, or go to Paperboy to find newspapers from all over the world.
  • Watch the news online. The BBC has news articles and videos in a myriad of languages.
  • Use the language proficiency site developed by UTexas to gain access to native Spanish speakers talking about a variety of themes. These are conveniently divided into proficiency levels.
  • Listen to radio stations. Spanish teachers should check out Radio Ambulante and RTVE.es.
  • Make a fun interactive quiz using Kahoot!
  • Show videos on Yabla (available in Spanish, German, Italian, French, and Chinese) -- well worth the $100 a year.
  • Instagram a word of the day.
  • Have students interpret what their peers are saying as they present in class. You can even have them officially use it as an interpretive listening practice by providing a template for them to fill out.

Interpersonal Mode

Engage your students in these activities:

  • Sign a contract on the first day of school promising to use only the target language within your classroom walls.
  • Survey one another based on the theme. (Note: link downloads a 114 KB pdf.)
  • Respond to emails that require them to use the vocabulary in a real way. (Note: link downloads a 131 KB pdf.)
  • Have a conversation in groups of two about a theme you give them. After their discussion, have them present to the class about what their partner told them.
  • Respond to a class blog. As an example, mine is AP Spanish.
  • Use Twitter as a story-writing activity. You tweet the first line, and students tweet a certain number of lines over a determined period of time, then read the finished story in class. These never disappoint.
  • Speak with each other on a topic while you observe.
  • Work in pairs on an information gap activity. One student will have some information that they need to share with their partner. The two of them will share their information with one another.
  • Find and discuss the differences between two related photos.
  • Play "20 Questions." For a lower level course, you could even give them 20 questions to ask one another. This works great for nearly every possible unit theme.
  • Participate in simple conversation days. I find that my students really enjoy these, and they serve as a great way to wrap up a unit. These work best with the desks arranged in a large circle. As homework the night before, ask students to write down questions for the group that relate to the unit theme.

Presentational Mode

Have students do these:

  • Create a comic strip. Try out the Pow! Strip Design app.
  • Produce an iMovie. (Note: link downloads an 80 KB pdf.)
  • Make a presentation on Google Drive, Prezi, Haiku Deck, Keynote, or PowerPoint.
  • Speak or write about a specific scenario. (Note: link downloads a 114 KB pdf.)
  • Write a story using Storybird, or write a book using the Book Creator app.
  • Record short videos based on a determined scenario. (Note: link downloads a 144 KB pdf.)
  • Generate speaking avatars at voki.
  • Create a story around an event by blending their own words with what was reported about it on social media, using Storify.
  • Make a poster to present their ideas using poster board or any number of apps with this capability.
  • Embrace student-led learning by giving a broad question that they will need to investigate in small groups. Each group will need to make a poster that reflects their answer to your question, and then present it to the class as a whole.

5 Rules for the 3 Modes

In order to help students better master the units we teach, remember these rules when selecting activities:

  1. They must be authentic.
  2. They should always be engaging.
  3. Activities should be varied.
  4. They need to be focused around the unit theme.
  5. Perhaps most importantly, they should force students to use the target language.

Please share your own recommendations for classroom activities within the three modes!

Was this useful? (6)

Comments (9) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
2015 California Language Teacher of the Year, Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center

Sarah, you always have so many great ideas! Thanks for sharing this post with the WL peeps here on Edutopia! I am tweeting this out to #LangChat and looking to see the comments to come. Best wishes!

Lina Raffaelli's picture
Lina Raffaelli
Former Community Engagement Intern at Edutopia

Great suggestions. I heard a presentation at a conference (SOESTI) about using Pow! and Storybird to teach ELA, they both seemed like great resources and well-received by students. I'm sure they are equally effective for teaching other languages as well.

I also love the idea of creating twitter "story" where individuals write it piece by piece via tweets; I've never heard of this before but I bet the end result would be interesting, if not entertaining!

Linda's picture

these are absolutely amazing ideas and I would love nothing more than to use them in my classes but I'm stuck on how to start something like this when there has been no previous knowledge OR with my exploratory middle school classes.....Any thoughts?

oliver144's picture

Use data from Quizlet to make a quiz game with the Phrase Maze app:
Rather than just flashcard-style vocab, have students practice full phrases in response to audio questions about pictures.

Sebastian's picture

Hi, I am currently looking for videos in Spanish that I could use with kinder kids. Basically flashcards with audio repeating the words. Any suggestions where I can find something like this? Thanks!

Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
2015 California Language Teacher of the Year, Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center

!Hola Sebastian!

Thanks for your inquiry. Although I am not much of a specialist of elementary L2 education, I know someone who is, and she has some WONDERFUL materials for early learners of Spanish. She has a company called Calico Spanish, and her website is at: http://www.calicospanish.com.

My friend's name is Erica - she is a wonderful resource and will be delighted to give you some ideas, even if it is not on her own site.

Another wonderful resource is Sara-Elizabeth and her site is http://musicuentos.com. S-E has lots of great ideas for elementary Spanish through AP. She is always happy to share ideas.

Finally, Zachary Jones is a fantastic resource to the Spanish Teachers I know. He has a very complete website at http://zachary-jones.com/zambombazo/

I hope this gives you some good leads. I'll keep thinking, and ask others to add to this discussion. Who has other resources to add to the list?

Best wishes,


Rita C.'s picture
Rita C.
High school Spanish teacher from Mississippi

Hi, Sarah,

You have presented some great ideas. I will be looking into these in the days and weeks to come.


MartinaBex's picture

Hi Sarah! You have so many great ideas here, and I appreciate that you sorted them by mode! 1 point of clarification for me--how do you define "authentic"? You listed it as a requirement for activities. The usual definition is that it is by native speakers for native speakers, but that doesn't fit everything you have here since you have interpersonal mode and other activities where that just wouldn't be possible. Thanks so much in advance for helping me to better understand what you mean!

Applesauceart's picture

You have many great ideas - a couple more to add: foreign language games to help reinforce vocabulary while having fun. Also, foreign language visual arts within the classroom helps reinforce vocabulary. I've found that foreign language art prints / posters are difficult to find, so I actually just launched a site of posters in French, Spanish and Japanese for the classroom: www.applesauceart.com.

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