George Lucas Educational Foundation
Global Education

Authentic Activities for the World Language Classroom

More than 30 exercises to keep your students engaged and learning.
A girl works on a Spanish exercise on a blackboard.
A girl works on a Spanish exercise on a blackboard.
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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 whiteboard, 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 what your go-to activity is, we’re 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 in the process. Many language teachers think being authentic means decorating their classrooms with flags and other souvenirs collected in their travels. But true authenticity comes from the activities we use during class time and leaves an impact on the communication skills of our students.

In a previous Edutopia post, I outlined how to best shape a unit around communication. Below I outline some ideas within the interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational modes of communication.

Interpretive Mode

  • Read children’s stories. (Spanish teachers should check out Cuentos Infantiles.)
  • 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 for students to 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 the University of Texas 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 or Quizlet Live.
  • Show videos on Yabla (available in Spanish, German, Italian, French, and Chinese)—well worth the $100 a year price.
  • Instagram a word of the day.
  • Have students interpret what their peers are saying as they present in class. You can have them officially do this as an interpretive listening practice by providing a template for them to fill out.

Interpersonal Mode

  • Sign a contract on the first day of school promising to use only the target language within your classroom walls.
  • Survey one another. (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 conversations 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.
  • Use Twitter as a story-writing activity. You tweet the first line and have 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. Each student has some information they need to share with their partner, and the two of them work to share their information with each another.
  • Find and discuss the differences between two related photos.
  • Play 20 Questions. For a lower level course, you could 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.
  • Ignite student discussion using Flipgrid.com.
  • Encourage students to have silent conversations using Google Docs. Choose a theme and have each student select a color for their responses. Make sure they share the document with you too, so that you can monitor and comment.

Presentational Mode

  • Create a comic strip. Try out the Strip Designer 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, any number of apps, or a website such as Canva.
  • Embrace student-led learning by giving a broad question that they’ll 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.
  • Make animated videos at Biteable.com.

Five Rules for the Three 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 on the unit theme.
  5. Perhaps most importantly, they should force students to use the target language.
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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

Outstanding, Sarah!

Thanks for the update, and I concur on every point you make. We have access to so many ressources now via the internet. I appreciate your emphasis on the three modes of communication, keeping us focused on our standards for communication. And, actually, as we do so, students are much more apt to engage, because after all, they want to learn how to communicate, not to conjugate, right ?!

You have covered so many sites and resources, and examples for Spanish in particular. Here are a few of my favorites for authentic resources in French.

1) TV5Monde.org - my all time favorite for video, audio and text from all the Francophone nations. There are also other great resources for learning French, such as dictionaries, including English or Spanish to French, plus other languages as well, and French to French dictionary for going deeper. There are games, music videos, poems, proverbs, and short stories... And so much more.

2) RFI.fr - Radio France Internationale has everything for current events, and more. Students can read articles, listen to podcasts, or view videos on everything from politics, and the economy, to the arts, nature, science and music, as well as everything else.

3) RadioCanada.ca - For those of us who are Canadien, this is like going home! I love to hear the accent du pays. Takes me back to the good old days, so to say. Hockey lovers - there is a lot here to whet your appetite for a hockey night in Canada, in your own home!

4) YouTube - of course!

5) https://www.conte-moi.net - stories from many of the francophone nations! A wonderful resource!

Of course, there are many more sites to share for resources. Keep in mind that Sarah's activities apply equally to all languages, of course. Most of all, I appreciate Sarah's reminder of the 5 rules for the 3 modes. We should all make a poster to put over our desks to keep them in mind!

Finally, here are a couple ideas for my 2 favorite tech tools:

a) Sarah already mentioned FlipGrid. My students love to use it. FlipGrid videos are a joy for me to watch. I love seeing and hearing my students produce oral language for practice, or as a speaking assessment. At 65$ a year for 10 grids, and no limit to the number of prompts, I find it a real bargain. I share my account with the other French teacher at my school, so we each have enough grids for all our classes.

b) Padlet is another "must have" for my classroom. It is like having a virtual bulletin board wherever you are, and it is free. I create a prompt with a video, photo, painting, poster, or just a question, for example, and post it on the Padlet. Students respond to the prompt by posting replies in writing, on a document to upload, or they can post an audio or video file as a response. There is no end to the possibilities here! And it is free!

Ok, that's enough from me for now. How about you? What are some of your favorite ways to engage your students to communicate in the target language? What sites do you use to find authentic resources for your language? What tech tools do you like to use, and how do you use them?

I look forward to seeing your replies. So, World Language teachers! Let's get talking!

See you soon,

Don

Michael Lovett's picture

I love this article, it got me all fired up!

I've used quite a few of these approaches with adult students, and the points are just as valid with them as with youngsters. In fact, I think more so in some cases. As adults we are used to being told and taught things mostly in a serious or formal manner. When you make things fun again, and maybe even dummy things down a bit, adults often open up and learn better.

Two other things I've had success with: using songs, and getting the students to be emotionally "involved" while learning the language.

As for songs, I find that most adults are happy to memorize and sing interesting and engaging lyrics (juvenile and/or adult songs, as their skills allow), either karaoke or group style -- the rewards are that they retain the vocabulary longer, plus learn something about the culture as well. Also, the lyrics in many songs are great springboards for investigations into language structure, idioms, and grammar. (I learned most of my initial Spanish by memorizing hundreds of songs)

As far as emotions, people remember things that are associated with strong emotions. In some classes, we've set up little "theater presentations" where the goal was for the students to be super expressive while using new vocabulary. For example, if we were learning words and phrases related to being angry, I'd encourage the students to march around the room, even yelling and screaming and pumping their fists, while shouting out the phrases. They never forget them!

Lastly, another amazingly useful thing is to have students record themselves and then listen to their own pronunciation. If possible, I'll have them listen to a recording of a native speaking something, and then the student speaks and records the same thing. Then, they can compare their pronunciation to the native pronunciation.

Most students *think* they sound a certain way, but when they actually listen to a recording of themselves, they are amazed at what they hear. If the student is open to it, I've had the group listen to the student's recording and give them feedback / suggestions.

I think good pronunciation is hard to achieve and too often overlooked in the "classroom".

An additional benefit is that I find that as a student's pronunciation improves, so does their listening comprehension. The more you speak like a native, the easier it is to understand one

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