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.
©Shutterstock.com/racorn

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.