Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Tefl Classroom Games and Activities: The Passive Voice

light bulb idea
Some EFL teachers who have been working for a number of years in primary and junior schools assume that teaching at the university level is somehow a step above. Older students and the images we associate with institutes of higher learning convince some people that there must be special skills associated with being a "lecturer."

In fact, many methods for teaching younger students work just as well when you are dealing with post-secondary students.

Yes, even games and activities can be implemented in the university classroom!

Remember that the very designation "EFL" makes classroom games appropriate and logical for learners of all ages. We are not teaching academic courses for the most part (though there are no doubt foreign teachers who do.) We are teaching ESP classes (English for Special Purposes) and fundamental or foundation courses that focus on the four important skills. Therefore, all classes taught by such teachers are essentially language courses.

Games have been proven to be an effective way to improve English language skills and confidence at the same time.

The heightened sensation or natural high that comes from competing, laughing and encouraging each other, makes students more receptive to further learning and retention. From personal experience, I have no doubt that games and activities increase motivation and make the whole process easier.

After using a wide variety of language learning games over a number of years, you naturally develop a sense for what works and what doesn't. Simple is almost always the best. The instructions for the game should not be too difficult for the level of the students (a killer for many games that at first glance seem promising).

A good classroom game is kind of like a performance, with you as the director trying to convince the students to play their roles with enthusiasm. There is always some kind of script (specific grammar point and the language that is modeled to get them started) and the hope that some free flowing improvisation will take place. And as with any movie or live production, a certain degree of suspense is important in contributing to its success.

With those elements in mind, here is a simple and effective classroom game to practice the past simple verb tense in the passive voice.

Great Inventions

Objective: To correctly form sentences in the past simple tense, passive voice. The main language skill is speaking. Secondary aims include: improving vocabulary related to every day objects.


1. A list of dates detailing when numerous items were invented. Here is a good website where you can choose the items you wish to use for the game. Print off or write down a sizable number--ideally, at least one for every student in the class. Try to use a good selection of items from as long as 2-300 years ago and as current as during the last few decades. Further searches for items not included on the website can round out your list. I've always found that computer related items such as mouse or CD are good, as are exports from western countries that have become ubiquitous around the world (Coke or jeans, for example).

2. A picture representing every one of the items whose dates you have recorded. This may involve a fair amount of work locating images online or drawing them yourself. You could also simply write the names of the items on slips of paper though this could require extra time to explain the more obscure examples.

This game can be played in as little as 20 minutes though 35-40 is better.

Procedure: This game should be played after the basics of the passive voice have been taught and some practice and exercise sheets completed.

The class is separated into two teams. Model these sentences on the board:

Team 1

The car was invented in 1885 (date chosen by team). singular

Cars were invented in (date chosen by team). plural

Coffee was invented in (date chosen by team). uncountable

Team 2

No, it was/they were invented, before that.


No, it was/they were invented after that.

Tell the class that either singular or plural is acceptable for the initial statement but uncountable nouns must follow the third example. The team answering should, of course, model their answer based on what style was used in the opening guess.

If team 2 is right, they receive one point. If team 2 is wrong, team 1 gets one point. If team 1 has successfully guessed the correct year, they receive two points (rare but it has happened.)

The game begins when the first team chooses a picture.

Allow consultation within the teams but ensure that each student both guesses and responds at least once.

The game ends when the teacher decides or the class finishes. The team with the most points wins.

Conclusion: Time permitting, introduce the past participle "built" and have students separate into pairs. Using similar sentences as above, students can exchange ideas regarding when they think various buildings (famous or simply familiar, such as their school) and monuments in their country were built.

Homework: Students can write a short paragraph about a famous invention, making sure to include at least one past simple, passive voice sentence.

While only one past participle is practiced during the game, the pattern is the focus here. Also a good opportunity to practice the -ed ending /Id/ that can be difficult for many students.

Different sources may provide conflicting dates regarding certain inventions. Also, some definitions regarding the items in question may vary and result in some confusion. For example, "automobile" for most people means that there is an internal combustion engine involved while others have a looser interpretation. I would avoid getting into these distinctions and focus on the language usage.

This game has never failed to elicit an enthusiastic response from the students. Alas, I can't claim to be the originator. I first came across it a few years ago in an activity book with sheets including the dates and pictures that could be cut out.

Another fun aspect of this game, especially for the teacher, is the realization of just how young and unsophisticated your students are. You will no doubt have to offer some encouragement to think carefully about history and technology after someone offers up a statement along the lines of:

"The helicopter was invented in 1742..."

"Why teacher laughing?"


Anonymous said...

This is an excellent idea I'll be trying out with my students :D

Anonymous said...

we can also include historical events and play like a History Trivia. For instance, the game would go like:
I cut as many stripes of paper as the number of students I have. I write sentences about history for example:America was discovered in 1493. (which is false)the group which guesses gets a point :)

Nombre Completo said...

Why is that last quote such bad English? Don't most students know the pronoun "you" from the very beginning?

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