Many of you are teaching English and doing outreach on zoom but some of you may have the privilege of actually being with real, live students albeit in a socially distanced and rather restricted environment.  Recently I attended a Cambridge Live Experience on zoom and I would like to share with you some ideas for managing social distancing in the language classroom whilst still learning and having fun.

From ‘Ball Games’ onwards the activities can be easily adapted for an online environment too.  Some of them are familiar and others may not be, but credit and thanks to Delia Kidd and Claire Ross at Cambridge University Press for many of the ideas.

The activities can be used as warmers to get learners to work together and activate sharing of information or they may be activities that take longer to consolidate vocabulary or to just get learners using language.  They are also good for café environments as they are a lot of fun.  They are low risk and help to start the class in a positive way. Learners can use their own pens and materials are minimal.  Get all learners to wash their hands before and after the class if in a real room.  Just take one and try it if you haven’t already.

  • The Noisy Café
    Put learners in pairs with learners ‘A’ on one side of the room and ‘B’ on the opposite side. Give learners questions to ask. A shouts the question across the room to B who answers it and asks A another question back.
  • Mini Whiteboard Messaging (a quieter option!)
    Each learner has their own mini whiteboard. Your learners can easily make their own whiteboard by putting a piece of white card in a plastic sleeve.  If you write on the sleeve with a marker pen, it is easily wipeable and can be used again.  They are also available quite cheaply online.  Learner A writes a question on their board and raises it for partner B to see across the room.  B writes their answer on their board and raises it to show A.  Use conversational style writing.
  • Snowballs (wash hands after!)
    You may remember in school writing secret messages on a bit of paper and scrunching it up and throwing it to a friend. Well here, the learner writes a question, scrunches it up and throws to a friend in the class.  The friend opens it, writes their response on the paper, scrunches it up and throws it back again.  This could be a question/answer style activity or try collaborative story-telling where each learner adds a line to the story.
  • Conversation Stations (wash hands after!)
    Set up stations around the room on various tables/chairs. Each station has a topic/questions written on a post-it note or mini whiteboard. Leave blank post-its at each station.  Learners go to a station one at a time, read what is required and respond on a post-it note. They then move to next station.  At the end the teacher can pick some notes out to share with the class.  Some learners may need to be sitting waiting for their turn.
  • Telephone cups (wash hands after!)
    This is popular with younger learners but works equally well for all ages. You can make them with your learners or have them prepared beforehand. You need two paper cups between two people, a sharp pencil to make a hole in the base of each cup, a long piece of string (take the string and thread it through the hole in one cup, knot it so it doesn’t fall out. Then do the same with the other end of the string threaded through the base of the 2nd cup).  Learner A puts the cup to their mouth and learner B takes the other cup and walks away until the string is taut and nothing is touching it. B puts their cup to their ear.  A speaks normally into their cup and B will hear through his/her cup.  This is a real communication device!  Give learners a topic to discuss.
  • Ball Games
    Throw a ball to a learner across the room and ask a question. They catch it and answer the question. This age-old game can be used as a warmer and is also good for vocabulary and brainstorming.  g. Say the name of a fruit and throw to a student, they say a fruit name and continue.  Or use it like a memory game where each learner repeats what they have heard before and then they add their word to the list and throw to someone else. You can add any language element and challenge. Throw a ‘virtual ball’ (drop it sometimes/make it a heavy ball!) for online classes.  Remember to nominate a learner by name.
  • Kim’s Game (not sure who Kim is!)
    This is a memory game. Show some images of things the learners have been looking at recently.  Ask them to close their eyes and remove one of the pictures.  Ask learners which item is missing.  Or take them all away and ask how many items they remember.
  • Pictograms
    These are pictures that represent words. Choose four pictures to show. The first letter of what the picture shows is part of a secret word. E.g. show pictures of a snowman, octopus, fork and alien.  Learners must take the first letter of each word s-o-f-a and make the secret word ‘sofa’.  If you show the pictures in a different order then the letters are jumbled up.  This can make it slightly harder for higher level students.
    Options: A Learner chooses a word (write on a mini whiteboard and show camera if online/on a piece of paper) and everyone must think of a picture for each letter.  Learners can draw the picture and hold it up whilst others guess the object.
  • Think of five things that are green
    Learners can type these words in the chat box or simply call them out if in the classroom. You can change the colours as you see fit.  It can also be played as a team game.  Each team gets 1 point for every same word they come up with and 2 points for different words.  Options:  Five things that you did at the weekend/house objects/Increase number of items to 10!  Use breakout rooms for the teams to guess or divide room in half.
  • Alphabet stories (good for higher levels)
    Try to make a silly, non-sensical story using words beginning with letters from the alphabet. E.g. a-b-c-d-Affectionate barber creates donkeys…. (This gets learners using all parts of speech i.e. subjects, verbs, objects etc.)
    Options: A simpler version is learners saying random words they know beginning with letters of the alphabet (e.g. apples, bananas, car, door…)/or use topics e.g. animals/food/hobbies etc.


Compiled for 2:19 by Marina Swainston-Harrison

ESL Specialist

November 2020