SIMPLE PAST ACTIVITIES

by Chris Elvin

Here are three activities which I have found to be both useful and fun for oral practice of the simple past. In all of them, I've tried to make sure that there is a genuine desire for my students to want to participate, and hopefully their communication skills will improve as they take part. The activities are not just about the simple past, of course, but in order for any degree of success, your students should be familiar with this tense.

Activity 1 - How was your vacation?

When students return to school from vacation, it is only natural that they will want to talk about what they did while they were away from school. As a materials writer, it is a relatively easy task to tap into my students interests and create an activity which they will find fun based on these interests.
For this particular activity, I choose pairwork because this is the best way of maximizing the amount of speaking done in a class, and also because the students' conversations tend to be somewhat private in nature. The purpose is to have lots of meaningful speaking and listening practice in which knowledge of the simple past is a part requirement.
To begin the lesson, we spend about five minutes reviewing the simple past and going over any difficult words on the print, such as the meaning and pronunciation of "during". I don't want my lesson to be solely focused on grammar, but the five minutes that we do spend focusing on form helps to reduce a general propensity for making mistakes. The main activity, which takes up most of the lesson, is the pairwork itself, and my role is to circulate, tend to their queries, help with any of their perceived difficulties, and make notes for subsequent lessons.
I have a pairwork activity for each grade that I teach and for each term. The questions vary slightly depending on the age of the students and the season, and also whether or not something major has happened since the students last met, but they are more or less the same every year.
The worksheet that I am sharing in this newsletter (pages 11 & 12) is for the spring term and for intermediate-level students. It is deliberately generic in nature so that more teachers will be able to use it.
The first couple of questions are typical conversation openers. I have provided some model answers to help everyone get started. The middle set of questions are the same on both prints, but the order is different. This is so that each student gets to practice speaking and listening to the same extent without having recourse to reading when it's their turn to listen. The final few questions are the same on both prints because they are usually perceived as more difficult. For these questions I don't mind if students read in order to ascertain the meaning.
If the print quality of your photocopied newsletter is not to your liking, please feel free to download a copy from my website, EFL Club (www.eflclub.com). You will need Acrobat Reader, which you can also obtain from my site. The resolution of these PDF files is usually very good.

See PDF file of Activity 1 worksheets

Activity 2 - History Quiz

This is a class listening activity in which the questions and answers are provided by the students. This is partly because the students' culture and world view is different from mine, and also because many minds are better than one when it comes to generating the questions and answers. I hand out small slips of paper with the following unfinished questions printed on each slip;

Who sang .............................................................? answer .......................................................................
Who wrote .............................................................? answer .......................................................................
Who painted .............................................................? answer .......................................................................
Who appeared in ........................ as ..........................? answer .......................................................................
Who discovered .............................................................? answer .......................................................................
Who invented .............................................................? answer .......................................................................



I also include a couple of blank lines for the students to write their own questions and answers without any constraints. (You could also write the questions on the board, but it is more efficient to make a print beforehand).
The reason why I chose these verbs is that, apart from "invent", they all appear in a unit of the textbook that we were reviewing (Now You're Talking, published by EFL Press), and the reason why these verbs were chosen for my textbook was because they were the most typical questions that students wanted to ask while we were putting the textbook together. Perhaps you may feel that the semantic overlap between words such as "discover" and "invent" may make them difficult to learn simultaneously, or that they are, in any case, relatively rare words, and that there is more important vocabulary for students to learn. These are certainly some of my concerns. But these words are the ones that my students wanted to study, and what they want to know gets learned so much faster than what the teacher thinks they ought to know. So it's a question of balancing the students' needs against the teacher's covert intentions.
The quiz can get pretty competitive, at times, but it's always in good spirits. For the student, there is considerable kudos in being able to understand the question and get the right answer in front of one's peers.
In this year's quiz, there were lots of relatively easy questions about Japanese pop culture, and a few tricky ones: "Who discovered Karafuto?", "Who killed Hirobumi Ito?", "Who invented dynamite?", "Who sang the ABC song?", "Who wrote Pokemon?", and "Who painted The Scream?".
(I can guess what you're probably thinking. You're saying to yourself that even your University students wouldn't be able to answer these questions, and perhaps they would squeal in contempt if you ever dared to ask, but my students didn't squeal because they knew that somebody, somewhere, in their grade knows this stuff! That is the crucial difference.)
I got three out of six, by the way.

Class management

The time it takes to write the quiz questions and answers varies considerably from student to student. Therefore, it makes sense to have another activity that the faster students can get along with while others complete their prints. Alternatively, you could set it for homework, which in some cases will lead to a better selection of quiz questions. It also helps if the students write their name and class number on their print as you may want to query them later.
The quiz can be played twice. The first time, I use only the questions from one class, rather than the whole grade. I collect the questions and answers in three piles according to the rows in which the students are sitting. Then I use the questions from one row to ask the students sitting in the other two rows. This ensures that students can't answer their own question. This is basically just a warm-up activity for the main quiz which I usually do the following lesson. The real quiz involves students from all classes of the same grade that I teach. I select about one hundred of the best questions, making sure that everyone is accountable, and that there are no repeats (I work in Excel™, which makes it easy to sort and eliminate duplicate items). For a fifty-minute lesson, a hundred questions is about the maximum that you will need if you want to have a rapid-fire quiz with little or no redundancy. If you think that redundancy is important - and many teachers, including myself, do, then half as many should be sufficient.
Fairness is an important thing to consider when doing competitive activities such as quizzes. If two or more students from different groups put their hand up at the same time, I usually let them janken to decide who answers first. I also make sure that I avoid action zones; giving some students more attention than others because of where they are seated. My students on the outer aisles often complain that they were first or just as fast to put their hand up as the lucky ones in the middle row, second from the front, and they have a valid point. I try to get around this, as much as possible, by moving away from center from time to time, or changing my field of vision.

Activity 3 - Last summer, I went to Australia...

This language activity is based on a memory game called I went to the market... which many young native speakers of English play while growing up. The object is to remember what everybody playing has bought at the market, and then to add an item of one's own to an ever increasingly long list of things to remember. In the original version, this game could be used to review shopping items, counters or even articles. I chose to modify it so that we could practice not only the past tense of "buy" but also other verbs, too.
I wrote on the board "Last summer, I went to Australia." Then I asked for a volunteer student to repeat this sentence and add something of her own to the next line, "Last summer, I went to Australia and I ... b.." The second volunteer has to say, "Last summer, I went to Australia. I ... b.., and I ... c.." I also write the letters of the alphabet on the board, in order, as this helps to speed up the game a little.
The great beauty of this activity is that the "story" is always different, and that everyone has an equal stake in the development of its uniqueness.
There are also sound pedagogical reasons for playing this game, too. Firstly, students get a lot of repetition, and secondly, I get a chance to model correct language without being too obtrusive about their errors: I'm merely repeating what the students say so that the others will be able to hear. Some students will notice that I have inserted the appropriate article, for instance. Others who don't are possibly challenged enough remembering the chain of events, or they could be focussing on other important features of the language, such as the pronunciation of new words, or the past tense of the verbs.
It is amazing how rapidly students learn from each other! I have never taught them "fall in love with" "kill" or "participate in", nor "octopus" or "xylophone", for example, but once a student uses it, others quickly follow.
I like this activity because everyone gets involved at a level in which the students decide is appropriate for themselves. Some students take their turn early, because it is easier to remember. Others wait for a chance to say something personal or interesting, while others see the game as a test of memory and delay going until the end. Some of the kinesthetically inclined like to mime the actions. Some groups of students like to maintain a consistent story line (by, for example, jetting off to America to buy a home, get married and visit Universal Studios), while others are happy to go all the way to Australia to buy a desk.
"Ii jan!"

Chris Elvin teaches part-time at Caritas Gakuen in Kanagawa, and St. Dominic's Institute in Tokyo. He can be reached at celvin@gol.com .

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