How to distract your students into paying attention

Great post from Speakeasy at the Wall Street Journal:

“It’s the oldest trick in the book: If you have a boring task, make it seem like fun. Maybe others will pitch in. You might even start enjoying yourself. Remember Tom Sawyer living it up while whitewashing the picket fence? The best teachers I encountered while researching “Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn” captivated their students’ attention by providing interactive and collaborative challenges with clear rewards. We can adapt some of their tactics.”

Go to How to Distract Your Kid Into Paying Attention



>Literati and Scrabble

>One of the most popular on-line games on Yahoo is Literati. It is just like Scrabble. I described this game to this list several months ago and invited everyone to join me for a game which we played one night.

It’s a great game to play with friends or students. While you play there is a little ‘chat’ window where you can talk about words, the weather, whatever. I think the maximum number to play is 4 or 5 but others can join in to watch the game. You could even have the extras join the players and make ‘teams’ so that you would have 4-5 teams.

I think any activity that works with words is helpful for students. Before a student lays out his tiles for a 4 letter word he has run through his mind hundreds of possible words. Every spelling combination that seems like it could be a word is followed by the thought “Is that a real word? What word is it and what does it mean?” It is a delightful way for students to review vast amounts of vocabulary.

I had a private class with some executives (a banker, a manufacturing CEO, a company president and a head of a law firm). They liked it when I pulled my mini-Scrabble game out but were thrilled when they learned you get points. The lawyer was so enthusiastic he was trying to cheat and the president had to guard the tiles to stop him.

Scrabble is one of the most popular games in the U.S. So I’m sure many students will enjoy it.

>Scrabble and Liar Liar for vocabulary practice


SCRABBLE: It’s almost embarrassing to get paid money to play Scrabble but we’re professionals and have to be ready to endure anything. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts I like to teach from our coursebook for an hour and then like to do something else with the class. I was really surprised at how appealing Scrabble turned out to be. Especially when my students found out they could get points and win. I’ve had managers jumping up and down like kids and a lawyer so intent on winning he couldn’t resist cheating. Students have to think of thousands of words to play this game and it’s a great way to get them to review the vocabulary they know.

Photo: 40 students playing Scrabble. The game is projected on a screen. The students are divided into eight teams.


LIAR LIAR: Often our coursebooks have a dictionary section in the back. Give the students a couple minutes to study one page of it. Then they close their books and on a paper draw two vertical lines forming three columns. At the top of the left column they write 100. At the top of the middle column they write YES. Then put NO at the top of the right column.

The 100 is their dollars. The teacher reads a word with its’ definition or with a definition from another word. The students use their dollars to place bets on how sure they are if the word and definition are true or false. They do this by marking how much they want to gamble under one of the YES?

The game is terrifically effective in winning students concentration and focus on these vocabulary words. And they have great fun in playing the game.

>The power of One – personal tutoring for a finance manager

>Linda couldn’t talk to me. She had studied English for about 12 years during her schooldays. She studied grammar and memorized words.

Her friend, a finance manager in an American company, wanted to introduce me to her.
I met them at the Starbucks in the center of Guangzhou, China.

Linda was the finance manager in a state-owned enterprise in the cold food chain logistics industry. Her company was about to form a joint-venture with the international Swire Logistics company based out of Australia. She had a chance to be the Number Two person in this new company but her boss, the Number One, was going to be Australian and spoke no Chinese.

Linda was going to have to be able to talk with him in English but she couldn’t talk to me. Instead, her Chinese former schoolmate, a finance manager in an American company, interpreted for us.

“Could she improve her English enough to talk with her boss and take part in meetings in six months?”

As a former IELTS examiner I put her English level around Band 3, perhaps she was about 335 on the TOEFL. She could say a few words, phrases, but couldn’t make a sentence. Would I take the job?

It was going to take a lot of work but we got busy, real busy. I started seeing Linda twice a week, two hours each time. We followed a couple Interchange books but rather loosely, mostly following topics of Linda’s interests. She enjoyed trying to tell me about the goings on with her boss at her state-owned enterprise. There were always some blowups or crazy antics to report.

Sometimes our lesson was what I call an English Safari, a walk through an Ikea store or one of the biggest supermarkets or malls in town. Sometimes it was playing a board game like Scrabble.

Everyday that we didn’t have a lesson I would call her or she would call me and we would chat for 5-15 minutes.

Each time I saw her I gave her some readers and next time I saw her she would report to me what she thought about them and what she learned.

We always had our lessons in cafés and when some foreigners would sit nearby I would strike up a conversation with them and involve Linda in the conversation.

The new words that we encountered would be written down in my computer or mobile phone and I would send them to Linda by Email or SMS later for her review. She was pretty good about writing new words in her notebook but I felt it was also good for her to get them again, later, through another media.

Linda discovered her English was improving steadily until she found herself accidentally blurting things out in English to some of her Chinese colleagues who didn’t speak English. She was understanding the Australian colleagues better and better, able to follow meetings and go out to dinner and hit the bars with them.

After six months her English was good enough. Linda got the job. And I lost mine.

>LIMO means Little In Much Out

>Some people have written me for information about some games I have been using. I got one or two of them off the TEFL-China website but then modified them. So I’ll just explain them here.

There is a certain quality to finding good learning and practice activities that require no prep on the teacher’s part. Sometimes these types of things work out much better than activities consuming many hours of preparation. At times when I’ve put the most work into my preparation these were the same times that the students didn’t share my enthusiasm for my idea.

One teacher explained that she had been trained to try to do as little as possible and get the students to do as much as possible.

Here are three quick and easy games. We can call this sort of activity a LIMO, Little In Much Out:

1. Dictionary Liar Game
2. Alibi
3. True Answer or False Answer Game

1. Dictionary Liar Game

Get or choose three volunteers. Explain to the class that these three students are going to tell them a word and what it means. But one will tell the truth and two will tell a lie. The class will have to determine who is telling the truth.

Take the three students out of the classroom and help them to choose a word from (preferably) an English-English dictionary. Words we used in the past were: beret, zebra, igloo, etc. Let the students decide who will tell the truth and who will tell lies.

The students come back in and give their definitions. The liars try to lie convincingly. The class can ask questions of the students. Then the class tries to pick the one telling the truth.

2. Alibi

Ask for volunteers. You should get one volunteer per five students in the class. So if there are 40 students then you should choose eight volunteers. Tell the class the bad news. Last night, at 8 p.m., some people robbed a bank and got away with a lot of money. However, we think we know who did it!

Turn to your group of volunteers and say that we think THEY did it!

This always has a shocking effect on the class and is very funny. The good news is that the rest of the class are policemen and will question the suspects. Explain what “alibi” means. Get four volunteers and send them out of the classroom to develop their alibi about what they were all doing TOGETHER at that time.

While they’re out of the room, divide the remaining students up into groups of four students each to be teams of “police”. Review some types of questions they can ask the suspects.

The suspects return to the class. Ask them if they robbed the bank. They all say they didn’t. Divide the suspects up and send them to different corners or spots in the room and send a team of police to question each suspect. Encourage the police to take notes. After 4-5 minutes the police teams rotate to another suspect and they can ask the same questions hoping to find something different in the suspects’ alibi. If the suspect says they took a taxi somewhere, coach the police teams to ask him who sat next to him, etc.

After each police team has a chance to question three or four suspects, you can stop the activity and found out what inconsistencies they found in the suspects’ story.

This game is lots of fun. Students forget it is an English lesson and get absorbed in the challenge of the game.

3. True Answer or False Answer Game

Get one volunteer. Tell him to say “Yes” to your question whether it is true or not. Ask him a question like, “Have you ever traveled to a foreign country?” Then other students will also ask him questions and the student should give true answers if the student did it or make up answers how about doing it if it was not true. After several exchanges ask the class if they think it is true or false. Then ask the student if it was True or False.

Other questions are:

Have you ever had a pet?
Have you or one of your relatives ever met someone famous?
Have you ever won a prize for something?
Have you ever broke an arm, leg or finger?

What are your LIMO activities?

>Improv "games" in the classroom

>Many people are interested in using drama in the English classroom. A terrific source for improvised drama is at Improv Encyclopedia:

They call these “games” but they are spontaneous role-plays. It is truly a LIMO (Little In Much Out) activity. With little input from the teacher much can be gotten out of the students.

Unlike a play, there is no script. All the teacher has to do is to set up the drama situation and then the participants carry on from there. The teacher does not have to make copies of a script for everyone to follow. It allows communicative practice albeit often in a fanciful situation. Some adaptation will be required. The nonverbal games will not be useful.

Here is one of the first games from the first category. I have chosen it rather randomly and I’m sure there are even better:



How it Works

Great high-tempo exercise. 1 player up front. He’s the goalie. The other players all think of an opening line for a scene, and a character. When everyone has their opening line and character, we bombard the goalie with these offers, one at a time. Goalie needs to react right away to an offer, acknowledging the opening and character, snap into an opposite character and reply to the opening. Immediately after that the next player comes up with his or her offer.

This exercise is good for teaching players to react right away, and to snap into a character almost without thinking.


Well, I don’t think we are going to generate such fast reactions out of our students but it will help them to be quicker. It is great fun and students will use English in an enjoyable way.

This could be done in groupwork or in front of class. The so-called goalie could be a student or even the teacher if done in front of the class. If it is the teacher, it will help the students see various responses. Other students think of situations and fire them at the goalie to which the goalie is to make a ropy. For example:

A: “Father, Father, the house is on fire!”
Goalie: “Quick! Call the fire department!”
B: “Listen, John! I told you to have that report on my desk this morning!”
Goalie: “Sorry, Boss. But I was sick yesterday.”
C: “Hey, John, why weren’t you at the basketball game last night?”
Goalie: “Titanic was on TV last night and I had to watch it again.”
D: “Sweetheart, you forgot our wedding anniversary!”
Goalie: “No I didn’t, here’s a diamond ring!”

This game may not fit into a particular lesson but can add a bit of English fun to warm up the class.