ESOL Community Scavenger Hunts

Scavenger hunts can be a really fun addition to your adult ESOL activities repertoire. They get students out of the classroom and into the community, they can be structured to require a lot of communication in English, and they engage a lot of valuable community navigation skills. I’ve seen successful scavenger hunts with young adults at an academic IEP and adult immigrants in community ESOL, and even a successful Chinatown scavenger hunt for a class of adult Mandarin learners.

The basic structure should be somewhat familiar to anyone who’s participated in a scavenger hunt themselves:

Participants are divided into teams and given a list of “items,” things that they must do or find in order to complete the hunt. There is usually a time limit, as well as a geographic limitation. In the version I prefer, you aren’t expected to complete every item. Rather, there are many items of different point values, and you complete as many as possible in the allotted time. If that’s not completely clear, a few examples should help:

  • Find as many USPS blue mailboxes as possible (1 point each)
  • Find a pharmacy (2 points); ask if they accept your insurance (3 bonus points!)
  • Find the oldest building in the city (5 points)
  • Find as many pizza restaurants with possessive nouns in the name as possible (2 points for each possessive noun)

I’ve always done this with either cameras or smartphones: each item is documented with a photo of a team member in front of the item, or a video of them completing a task. At the end of the day, everyone gets together and shares, points are tallied, and a winner is declared. If you plan it right, each group can present their results to the class and tell the story of their hunt, which makes for a whole lot more student-generated language.

This probably goes without saying, but in order for this to be a success, you’ll need to ensure that your students have all the prerequisite skills to complete most of the tasks. If you have any doubt about this, stop for a second and list out the skills (linguistic and non-) that students will be engaging to complete the task. Take these into consideration when weighting the items with points.

Not only can a scavenger hunt get your students out of the classroom and out navigating their new community with English and other skills, but they’re also just tons of fun!

About Robert Sheppard

Robert Sheppard
Over the past 10 years, Rob has explored a variety of roles and contexts in the field. These include the cram-school culture of Taiwan and Korea; IEPs in Boston focused on academic English; advanced conversation and TOEFL prep taught via Skype to students in Japan; and nonprofit, community English programs for immigrants to Greater Boston. He currently serves as sr. director of adult programs at Quincy Asian Resources, a member of the community advisory council at First Literacy, and a curriculum consultant at Boston Global Institute. He has a master’s degree in TESOL from The New School, and his areas of interest include adult ed, pronunciation and grammar instruction, curriculum development, and assessment.
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One Response to ESOL Community Scavenger Hunts

  1. Charla New says:

    Hello, Mr. Sheppard!

    I very much enjoyed reading your post, as it also me of a similar scavenger hunt activity Arkansas Tech University has done with ELLs in the past.

    We have paired the activity with a campus tour as an activity for our Chinese Summer Camps, naming it our Campus Tour Scavenger Hunt. As part of the first week internationals spend on campus before courses begin, we have given the hunt dual purposes: to familiarize students with campus and campus related vocabulary, as well as to meet instructors, peers and staff. Our department has organized the students in various numbers in the past: individual students, students paired with staff members, or large groups solely comprised of students. Their task has been to take selfies on campus at landmarks, with staff or with certain objects that are located on a list students are given at the start of the event. Each item is worth a certain amount of points, and the individual/group with the most points at the end of an hour receives an ATU gift basket.

    Some issues we’ve ran into have stemmed from cultural barriers. Here at ATU we have a large population of Saudi international students, 47% of our international population, in fact. Although the cultural diversity is welcome, the cultural restrictions placed on our Saudi female population has posed some participation issues with regards to such public activities as scavenger hunts. For example, such students are not allowed to travel without their husbands as an escort. Also, many of our students in general do not own vehicles, or in some cases are not able to drive, so travel around an entire town would be difficult regardless of permission from family members. For these reasons, our campus-wide scavenger hunts have been more successful in regards to student participation.

    Charla M. New
    Graduate Assistant
    Arkansas Tech University
    English Language Institute

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