The Language Pill, Perpetual Toothbrushes, and Other Whimsical Inventions

Do you have certain communicative activities that you find work no matter what level you are teaching? Are there activities that you can always turn to when the energy in the classroom starts to flag?

In this regard, I wanted to share with you an activity that Irina Climovici, a colleague from SUNY Westchester Community College, taught me last year and that has stood me in good stead ever since. I used it last week when it became apparent that my Level 5 evening students, who had enthusiastically debated the merits of investing in derelict buildings in Detroit and had written at length about the impact of the Great Recession on their own lives, were running out of steam as the clock ticked toward 9 p.m.

I decided to ditch the remainder of my prepared lesson plan. Instead, for the remaining 30 minutes, I invited them to work in groups of three on a 3-part activity that has never failed to provoke discussion as well as lots of good-natured laughter. I asked them to: (1) think of a new product that would be incredibly useful but does not exist; (2) draw a picture of their product; and (3) write the advertising copy for their product. Since we had been studying comparatives and superlatives, I asked them to include as many comparatives and superlatives as they could.

Instantly, everyone was chatting and arguing with the other members of their product development team. In years past, students have invented perpetual toothbrushes (tooth brushes that would never run out of toothpaste), helicopter cars (cars that would never get stuck in traffic because they could vault over a traffic jam) and a one-time only depilatory cream that could be used by men and women alike to remove unwanted facial hair once and for all.

This time, a group of my students came up with a product that any struggling English language learner would want—a language pill. Here’s how they described it:

The most fantastic creation to learn any kind of language
• The fastest way to learn a language
• As fast as a blink of an eye
• Just take it before to go to bed [sic] and wake up speaking the language that you want
• It’s sheppear [sic] than a long semester in a college.
• Only $10,000!

Students love exhibiting their advertisements to the rest of the class. A document camera and an overhead projector are a big help in this regard, but not essential. And the show-and-tell experience is a great way to encourage some of the quieter students to speak, since I usually invite all members of the product development team to come to the front of the room together to describe their invention and take questions from their classmates.

There is always a lot of laughter, especially this semester. My class—full of students from Central and South America—appreciated the joke when they realized that the product development team had drawn a pill the size of a huge multi-vitamin to illustrate the English language pill, while the Spanish language pill was tiny and easily swallowed.

What are the activities you go to in a pinch to re-energize your students?

About Alexandra Lowe

Alexandra Lowe
Alexandra is an ESL instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College, where she has taught Speaking & Listening in the Intensive English Program, English for Academic Purposes, Business English, Accent on Fluency and a wide range of ESL levels. A graduate of Harvard Law School, she brings to the classroom the experience gained from years of creating workshops for judges, lawyers, physicians, social workers and journalists. Her primary interests are bringing authentic materials into the ESL classroom and self-directed learning strategies that students can use outside of the classroom to accelerate their learning and enhance their speaking skills.
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One Response to The Language Pill, Perpetual Toothbrushes, and Other Whimsical Inventions

  1. Jane Bonnin-Wright says:

    Sounds like good fun !
    I have a few all time classics that I like to use when attention is flagging or my students quite simply have an ‘off’ day…one of these is a team game. A grammar review with a twist…
    Draw a noughts and crosses board and ask the students if they know the game.If not, you can demonstrate. Then write a word in each box: if I want to review tense changes, I could use words like for and since, last, next, often….The idea is that each team must try to get a straight line by making correct sentences using the word in the box. If they make a mistake, the other team can try to correct it and win the box. You can play this game at all levels. My students enjoy competing against each other and it helps me to see what we need to review.

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