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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 6; Issue 3; September 04

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A glimpse inside...
Language Activities for Teenagers. 2004. Seth Lindstromberg (ed.) Cambridge University Press. xi + 225 pp. ISBN 0-521-54193-x Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers. Series Editor, Penny Ur

Seth Lindstromberg
Hilderstone College, Kent, England

  1. Overview
  2. What kinds of activities have gone into the book?
  3. A representative speaking activity

1. Overview

The activities in this collection are for learners between 11 and 16 years of age. However, most will work with learners above this age range some will work with learners significantly below it.

The main contributors are Tessa Woodward (especially activities concerning 'peer mediation', using poems, and building the sub-skills of debating), Hanna Kryszewska (speaking, reading, writing, and vocabulary development), David A. Hill (speaking, reading, writing, and using poems) and me (miscellaneous) but I was fortunate also to get contributions from other methodologists whose work you may know-Judit Fehér, Jean Rüdiger-Harper, and Bonnie Tsai. Thanks too to Penny Ur for making me include a chapter on discipline…a thorny topic I shamefully confess I was originally minded to avoid despite its being perhaps the one topic above all others that teachers of juniors may actually be anxious about!

Well, I have already said something about the content of the book but it might be useful to add that the areas covered in the book can be put into two sets-those which you would expect to find in any book for junior learners and ones you might not. I will call the first set 'normal' areas and the second set 'less normal'.

  • Normal areas (Chapters 2-8):

    1. Short activities: warm-ups, breaks, and closers
    2. Activities focusing mainly on one or some combination of the 'four skills'
    3. Activities for vocabulary development
    4. Activities about using literary texts

  • Less normal areas (Chapters 1 & 9):

    1. Guidelines and procedures for creation & maintenance of discipline including a sub-chapter on introducing the 'work way' of Peer Mediation)
    2. A large chapter on providing graded experience in oral presentations and in building key sub-skills of debating

2. What kinds of activities have gone into the book?

When selecting activities, I gave great weight to four criteria:

  1. do-ability -> I and everyone at Cambridge University Press wanted activities which teachers could use in normal settings. For instance, activities usable only in classes of fewer than 20 pupils were not included.

  2. newness -> We wanted a book containing a very high proportion of activities which most teachers (and students) would not have met before. Even the relatively few valuable 'old chestnuts' that were included (because they are so very useful) have been presented in a form which is may be novel in at least one respect.

  3. interest -> Each activity should have strong potential to be interesting.

  4. flexibility -> As many activities as possible should be usable with learners who are quite mixed in proficiency in the target language.

Luckily, my contributors spoiled me for choice.
Let's go into a little more detail about criteria 3 & 4.

3. Activities should be interesting!

  • a key overall principle' Variety is good (e.g., variety of activities, experiences, and stimuli)

  • interesting activities tend to have the following features. (although few activities will have all of them):

    1. Valid learning purposes that students can understand and identify with

    2. Some kind of tangible and unambiguously appropriate outcome (e.g., a drawing, applause)

    3. Inclusion of non-language stimuli (e.g., pictures, music, puzzles)

    4. Exchange of interesting messages. Important here are topics of personal relevance and, more widely, ones of current relevance. (In other words, perhaps all of the activities have a very pronounced Communicative character while most are in the Humanist channel of this broad methodological stream.)

    5. An element of novelty

    6. A game-like element

4. An ideal activity is flexible as to...

  • choice...i.e., it offers students a choice of sub-tasks to do or a number of ways of doing a task correctly
  • quantity...i.e., students can read, write, say, listen to different amounts but still do the activity (e.g., an activity involving use of a questionnaire which works even if not everyone asks/answers all the questions)
  • sophistication...i.e., the activity works even if different students produce utterances that differ greatly in linguistic complexity and in the complexity or profundity of the ideas expressed.
  • spread...i.e., the range of what can be learned from doing the activity is wide (e.g., the activity does not have a sharp focus on a single point of grammar).
  • help...i.e., there are significant opportunities for students to help each other do the activity and learn from it.

As these ideas are explained and exemplified more fully in Language Activities for Teenagers and, in the case of 'flexibility', in another hltmag article (Major Article 1 in this issue), I will not go into them further here. Instead, let's look at an activity which exemplifies a large proportion of the criterial points 'a'-'k' above.

3. A representative speaking activity

While the activity that follows is not itself in the book, it has a couple of family resemblances to one that is, i.e., 'Write in the shape', 6.8. This one differs from 'Write in the shape', for instance, in that it involves no writing. However, as you will see, it does (like 'Write in the shape') involve drawing an outline.

'Cryptic sketches'

Level:Elementary and up
Approximate time:15 minutes
Focus:Oral fluency, getting better acquainted with one's classmates
Materials/Preparation:Each student will need a blank sheet of A4


  1. Lead your class through the following mini-visualization.
    Imagine that you are standing outside the front door to your house or flat. Look at the door directly. Try to remember what colour it is. Where is the doorknob, or door handle? Imagine that you reach out and turn it. How do you hold it? Which way do you turn it? Imagine turning it. Now, do you push or pull? Do it. Go in. Look at the floor. What do you see? A rug? Tell me. Now, go through your house (or flat). Look into one room after another until you find on a wall a picture of some kind-a painting, a poster, a photograph.
  2. Ask everyone to get a sheet of blank A4 paper and get something to write with.
  3. Say something like:
    On your sheet of paper, near the top, draw the outline of the picture. Not too small! About the size of a playing card. If the picture is square, draw a square; if rectangular, draw a rectangle; but draw nothing inside your square (or rectangle). Leave it empty for now.
  4. Add:
    Now, think of things that are near or under the picture you are thinking of. For example, if the picture is above a sofa, write an 'S' under the picture where the sofa is. If the wall is green, write a 'G' on it somewhere. If your cat sometimes sits on the sofa, write a 'C' or the first letter of the cat's name near the 'S'. And so on.
  5. Say:
    If the picture is in your bedroom, somewhere on your paper write 'MB' for my bedroom or 'K' if it's in the kitchen. Or whatever.
  6. Add:
    Now look at your picture again. What's in it? If there is a person, make a dot about where the person's face is. If two people, two dots. If a building, a big dot. If a tree, a short up and down line. (If twenty trees, still just one line.) And so on. Make dots and simple straight lines to show where people and things are but don't draw a picture…make just dots and short simple lines!
  7. (Optional) If your class includes some students who are elementary in level, then-while they are making marks inside their outlines-write something like the following on the board:
    1. This is... Here is... Here are...
    2. Now you must ask me at least two questions
    3. Over to...
  8. Form pairs or small groups and ask students to take turns presenting their sketches to each other. Specifically, they should each say:
    • what's in their picture
    • what the letters stand for
    • why they think they thought of that particular picture
    • something about the history of the picture
    Additionally, if you have done Step 7, encourage presenters to follow the scheme and use (some of) the expressions when (a) presenting, (b) inviting questions, and (c) handing over to the next presenter.


  • Step 1. In the fairly rare event that no one can think of a picture on a wall, ask them instead to think of a photograph that they have somewhere…anywhere. In this case, they can relax during Steps 4 and 5.
  • The final step works best if you incorporate 'tell-back'. That is, after the first partner has presented her cryptic sketch, the other partner(s) must say everything they remember of what she said. She listens and corrects factual mistakes and reminds him/them of anything forgotten. The same happens after each presentation. (This lengthens the overall activity by five minutes or so.)

Acknowledgements for 'Cryptic sketches'

This activity is an amalgam of ideas, in some cases slightly transformed, which I have learned from other teachers over the years. For instance, the idea of speaking about a photograph (here, any kind of picture) which is represented only by an empty outline comes from John Morgan (in The Recipe Book. 1990. Longman. S. Lindstromberg, ed.). The idea of a tell-back stage (as in Tip 2) I learned from Mario Rinvolucri at a workshop he gave somewhere I can't recall.


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