Many speaking tasks follow the same pattern: the students are exposed to the language they need, the tasks are scaffolded and exemplified until the students are ready to go it alone. It’s our role as teachers to set the students up for success, but language learning isn’t always so comfortable. What happens when we take away the support and learners have to improvise?

Improvisation introduces an element of the unplanned and unexpected to the classroom; this prepares students for real-life situations. If done correctly, it may also improve their confidence in speaking exams. Improvising encourages learners to draw on their resourcefulness, which is something that successful language learners do well.

Here is a small selection of improvisation activities that I have found beneficial.

The Wheel of Fortune.

We can add some improvisation to those semi-controlled speaking activities that can be dead space in the lesson. You know those follow-up conversation questions after the main activity in a coursebook? While I see the benefits of allowing the students further practice, they can feel a little perfunctory. One way I like to diversify this formula is by interspersing the questions with others that the students do not expect. Occasionally, I ask the students to stand up and respond to the questions which I might display on a spinning wheel (thanks to tools such as wordwall.net). If technology or time are lacking, I call out the questions instead. Of course, this doesn’t have to be part of a coursebook activity as it works perfectly well as a series of random conversation prompts.

Looking for inspiration for questions to ask? The Teacher James has it covered with his 1001 questions book.

 Magic presentations.

We train students to improvise when we prepare them for speaking exams. On exam day, candidates are often asked to describe or talk about pictures. The content of the photograph(s) is unknown beforehand. One way I try to familiarise them with the feeling of being put on the spot is with a ‘magic presentation’ activity. The magic presentation is a collection of images displayed individually on a Powerpoint. The slides change automatically after the amount of time you set. The change is signalled by a sound.

The general idea (thanks to my former colleague Alex for introducing it to me) is that a student speaks about the picture and when the image changes, so does the person speaking. One variation is the students come to the front of the class and speak in front of an audience. I’ve used this on EAP courses to prepare groups for presentations. A slightly less intense way to do it is split the class into smaller groups so they speak at the same time to a smaller audience. Alternatively, you can have two lines facing each other. Partner A looks at the board and partner B stands opposite with their back to the board.  Partner A describes the picture and when they hear the sound they change places and partner B describes the new picture.

The following Space magic presentation was related to the topic of ‘places’, but I’ve also done it with completely random images which make it more challenging.

 Improvisation games

Improv

My interest in improvisation in the classroom came from a wonderful talk given by Viktoria Molnar at the ACEIA Jaen conference in 2016. Viktoria demonstrated a series of drama-related activities that could be used in the ELT classroom. One idea that I use regularly is the TV game. Students are each assigned different TV channels. All the different channels are given the same word which must be said in their programmes. When the remote control (the teacher, or another student) chooses the student, he or she must talk until the channel is changed. For example, if the chosen word is banana

Cooking channel: Today I’m making a banana cake. You need 7 bananas, eggs, milk,…

*change*

Sports channel: Cristiano Ronaldo has just fallen on a …banana…

*change*

News: The government has just announced a banana shortage.

Viktoria also demonstrated another improvisation activity which I hadn’t tried out until recently. The game is a variation of Grab a slip 

The students worked in pairs and were given a scenario and a selection of sentences each. They were not allowed to look at the sentences which I had prepared beforehand. I tried this out with an advanced group so I only gave them a minute or two to think individually about what they might say before they started the role play. When I said ‘A’. or ‘B’, they had to select a sentence from their pile, turn it over, and work it into the conversation as naturally as possible.  Here’s an example: Improv sentences.

There’s a zero-prep version described here.  In this version, the students are responsible for writing the scenario and sentences for each other.

Some considerations when using improvisation in the classroom.

  • The tasks have to be appropriate to the level. While we want to stretch the students, we need to ensure they have the basic language skills necessary to complete the task.
  • Think about how your students feel. The idea is to push the students slightly out of their comfort zone but not to make anybody feel uncomfortable, embarrassed or humiliated.
  • If dealing with shy or reluctant students start out small. It’s better to work in small groups or pairs. You could also give students the option to pass.
  • Keep improvisation activities short and sharp.
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