Overheard during an English lesson:
– Good morning, how are you?
– I’m fine, thank you. What do you want to do today?
– I want to go skating. And you?
– I want to read a book.
– Let’s skate, then read.
– Good idea!
How does one build up to these short dialogues with young ESL learners? The answer is simple: start with easy pieces, and build up from there. Give the children small chunks of language that they can deal with. Once that bit has been automated, expand the circle of language and experience a piece at a time.
One of my favorite ways of doing this is what I call the “walk-n-talk” game. I can’t claim to have invented this one – but it’s one of those games that work, every single time. This game can be done with any age group, for any grammar or vocabulary you may be covering. I work in several steps, which I’ll explain below.
- prepare the vocabulary: for the whole-group instruction, either large cards or a power point, and for the exercise, smaller versions of the same. Make enough copies so that each child can have a card. (for instance, if you have 30 children in the class and you’re learning 6 words, make 5 copies in total.) For new vocabulary, keep the list of words short – no more than 4 or 6 words. For review, this list can be a bit longer.
- introduce the vocabulary: keep this straighforward and short! Show the picture, say the word, and the children repeat it. If they don’t understand the word, give a brief explanation.
- embed the vocabulary in a chunk: practice the question and answer of the day, once for each word. (for instance: “What is this?” “It’s a horse.”) Again, the idea is to keep this short and sweet. Listen and repeat.
- practice the dialogue as a group: split the group in half. One half asks the question (“What is this?”), while the other half answers (“It’s a horse.”). Practice again, switching roles for the two halves. Only do this two or three times.
- demontrate the dialogue with a helper: using the word cards, demonstrate the entire dialogue. With very young learners, demonstrate the dialogue at least three times. Remember that while the children are listening to the dialogue, they are mentally practicing their parts before heading into the real thing.
- walk-n-talk: hand out the cards, one to each child. Now, the children walk quietly and freely through the classroom, using the dialogue they have been practicing. After each dialogue, the speakers switch cards with each other*. When they are finished, the children sit down. Sometimes, I just let the children practice for 3 minutes, other times, I give them a number limit (3 times and then sit down).
* By switching word cards with each other, the children practice a variety of vocabulary words.
After the walk-n-talk, I have a quick go-round: which new words do you remember? Which ones were easy? Which ones were harder?
I like this exercise because it is easy to do, and once the children have figured out how it works, they can easily build on it to make longer and more interesting dialogues. I never worry about whether or not the children learned all of the new words the first time around as the game can be played again and again, removing cards as the words are learned and adding others (surprise!).
This game is an easy way to activate all of the learners – even the shyest of children – and allow everyone a chance to practice the new vocabulary one-on-one without worrying about making mistakes in front of the class. During the game, I walk around and listen. I hear new learners joining in with simple answers, while more advanced children aid them in their learning, modelling correct answers for their partners.
With this game, everyone wins!