Instead of practicing table manners during the English lesson, I like to get all of my learners going by having them play “Pass the question”. It’s quite straightforward, and works like this:
- We practice a simple question and answer structure as a class.
- A child and I demonstrate the same question and answer structure in which I ask the question, and the child answers.
- The child asks the question of his neighbor, and his neighbor answers the question.
- The children continue to pass the question to their neighbors until everyone has asked and answered the same question.
It sounds tedious, and if one actually does this activity with the entire class, it can be just that. That’s why I generally split the class up into smaller groups. I model the activity with one group, then assign the first “questioner” for each group. If learners understand how it works, I also forego assigning “questioners”, since they can figure that much out for themselves. Each group then passes the question amongst themselves.
What makes this an effective learning exercise? There is a lot going on at once. First of all, all of the children are getting multiple opportunities to practice taking part in simple, short, structured dialogues. As we know, a common pitfall in the ESL lesson is getting everyone enough speaking practice time, and this exercise allows all learners to join in successfully.
It also gives learners space to practice without being put on the spot in front of the class when they make mistakes, as they most surely will. Don’t worry about not being able to hear and correct every single mistake! Making mistakes is normal for language learners, and if the communication really is unclear, the learners will be helped by their group members.
There’s also space for differentiation. The stronger learners can “play” with the question, practicing different formulations, while still making themselves clear to their fellow group members. The weaker learners already know what they have to say, so they can join in without any difficulty whatsoever.
Most importantly, each time learners listen to the dialogue, they are activating their mirror neurons. When these neurons are activated, the mind practices doing exactly that what it sees and hears. When we see someone fall down and get hurt, a part of us automatically recoils. When we hear a learner say something in English, we automatically test it against our own English, checking it for correctness and matching it with our own language skills. That’s what mirror neurons do.
In effect, by activating the mirror neurons, the learners are practicing the question-and-answer process not just once, but multiple times, allowing for even more practice and with it, better fluency in speaking.