As the weather gets warmer, students get antsier. Spring is the time of new life, cherry blossoms and scattered attention. Honestly, it is not hard to sit in a classroom when it is zero degrees outside and sleeting, but as things start to turn green and inviting out there, convincing your students that the classroom is the best place to be, gets harder and harder. Language is not something we just use inside, so why not design activities that let your students (and maybe even yourself) take advantage of all that sunshine out there! You want to keep it language focused though so students don’t just lie down and take a nap.
1. Have a sensory scavenger hunt
Step 1: Split your class into pairs or small groups and give them a list of adjectives, for example: scratchy, smooth, sticky, bumpy, soft, sharp, fuzzy, fragile, tough, transparent, flexible, rigid, etc. Give them a time limit, a dictionary and a bag and then send them outside. Their mission is to find one object that represents each adjective, the team with the most words represented accurately wins.
Step 2: Give each team a choice of activities to do with their adjectives and objects.
Step 3: Have each group either perform or present their work to the class. The presentations can be done outside or inside depending on how well students can pay attention to other students while being outside.
2. Build a Vocabulary Shape Wall
Step 1: Split your class into pairs or small groups. Give each group a shape like round, square, rectangular, triangular, etc. Ask them to go out for a specified amount of time and take pictures of everything they can find that is that shape.
Step 2: Give each group a large piece of paper and ask them to cut it into their shape. Then, either print the pictures they took or use the pictures to draw each thing on the “poster”. Leave room under or around the picture to write vocabulary word.
Step 3: Search for collocations. If students found a window for example, they could find collocations like “window sill, window pane, window seat, window display or window shop”. Write the collocations on the poster. A good place to direct students to find collocations is the Online Oxford Collocation Dictionary.
Step 4: Hang the posters around the class to use in future activities.
3. Hold outdoor speaking games
Outside is a great place to talk but it can be very distracting, so if you take your class outside to talk, make sure you have clearly defined conversation tasks for them to do. When I was teaching in Turkey, spring hit just as we were preparing for final exams. In my speaking and listening classes they were going to be required to speak for several minutes in front of a panel of teachers after being given a prompt.
I prepared some practice prompts, cut them up and put them in a bag. Then I took my class outside and had them get into groups of 4. I explained to them what the teachers would be looking for during the exam and had them rotate roles every 5 minutes. 3 students played the parts of the panel of teachers while one student was the speaker. The speaker had to draw a prompt out of the bag and speak for 2 minutes. The judges would then help the speaker think about what they did well and what they need to work on. It is a good idea to prepare a rubric for the judges so they can give effective feedback that will be consistent with what the examiners will be looking for.
4. Listening Practice
Prepare your students to listen well and get them ready for pronunciation activities. Often we are so busy talking or thinking about what we are going to say, we forget to truly listen. Julian Treasure gives some great exercises for learning to listen better in his TED Talk. I like to use this video as a listening exercise in and of itself sometimes. Some of the things he suggests are as follows.
1. Listen for sound threads. Have students close their eyes for 2 or 3 minutes. They can lie down, take it easy and focus on what they are hearing. Have them think about how many different things they can hear at the same time (wind rustling the leaves, birds singing, traffic, water dripping, someone breathing…).
Now have them listen to you read. How many different things can they hear (phonemes, speed, pauses, stress, emotion, rising or falling intonation…). How many of these different things carry meaning? Have students focus one one thing for a few minutes minutes while they read to each other. Then have them read the same passage focusing on something different.
2. Listening positions. Listening positions can mean two different things; first, where the listener is physically and second, where the listener is mentally. Have half of the class do a speaking task and ask the other half of the class to choose a physical location from which to listen. Take notes on what they can hear and understand. Then have them change positions several times, still taking notes. After several minutes, have the listeners join the speaking groups. They must explain to the speaking groups what they understood and what they didn’t catch. The speakers must fill them in on what they missed. This would be great for practicing reported speech.
For practicing mental listening positions, give half of the class position cards like: suspicious, empathetic, optimistic, pessimistic, active (asking questions in your head), passive (accepting everything without question). Give the other half of the class conversation topics. Ask the listeners to focus on one conversation and take notes. After a few minutes, have the listeners summarize the conversation for the speakers and the speakers must guess what listening position the listener had.
5. Use the outdoors as a writing prompt
Have each student choose a different place to sit outside. They must then think about what they see, feel, hear, smell and possibly taste. Ask them to brainstorm vocabulary ideas on a paper using a mind map as they sit in their particular location. Then have them to write a descriptive paragraph from their vantage point. Finally, have them take a picture.
They will then use their computers to expand their vocabulary to make it even more specific and revise their paragraphs describing where they were sitting. Make sure that you do this yourself before you ask your students to do it so that you will have examples of what their work should look like when they hand it in.
Then print out all of the students’ pictures and print their paragraphs. Ask students to read each other’s paragraphs and try to guess which picture goes with which paragraph. If you got really ambitious, you could turn this into a small book or blog for students to share with their families.
6. Reading in the great Outdoors
Sometimes I fantasize about going outside, stringing up my hammock and reading a book under the trees. This fantasy actually used to happen back when I lived in Tucson and had a huge back yard with mesquite trees. I would get to spend at least an hour a week reading outside in the winter before the weather turned beastly hot. Well, now I live in Tokyo so, no giant back yard, but sometimes my daughter and I head out to Ueno park with our books and I read aloud to her there.
I found that when I was reading outside, it slowed me down, in a good way. I would read a few pages, then I would become captivated by how beautiful the branches of the tree looked against the sky so I would stop reading for a minute and gaze up. Pausing gave me time to think about and process what I was reading and when I was ready, I would go back to the book. This encouraged more interactive reading as well as a really enjoyable experience and it is what I want for my students as well.
I want them to love reading so, if you have extended reading activities in your classes, why not take it outside. You can encourage students to read and contemplate individually or you can have them read to each other like I do for my daughter. Bring blankets for students to sit on so they don’t have to worry about getting their clothes messed up. I have found that being outside relaxes people and while you may not always want your students to be relaxed (there is such a thing as too relaxed), sometimes it is nice to make class into something that brings stress levels down instead of up!
Before you take students outside to read, make sure that they know they will be held accountable for reporting on what they read and what they thought about when they come back in. This way they know that they can’t just go out and take a nap. Although I do believe that sleep is super important for learning, check out this post on how to learn a language faster without studying more, class time is perhaps not the best time to catch up on sleep.
The outdoors is a great place to have class as long as you make sure that your students are still focused on learning. I have found that it is sometimes a great way to keep students motivated and eager to come to class. We humans are meant to spend time outside even though it seems we invent more and more reasons to stay inside. I would postulate that many health challenges we face today like hypertension and depression could be lessened if we spent more time touching the earth with our bare feet, feeling fresh air fill our lungs and allowing the sun to touch our skin. I do know of course that there are risks involved like bee stings, Lyme disease and skin cancer among others, but I do not feel that those concerns outweigh the benefits of going outside. As a child who grew up on a farm, I can attest to the vast amount I learned just by not being inside.
What are some of your favorite activities to do with your classes outside? Please comment below!
Blog with Friends is a group of bloggers. Each month we choose a theme and interpret it in our own ways. This month's theme is "Outdoor Life". Check out these posts for more ideas for taking it outside!
Hi, I'm Kia.
I help ESL / EFL teachers create fun, effective courses that students love.