What You Can Do, I Can Talk About: Using students’ quirky skills to generate language

In the last post we talked about using party tricks as something to talk about in a target language. In a classroom setting, students’ special skills, including party tricks, are a compelling, useful source of content. Just like with a picture, movie, or story, the teacher can use students’ non-linguistic skills either to target specific linguistic constructions or to generate non-targeted Comprehensible Input.

Balancing the worldLet’s say I, the teacher, want to target these structures:
is able to ___
for a long time / for X amount of time
longer than (time)
shorter than (time)

I could just tell students how to use these valuable constructions in the target language, or I could jump straight to a story that contains them. But I’ve found it fun and effective, especially in the early stages of exposure to these constructions, to draw on students’ special skills, specifically those that can be demonstrated right there in the classroom.

So, I might find out who can hold his or her breath for a long time, who can balance something for a long time, or who can juggle weird items for a long time. Those students can demonstrate their skills, which is entertaining, and I can ask about / Circle the feat for as long as I want: Is Neil able to hold his breath for a long time? Is Diana able to juggle hatchets for a long time? Who is able to balance a bat for one minute? How long is Neil able to hold his breath? Is Neil able to hold his breath for longer than Kari is able to balance the bat? etc.

Besides providing lots of input, the situation also builds rapport because students are known for and receive recognition for their personal non-linguistic skills.


Here are several variations:

1. Let a student demonstrate a procedural, teachable skill, such as folding a certain shape out of paper. Then help the student teach the skill to the class using the target language. Besides being fun, this variation lets students use language for the real-life function of teaching and learning a procedure.

1’. Create stations at each of which one student teaches a procedural skill to her classmates, who may ask questions in the target language. Then create groups consisting of visitors to different stations and have students teach each other their newly acquired skills.

2. If your students would enjoy it, let them go head-to-head: see who can hold his or her breath for longer, who can balance a dowel longer, who is more flexible, etc. Again, make sure this will be a positive experience even for the person who “loses.”

3. Assign students in advance to prepare to demonstrate a skill on a particular day.

3′. Make this a recurring activity, e.g., at the beginning of class every Monday, someone demonstrates a skill that is narrated or discussed in the target language.

4. Sufficiently proficient and comfortable students can conduct this portion of class themselves, perhaps with the skill-demonstrator narrating in the target language what he or she is doing and another student interviewing that student or the rest of the class about what is going on.

5. To get students in the mood when they first enter class, have them tell a partner (in L1) something they are really good at. This puts people in a happy mood right off the bat and gives you guaranteed material when you get around to asking about their skills. (I’ve used this to good effect in workshops, too.)


What I particularly like about using Student Skills:

1. Teacher and students learn cool things about each other!

2. Students who feel less good at the language can demonstrate something else they do feel good at.

3. It’s easy to limit the vocabulary involved so that students can get lots of repetitions of the pertinent linguistic structures.

Stopwatch 54. Content comes from the students, but the students receive lots of Comprehensible Input with valuable structures.

5. The language feels secondary to the skill demonstration, allowing students to “forget” that they are learning, which can be quite effective in language acquisition. You’re still free to help students notice a particular form if you want.

6. In the procedural skills version, teacher and students learn how to do cool stuff.

7. It’s easy to avoid excessive competition and boost the general fun by introducing frivolous skills, for instance, seeing who can catch a stuffed octopus behind his back or who can stop a stopwatch closest to 5.00 seconds. (For this one, I’ve projected the fullscreen stopwatch from my iPad and had students take turns starting it and trying to stop it at exactly 5.00.  If you want the activity to move along faster, see who can stop the clock closest to 1.00 seconds.)

8. You can target content-words and function-words. For instance, if a student were demonstrating how to fold a flower out of paper, target vocab could be fold, sunflower, and crease, or the target structures could be again, like this, and make sure that ___.  Note that the target structures don’t have to be “skills language.” You might use the first few times of doing this activity to introduce skills language and then focus on other structures.

9. If you want to target very specific structures, you can determine some quirky skills that could involve those structures, then see if any students can demonstrate one of those skills.


Have fun!


Note: This post draws on the “Whatever” Works concept, also explored in these posts: Justin’s Lesson Plans from NTPRS 2015, Buy-In GuaranteedLesson Plan 1, “The Man Who Sells the Moon,”  Lesson Plan 2, “Thank You, Justin Bieber,” Lesson Plan 3, “Not Today,” and Lesson Plan 4, “Frivolity Is the Mother Of Invention.”

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