English language exercises to develop active learners

Mike Gould

Learning isn’t just about sitting in a classroom in front of a whiteboard. When it comes to active learning, there are so many other ways to help students learn.

Get fit for language

Classrooms are great places for learning, but we can also use them to develop students who continue to learn beyond the four walls of their school – active learners.

So, how can you do this? Here are my top five English language exercises to develop language fitness with your students – exercising their minds in useful ways. 

1. Think like a…

One of the key features of the Cambridge International AS and A Level English Language Coursebook, is to get students to think about real-life roles and how these might help them understand the language skills they are developing.

One thing you could do to encourage active learning is to allocate professional writing roles to your class (e.g. one could be a music reviewer; another, a travel journalist and so on). Get your students to find the best example of someone who does that job – on TV, on radio or online – and research what it involves. What language skills do they have? Who is their audience? They could even find out how to get into that profession. At the end of the class, ask students to share their findings. Did they find they had any skills in common with their chosen profession?

2. Language warm-ups

Short, sharp repeated bursts (or ‘repetitions’ as they call it in fitness classes) can work wonders for the mind! For example, how can your students build a wider vocabulary? Ask them to get into pairs and challenge them to talk for one minute on an interesting moment from their week. If they say any key vocabulary (e.g. ‘walked’, ‘said’, ‘asked’) more than once their partner should interrupt and tell their own story. Whoever manages to keep talking for the longest before being interrupted, is the winner.

3.  Physical punctuation

It can be easy to overlook the function of punctuation to create meaning, or for its impact on the pace, tone and mood of a piece of writing. Ask students to choose any text from a book (for example, ‘Where is our Chai?’ on page 129 of Cambridge International AS and A Level English Language Coursebook).

Then, take the opening 150 words and read it aloud. Get the students to walk around the room reading the text to themselves. They should stop when there is a colon or full-stop; turn 90 degrees where there is a comma, semi-colon or bracketing dashes; scratch their heads when there is a question mark; and stamp their feet if there is an exclamation mark. These seemingly childish gestures have the fun effect of stressing the effect punctuation has on a text. Just watch out for clumsy teenagers bumping into one another!

4. Proximity with prose

Proxemics is the study of the spatial relationship between people on stage. Think of the different effects of being very close, nose to nose with someone, for a speech, compared with standing on opposite sides of the stage. Proxemics can be applied to narration and perspective in prose works.

You could group students and give each a variety of snippets of texts (a first person novel, a political speech, a third person commentary on news events). Ask one person to read the snippets aloud, the rest of the group decide how ‘close’ to the audience – or far from them – the narrative voice is by moving closer or farther from the speaker. Challenge students by asking them to justify their decision using evidence from the text.

For example, think about the difference between the active ‘I ran for my life!’ and the more passive and impersonal ‘Hundreds trapped by floods’. Where would you stand in relation to the speaker in these examples?

5. The language habit

Curiosity is one of the keys to great language learning. Students usually have their smartphones with them when they are doing homework or research at home, meaning they have instant access to a plethora of information.

When they encounter unusual or challenging English idioms – whether these are in headlines, social interactions, while watching films or listening to music – suggest that they record (either verbally or in text form) on their phones.

Create a five-minute slot at either the start or end of the lesson for students to produce their queries about an English phrase or sentence. If no one knows what it means, can you as a class collaborate to work out its definition, or how it is used?

These activities will help keep the language brain fit and active. Language gymnastics is good for everyone!

About the author:

Mike Gould is an experienced English language teacher, publisher and author. Mike recently co-authored our Cambridge International AS and A Level English Language series, adding to his massive portfolio of over 150 books.