Movement, team work, friendly competition and laughter reinvigorate students. Kinetic English activities do all of these things in ten minutes or less.
There are four elements to a Kinetic English activity. First, it involves standing up or moving around. Secondly, it uses minimal materials, so it’s something you can do if the photocopier is broken and the internet is down. Third, it’s easily adaptable to different levels of ability, to different class sizes and to a wide variety of topics, grammar and vocabulary. Finally, a Kinetic English activity has a language element that will add value to your lesson.
A great example of a Kinetic English activity is Speed Dating. In this activity the class stands up and divides into two rows facing each other. Students introduce themselves to their partner standing opposite and then discuss a question or topic. The students have a couple of minutes to chat before one line moves along, so each person is facing a new partner to talk to about a new topic. The activity can continue for as long as you like. If there are an odd number of students, either make one group of three, or join in. It’s a good chance to learn more about your students and to check on pronunciation and areas that need more practice. Speed Dating is an excellent ‘get to know you’ activity. You can also use it to lead in to a new topic, brainstorm essay ideas, check reading or listening comprehension assignments and so on. It’s interesting, it’s entertaining, it’s energising and your class is forming bonds.
Lee (1965), Hadfield (1984), Ur (1992) and many others have all shown games like this are an important part of the language learning classroom, but there is often resistance to them. The first step in overcoming resistance is to call it a ‘practice activity’ or a ‘review’ to overcome possible negative connotations of the word ‘game’.
Overcoming ‘It’s a waste of time’
Students may feel that games are a waste of time and won’t help them get through their course. However, a brief dynamic activity can make learning more effective. Reading, writing, listening and speaking all utilise different parts of the brain and the more senses used in learning something, the stronger the neural connections and the stronger the impression on the brain (Lebauer, 1988). Using language in all these different ways will help language learning and retention of information. Not only that, laughter increases blood to the brain and makes it work more effectively (Mayo Clinic, 2019).
Recent research has shown that a sedentary job is as dangerous to human health as smoking (Better Health, 2019). Reflecting upon my classroom, I’m always walking around, but my students spend most of their time sitting, even in their break time when they check their phones. The movement in a Kinetic English activity is beneficial to physical, and, therefore, mental, health.
Most importantly, tell your students why you want to do an activity in class. For example, ‘Let’s do an activity to get some energy and practise grammar/prepare for the essay/insert your class aim here’. When they see the reasons you’re including it and the benefits for their learning, they’ll agree it’s not wasting time.
Overcoming ‘I’m afraid I’ll make mistakes’
Another possible point of resistance is that if the language used in the activity is fairly unstructured, students may be afraid that they will make mistakes or copy other’s mistakes. Reassure them that you will be there to correct them and if you’re busy, they can write it down or record it to check with you later.
In addition to this, you can explain the difference between fluency and accuracy and show how as well as accurate controlled speech, risk taking and experimenting has an important place in language learning.
“Students may feel that games are a waste of time and won’t help them get through their course. However, a brief dynamic activity can make learning more effective.”
Overcoming ‘I feel silly’
Some teachers feel embarrassed to play games in class. Rest assured, there’s no need to do the chicken dance! It’s as simple as asking the students to stand up and speak to each other. The benefits are huge. Movement aids memory and decreases stress and even a class that sucks your energy can go more smoothly after a Kinetic activity. Not only that, it gives the students an opportunity to practise what they’ve learned in class and it can help you see areas that need improvement. Importantly, students get to know each other and you get to know them, helping your class to feel like a friendly, supportive place to belong.
Even if things don’t go according to plan, a Kinetic English activity provides energy, promotes authentic language and can be entertaining. This is often the case with the Two Minute Vocabulary List activity where the class is divided into groups of four, each with a pen, standing up at the board. In two minutes the group writes as many items in a category as possible. I’ve found myself listening to lively debates on whether a mosquito could be counted as an animal, whether a rice cooker is an item of furniture and if sleeping can be considered a hobby.
Kinetic English activities
Here are six more Kinetic English activities that you may enjoy using in your class:
Talking Points is a fluency practice activity. Ask the students to draw a triangle and write their name in the centre of the triangle. At each point of the triangle, they will write the name of a person. The first point will be a person in their family, the next point a teacher at their school in their country, the last point will be a friend. Students stand up and come together in pairs or threes and each speaks for one minute to their partner about each of the people listed around their triangle. You can adapt this to any topic relevant to your class.
“... my students spend most of their time sitting, even in their break time when they check their phones. The movement in a Kinetic English activity is beneficial to physical, and, therefore, mental, health.”
Team Notetaking is a listening practice activity that’s great for developing notetaking skills. From experience, it doesn’t work so well sitting down as weaker students don’t participate, so make sure everyone is standing either at the board or using paper stuck to the wall. Divide the class into groups of three and give everyone a pen and a part of the board to work at. Students take turns at being the leader of their group. The teacher reads a short extract of a lecture and all the students take notes.
Students then consolidate their answers into the leader’s answer and the teacher will award points on the information and accuracy.
Example extract with points: Mercury (M-e-r-c-u-r-y) [1 point for correct spelling] takes 88 days [1 point] to orbit, that is to travel around [1 point for this idea] the sun [1 point]
Then change to a new leader and the teacher reads a new extract.
Heads and Tails is a great way to practise countable and uncountable nouns. The teacher says a noun. If it’s countable, students put their hands on their heads. If it’s uncountable they put their hands on their tail. If they’re incorrect they sit down. You can also do this with a (hands on head) / the (hands on tail) / nothing (hands straight by sides).
A boisterous activity is Past Tense Olympics. Divide the class into two or three teams standing at the back of the room. The teacher says an infinitive and the first person in each team rushes to the board to write it in past tense. The first correct answer gets a point for their team. You can do this with pretty much anything – infinitives, past participles, spelling of vocab words, definitions, true false, comprehension questions and so on. Just make sure you have the answers with you as it can get a bit heated!
Another running activity is an exciting form of Dictation. Students divide into pairs. One remains seated and the other is the runner. The item for dictation is placed at the far end of the room. The runner reads the word, phrase or instructions from the item and runs back to their partner who writes it down. First team to finish correctly wins. This can be used at any level, from beginner right up to academic texts with full references. It can be manipulated so that students practise pronunciation, spelling and numbers, and so on.
Back Problems can be used to practise the language of giving advice. Each student has a different problem sticky taped to their back, e.g. ‘I forgot my lunch’ or ‘I lost my passport.’ The student doesn’t know what the problem on their back is. Students walk around the room checking out each other’s problems and giving advice without directly saying what the problem is. When they have given advice to each person and listened to advice from each person, students guess what their ‘back problem’ is. This can be used with names of famous people, vocab words and so on.
Better Health (August 2018) The Dangers of sitting: why sitting is the new smoking. Better Health Victoria. Available at: betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/the-dangers-of-sitting (accessed15 August 2019).
Hadfield J (1984) Elementary Communication Games. Harlow, Essex: Pearson.
Lebauer RS (1988) Learn to Listen, Listen to Learn Instructor’s Manual. Harlow, Essex: Pearson.
Lee WR (1965) Language Teaching Games and Contests. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mayo Clinic (April 2019) Stress relief from laughter? It’s no joke. Available at: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-relief/art-20044456 (accessed 20 August 2019).
Ur P (1992) Five-Minute Activities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wright A (1979) Games for Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rachel James is currently at the University of Adelaide. She has been teaching English since 1995 working with international students and migrants in university preparation, general English, cultural programmes, test preparation and curriculum development. She has been a course coordinator, examiner, teacher trainer and relief teacher. Her particular interest is in promoting student-centred learning. She lives in beautiful Adelaide with her husband, two children, five pet chickens and a koala.