Activities For The Questions In Students’ Heads

Activities for the questions in students' heads

Activities for the Questions in Students’ Heads

When I was working on my first self-study book for students, I was surprised to find that writing it was at least as instinctive as teaching. The most obvious example of my subconscious controlling the process was that I often couldn’t understand my own reason for rejecting exercises that I considered. That was true both for common EFL exercises that I couldn’t bear to include and ones which I made up one day and then woke up dying to delete forever the next morning. There are many possible reasons for those feelings of revulsion (including some I might need a therapist to get to the bottom of), but I eventually worked out that the one thing that most of the rejected exercises had in common is being totally divorced from what goes on in my students’ heads.

One common exercise that I rejected due to being totally different from real mental processes is the one where students are asked to join together split and mixed up sentences to make answers like “I have never been” + “to such a nice place before” and “If you see him,” + “can you tell him I came by?” This exercise is boring beyond belief and unlikely to make the language memorable, but perhaps the biggest problem is how little connection it has to students’ actual mental steps as they try to form English sentences. I honestly think that in the whole history of human language learning no student has ever come across the problem “Which one of these ten things in my head is the (only) correct ending to this sentence that I’ve just started? (And I wonder how I could start sentences finishing with all the other endings)”. In the same way, I’m sure no one has ever asked themselves “I know which ten words I need but I can’t work out what order I should put them in”, as exercises with a sentence that has been completely mixed up (“were I if you would I advice ask for some” etc) would seem to suppose.

An even more common exercise that has similar problems is multiple-choice with four options for each questions, as students almost never have exactly four options in their heads when they try to form correct English sentences. Three options is usually more realistic, but to make a whole exercise with three options for each and every question would still mean at least some of those options would have nothing to do with real student problems.

Other questions which rarely if ever go through students’ heads but common EFL exercises seem to be based on include:
  • “I know that these ten words/expressions can go somewhere in this email/article. I wonder where I should put them in.”
  • “I know that there are words missing in these 15 places. What could they be?”
  • “I know I’ve made exactly one mistake with each of these sentences. I wonder where each mistake is.”
  • “I know I’ve made mistakes with four of these ten sentences. Which ones are they?”
  • “I know all the sentences that I’ve just written are wrong. I wonder what the mistakes are.”
  • “I know I’ve made several mistakes with Present Perfect. I wonder which Present Perfect sentences are correct.”
  • “How can I rephrase this sentence using this key word?”

I was just as guilty of ignoring what really goes on in the brain with my own creations. For example, I made up an exercise where all the verbs in a telephone dialogue were all in Present Simple and need to be corrected when that tense is wrong. This caused me intense embarrassment when I realised that the equivalent question in students’ heads was the highly unlikely “I wonder if I was right to just use Present Simple in the whole telephone conversation that I just had”.

On a more positive note, most of this article will look at questions that language learners really do ask themselves and exercises that match those mental processes better than the examples above. For example, questions that are similar to the first four mentioned above but which students are much more likely to ask themselves are:

  • “How should I finish this sentence that I’m thinking of?”/ “How can I finish this sentence that I just started?”
  • “Did I get those two words the right way round?”
  • “Which of these words/ phrases/ sentences in my head is correct?”
  • “Is that the right form of that word (in this sentence)?”

Tasks related to each of those more realistic tasks are listed one by one together below.


Question in students’ heads: “How should I finish this sentence that I’m thinking of?”/ “How can I finish this sentence that I just started?”

Exercise matching that question: Give students common sentence stems that have typical endings such as “If you need any more information,…” Students brainstorm their own ideas for endings, then match the sentence stems to a list of the most useful endings, e.g. “If you need any more information” + “please let me know/please contact me/please do not hesitate to contact me”. There will be a different number of endings for each sentence stem, due to listing (only) the most common and useful endings for each one.


Question in students’ heads: “Did I get those two words the right way round?”

Exercise: Give students sentences where just one or two words have been moved and need to be put back in their right places, only with real student confusions like “Have you yet done it?” These could be mixed up with ones which students sometimes get right but have doubts like “I don’t really like cheese”.


Question in students’ heads: “Which of these words/ phrases in my head is correct?”

Exercise: Give students traditional multiple-choice tasks, but with only the options that would actually go through their heads for each question. This will usually be just two or three options per question but maybe up to five or six with things like prepositions. You could also have different kinds of multiple-choice task to match the real problems that students would have producing each sentence, e.g. a one-word gapfill task for question 1 with two options, then a sentence completion task for question 2 with three options.


Question in students’ heads: “Is that the right form of that word (in this sentence)?”

Exercise: Give students sentences with the words in the forms that students most often use when they say or write those phrases, including some typical student mistakes like “Thanks for your calling” and “I look forward to hear from you” but also the right forms of things that students don’t often make mistakes with but might not be confident about like “I’m having a great time”. Students try to find and correct the mistakes, then explain why the wrong ones weren’t correct.

Other questions that students do really think about are listed below with ideas for exercises that we can give them that match those questions, in approximate order of how often I imagine such queries come up.


Question in students’ heads: “Is that a command or a request/ an offer or request/ an apology or just sympathy/ a polite or casual request?”

Exercise matching that: Give students a mix of phrases that they might have problems identifying the function of (e.g. offers and commands like “Please find the information attached” and “Please lock the door behind you”) and ones they are likely to have no problem with (requests like “Can I borrow your dictionary?” etc). Students try to identify the functions just from the phrases, then are shown them in context to check.


Question in students’ heads: “What do people usually say in this situation?”

Exercise: Each question has two or more phrases which are all correct but are very different in terms of how common they are, e.g. the fairly common emailing phrase “Dear Sir or Madam” and the much rarer one “To whom it may concern”. Students try to choose the most common, then look at explanations of differences in meaning to start checking their answers.

Question: “Does that word really mean what I think it means?”

Exercise: Students match words and expressions to one of two or three things that they might think are synonyms, including words which students worry about but they have usually actually got right (e.g. because they are the same in their language), typical confusions (e.g. false friends), and useful synonyms (e.g. British and American English for the same thing).


Question: “Which of these two sentences (in my head/that I learnt) is more polite/formal?”

Exercise: In each question, students choose the most polite/formal from two or three options. They use those examples to make generalisations about politeness/formality (“Longer words and phrases are more usually more formal” etc), then use that list of generalisations to check their answers and do a further (more challenging) picking the more formal options exercise.


Question: “Does he/ she mean…?”

Exercise: Make collections of words, expressions and phrases which are often confused and synonyms of those things, e.g. the requests “Could you possibly…?” and “I would be grateful if you could…” and the commands “Would you…?” and “Please + verb”. Put each in a sentence or two of context that make the meaning clear, e.g. “I forgot to bring my textbook. Could you possibly share yours with me?” and “Someone forgot to lock the doors last night. Please double check that all doors are locked before leaving from now on”. Split the pairs of phrases on Student A and B worksheets and mix up the Student B ones. Students work in pairs to match up the ones that mean the same without showing their worksheets to each other, first of all reading out only the key phrases and then reading out the context sentences to check if they matched correctly.


Question: “How should I reply?”/ “How do people usually reply?”/ “What’s she probably going to say next (and how should I respond)?”

Exercise: Students are given a fairly predictable exchange such as a telephone complaint. They cover all but the top line and predict what the next person will say before checking what is really there, then do the same line by line until the end of the conversation.


Question: “Does that mean yes or no?”

Exercise: Students listen and raise a “+” card or a “-” card depending on whether they think the phrase they hear is a positive or negative response, listening to some context and/or some related examples if they aren’t sure. You can also have a third category of phrases whose meaning isn’t clear, in which case they raise both cards. They label the same phrases on a worksheet with “+” or “-”, then test each other in the same way.

Question: “I’m sure this is wrong but I’m not sure why.”

Exercise: Students match the wrong phrases with descriptions of grammar rules, then use those rules to correct the phrases.


Question: “Can/Should I respond with… (or…)?”

Exercise: Students listen to several phrases and choose the one correct one or choose the one wrong one. Which of those two kinds of exercise is best depends on whether there is more than one typical confusion or whether there is more than one common correct option in real communication, so you could switch between the two kinds of exercise halfway through to make the most suitable practice for both kinds.


Question: “… doesn’t sound very polite, but is it actually wrong?”

Exercise: Students label phrases as “informal” or “wrong”, perhaps after a warmer stage where they raise cards with “informal” and “wrong” written on as they listen. They can then correct the wrong ones and make more formal versions of the informal ones.


Question: “Is this the right time to say…?”/ “We learnt that if they say… we have to say… Is this situation the same?”

Exercise: Tell students which phrase you are practising (e.g. “It seems we all agree on that then, so shall we move onto the next point”?) Ask them to listen to you (slowly) read out a dialogue and shout the phrase out as quickly as possible when they think a conversation has reached a point where it can be used. If shouting out won’t work, they can react in another way such as raising their pen. After a few rounds of that (with the same or different phrases), you can do the same with two or more phrases to shout out at the right time.

There are several more internal question that I think are quite realistic from my own experience as a language learner and language teacher but which I haven’t managed to come up with useful exercise for. I’d be very happy to hear other people’s suggestions.

  • “I know… is correct but can I also say…?”
  • “Why didn’t I get the response I expected?”
  • “If I say yes to that, what will they take that to mean?”/ “If I say…, what will I actually have to do?”
  • “How can I politely say no to that?”
  • “I always have problems with articles/ determiners/ prepositions. I wonder if I got them right this time.”
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