Back to the Future:
Low-Tech Activities for a High-Tech Classroom

2013_Heyer_SandraSandra Heyer

I recently had the pleasure of teaching in a classroom renovated specifically for English language teaching. From a console at the front of the room, I could access the Internet, project documents, or play music with a few taps on a user-friendly touch screen. Even the students’ desks were carefully chosen with language lessons in mind. The lightweight ergonomic desks were on casters, so re-configuring their arrangement for pair work or small-group work was a breeze. In fact, the desks moved so easily that my students could move them without getting up—they just shoved off with their feet and glided over the low-nap carpet.

My students and I loved our state-of-the-art classroom. However, a few weeks into the semester, I realized it had one hidden drawback: It was making us all a little lazy. Because I was at the console a lot of the time, I wasn’t moving around the classroom as much as I usually do. And my students weren’t moving at all.

This lack of physical activity was somewhat troubling in light of recent research indicating that being sedentary is dangerous to one’s health; it is linked to serious illnesses like heart disease and type 2 diabetes. “Sitting,” Dr. James Levine at the Mayo Clinic has famously proclaimed, “is the new smoking.”

My class met every afternoon from 1:00 to 3:30—a total of 2 1/2 hours of sitting. Was all that sitting adversely affecting my and my students’ health in a small but cumulative way? If so, what was the remedy? Jettison the high-tech console? Replace the sleek gliding desks with wood-and-metal clunkers? No way!

Fortunately, the fix was quick and easy. I looked through my repertoire of activities for ones that would get us all moving. Then I began incorporating one or two of them into every class. It’s hard to say whether the activities will have a long-term health benefit. But the short-term benefit was obvious. After just ten minutes of moving around, my students returned to their seats—and I to the console—with renewed energy.

In this newsletter and the next three, I’ll share the activities that worked well in my class. They are interactive, can be adapted for almost any level or learning environment, and—most important—get students up and out of their seats.

Activity 1: The Moving Line
Levels: All

This low-prep activity, which facilitates a lot of interaction in a short amount of time, gets the whole class out of their seats.

  1.  Divide the class into two groups of equal numbers. (If you have an odd number of students, participate in the activity yourself to make the groups even.) Students form two lines facing one another.SH_1
  2. Students exchange information. Then one line shifts position so that each student has a new partner. (The person at the end of the moving line moves to the beginning of the line.)SH_2
  1. Students exchange the same information with their new partners. (Having students recite the same lines with each partner, like actors in a play, keeps the activity—literally—moving along. The activity doesn’t get boring because students hear new information from each partner.) Then they shift positions again.
  2. The students in the moving line continue to interact with new partners and then move on. The activity concludes when the students in the moving line are back in their original positions.

 Variation: The Moving Circle. Students form two concentric circles. The inside circle faces out, and the outside circle faces in. After each exchange, the outside circle shifts position; the inside circle remains stationary.

 Examples of Interactions in the Moving Line

 A. Beginning Level: Practicing the past-tense form of the irregular verb find

“Lose” some small everyday items (or photos of everyday items) by scattering them around the classroom—for example, a cell phone, pencil, notebook, comb, or key. You will need one “lost” item for each student. Ask your students to get up and find something. Holding the found objects, students form two lines and have this exchange with their partners:

Student A: What did you find?
Student B: I found a _____. What did you find?
Student A: I found a _____.

Tip: For the low-beginning level, be sure all the “found” objects begin with a consonant.

B. Intermediate Level: Comparing pros and cons of students’ hometowns

  1. Ask students to complete the sentences below on their own paper. (Before students share personal information, it is always best to give them a short planning phase to write their responses.)

The best thing about my hometown is _____.
The worst thing about my hometown is ____.

2. Leaving their papers at their desks, students form two lines and exchange information about their hometowns.

Activity 2: Conversation Stations
Levels: All

Almost any pair activity that students normally do while seated can be done at a Conversation Station. This activity gets the whole class up and moving around the room.

  1. Create Conversation Stations around the classroom by posting a short interactive activity on the wall at each station. For example, you might post discussion questions, or dialogs from a textbook like Future or Side by Side. You will need at least half as many stations as you have students. Number the stations so that students can keep track of where they have been.SH_3
  1. In pairs, students move about the classroom, stopping at the stations to interact. (Students can stop at the stations in sequence, or they can move to any open station.) The activity ends when students have stopped at most of the stations.SH_4

 Examples of Questions for Conversation Stations

 Post one or two questions at every station.

A. Beginning Level: Talking about favorites

      • Who is your favorite person?
      • What is your favorite TV show?
      • What is your favorite place?
      • What is your favorite dessert?
      • What is your favorite room in your home?
      • What is your favorite sport?
      • What is your favorite drink in the summer?
      • What is your favorite ice cream flavor?
      • What is your favorite day of the week?
      • What is your favorite city?
      • What is your favorite kind of music?
      • What is your favorite activity in this class?

 B. High-Beginning or Intermediate Level: Talking about food

      • Who is the best cook in your family?
      • Where do you buy groceries?
      • Who does the grocery shopping in your family?
      • Is food more expensive in this country or in your home country?
      • What is a food that you miss the most from home?
      • Name three foods that are always in your refrigerator.
      • Which food from this country don’t you like?
      • Do you have any food allergies?
      • Which fruit do you eat the most often?
      • How often do you eat at a fast-food restaurant?
      • What do people eat for breakfast in your home country?
      • What are three foods that are healthy to eat?

 C. Intermediate or Advanced Level: Talking about past experiences

      • Have you ever won anything?
      • Have you ever ridden a motorcycle? A scooter? A horse?
      • Have you ever gotten locked out of your house or apartment?
      • Have you ever called 911?
      • Have you ever driven a truck?
      • Have you ever met a famous person?
      • Which movies have you watched more than once?
      • What is the funniest movie you’ve ever seen?
      • What is the strangest food you’ve ever eaten?
      • What is the worst job you’ve ever done for money?
      • What is the most expensive restaurant you’ve ever been to?
      • What is something you’ve kept for a long time but should probably throw away?

Two good sources of questions are the Internet TESL Journal’s “Conversation Questions for the ESL/EFL Classroom” ( and The Book of Questions by Gregory Stock, Ph.D., Workman Publishing Company, Rev Upd edition September 2013. The questions in Stock’s book are not specifically for students of English, but many of them work well as conversation prompts.

Thanks to: Anjie Kokan at the Intensive English Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, who introduced me to the Conversation Stations concept.