I looked out into the classroom and seventeen pairs of eyes stared back at me expectantly. As the lesson wound down the students were waiting for me to start the activity that would wrap up the final minutes of class.
Seconds turned into hours as I ran through the halls of my memory. I was looking for the room where I’d put my English teacher toolbox. Instead all I found statistics about the average snowfall in Hokkaido, Japan, or that California is home to the highest and lowest topographical points in the Continental 48.
The fact is I had nothing. Moments dragged on for an eternity as I fumbled to engage a class of false beginner English students. Luckily, in one of life’s lovely little moments of irony, hangman saved me.
Aside from finding out that the age-old game is totally suitable when you spice it up with a little friendly competition, that day taught me that I always need to have something to pull out of my back pocket. Sometimes literally.
Now I’ll show you how you can create your own English Teacher Swiss Army Knife so that you can MacGyver your way out of unexpected situations.
You Should Always Have Filler Exercises
No matter how well a class is planned, sometimes things don’t always go according to plan. Inevitably, you’ll find yourself winding down that last activity as you notice there is enough time on the clock for at least one more thing. A one more that wasn’t part of the original plan.
Fillers are important. They turn what could have been an event that makes students lose faith in your leadership into a lesson that ends in a fun and stimulating way. They can be the difference between students walking out feeling down and feeling confident.
Don’t just take my word for it. Whole books and academic articles have dedicated to the topic, and become so favored in our field over the past two decades that entire websites exist as libraries for such activities.
The goal of fillers is to keep the students involved in the lesson’s objectives instead of hosting random conversations, games, or just ending the session early. Furthermore, it’s always important to choose an activity that is going to function well with the focus of your lesson.
Whether you are a teacher with lots of experience or you are just starting to teach, embracing the importance of fillers is something that can take your teaching to the next level.
Here are six fillers that you can use in your next class to keep you going if you find yourself with extra minutes at the end of a lesson.
Six Fillers You Can Use to Expand Your Lessons
Match the meaning – This is a great one to use during vocab lessons. Recite the meaning of a word and get the students to tell you what the word is. This gives them a chance to recall new words in reverse order, and if they don’t know the answer you can give them more context with an example sentence with the word missing. Make it competitive for group classes by separating students into teams.
Yes, No, Question – Great for drilling grammar. Have your students use the target grammar from the lesson to create original sentences, then have them change it to negative and question form for extra practice. Once they get the hang of switching between forms, you can use the words yes, no and question to indicate which type of sentence they need to make (positive, negative or question form).
For example, while playing this at the end of a grammar lesson on present continuous, I would say “No!” and my student would say, “I’m not running a marathon.” If it’s a group, call out students at random with different commands to get them producing the target language on the spot.
Sentence Tennis – Learners have to use multiple forms in a head-to-head tennis style face off. You use positive, negative, and question forms paired with the lesson’s target grammar for each round. Then students volley sentences back and forth, changing the sentence for various personal pronouns and verbs.
For example, let’s imagine I’m at the end of a lesson on the present perfect. Student 1 “serves” with a sentence according to the category of that round (I chose question) and present perfect. Something like, “Have you eaten lunch?” Student two “returns” by changing subject pronoun of the sentence. After all subject pronouns are used, or when one competitor feels compelled, they switch the verb. Points are awarded when there are conjugation errors, words absent, or sentences repeated. It can get pretty competitive.
20 questions – While this timeless classic needs little to no introduction, you can always make a little more complex for advanced students by creating a scenario or keep it simple for basic levels by using a single object. Remember, closed questions means yes/no answers only. Don’t let your learners deviate from that.
60-second streak – set a one-minute timer and give a student a topic to talk about. The objective is to keep talking without giving attention to errors until the timer goes off. Just tell the learner to push on. Students tend to think their ability is far lower than it is, so this is a good confidence booster. You know your students, so feel free to add or take away a little time as you see fit.
Topical conversation practice – Use the theme of the lesson to ask a personal question so that your student has the chance to execute the lesson’s objectives in a more natural way. Try to stage this in a way that they have the opportunity to use the target language. If you know that you want to use this filler, prepare some specific questions in advance so you don’t lose any time to question creation.
Adapt These Fillers to Fit The Learner
What happens when the game you usually use isn’t a good fit for the level you are working with? Good question, and that’s why it is important not to rely on just one filler.
Adapting games to fit the learner’s level isn’t always easy, so a safer bet is to choose a few that you like. Remember that picking a variety in which each activity functions for the variety of levels you teach is the best play.
If all of your activities are strictly conversation activities, lower level students may be stuck like a deer in headlights. On the contrary, higher-level students want more conversation practice, so a vocabulary or grammar game might not grasp their full attention.
Also, teachers have a duty to find ways to incorporate the material into their fillers. For example, if you decide to play hangman, stick to the vocab from the lesson to give them extra practice, or maybe some synonyms you pointed out during the lesson.
Making sure that extra time is used productively is the difference between entertaining and engaging. Watching a movie is entertaining, but it isn’t engaging unless it is combined with some activity to find information or listen for specific phrases and words in the film.
You Will Always Have A Safety Net
Unexpectedly ending up with some time at the end of class isn’t a tragedy, but it can be if you don’t have something to pull out of your back pocket to engage learners during those final few minutes.
Having fillers provides a special security that every teacher needs. No matter if you teach 1-to-1 or group lessons, maintaining engagement in the material with a fun activity enhances practice time and shortens the path to confidence.
Being mindful of how appropriate a variety of activities are for different learner levels will ensure that you don’t try to force your students to do something that’s out of their ability range.
Keeping the material embedded in your fillers will give your students more opportunities to practice what they need to learn, which enhances their retention and makes your lesson a success.
Before your next lesson, make sure you are equipped with a some fillers so you don’t get stuck in front of your students while shuffling through the memory banks, only to find things like a really good recipe for bean dip.