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Interactive Classroom Activities

by Donna Moss
A number of activities for pairs foster interaction and focus on meaningful communication (Ellis, 1999). Some activities have very specific guidelines and parameters; others are more loosely constructed. In interactive classroom instruction, various activities are used depending on the lesson’s goals and objectives. These activities include, but are not limited to, information gap, conversation grid, ordering and sorting, problem-solving, and discussions.

Information Gap activities are widely used in ESOL instruction. At the most basic level, two people share information to complete a task. In one-way information gap activities, one person has all the information (e.g., one learner gives directions to a location and the other plots the route out on a map). In two-way gap activities, both learners have information to share to complete the activity. Two-way information gap activities have been shown to facilitate more interaction than one-way information gap tasks (Ellis, 1999).

Conversation grid activities work well for beginning-level learners. They provide learners with an opportunity to practice gathering and giving the same information over and over again, thus helping to build automaticity. They also provide learners with a chance to negotiate meaning. For example, to review asking and answering personal identification questions in a family literacy class, learners can speak to classmates to gather information and complete a table such as the one below.

First Name
Last Name
Child’s Grade
Child’s Teacher’s Name

The number of rows can vary depending on how many interviews you want students to conduct. A conversation may ensue, such as: Ana: What’s your first name? Marta: Marta Ana: Spell, please Marta: M-A-R-T-A Ana: M-A (student writes the letter E) Marta: M-A…A…no E

Ordering and sorting activities include classification, ranking, and sequencing (Willis, 1996). For example, in a discussion about talking to children about drugs and alcohol, parents are given cards with statements such as, “Beer is not alcohol” or “The legal drinking age is 21”. Learners work in pairs and must put the cards in either the “True”, “False”, or “I’m not sure” pile. To complete the task, learners have to discuss their choices, provide explanations for them, and achieve consensus (Siteki, 2004).

Problem-solving activities work at all levels. Learners work in pairs and discuss issues relevant to their lives, such as finding ways to use English outside the class, or how to plan a budget for a family of five. Problem-solving pairs work well when each person has a specific role and the tasks are clearly set out for them. Learners use language to communicate for real reasons: to explain their ideas, make suggestions, and eventually reach a consensus.

For beginning-level learners, problem-solving activities can be created using picture prompts or picture stories that deal with everyday problems adults commonly confront. Using the language experience approach, learners tell the teacher what is happening in each picture and the teacher writes what they say (Singleton, 2002). After the story is established, learners can make suggestions about how characters in the story can solve their problems. (See examples of problem-solving picture stories related to health issues.)

Discussions, which are an obvious way to promote interactions, can be about almost anything, from cultural issues, education, learning English, to current events and “hot” topics. Discussions seem deceptively easy to set up, but they require preparation and thought so that they run smoothly and learners get the most out of the exchange of ideas. The purpose of the discussion should be made very clear to the learners. The benefits of pair discussions to language development should also be articulated: they are an opportunity to practice listening for main ideas and details, build vocabulary, use English to explain and elaborate, and use strategies to keep the conversation from breaking down. It is helpful to set time limits, assign roles and responsibilities, and debrief all participants after the discussion.


Ellis, R. (1999). Learning a Second Language Through Interaction. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins. Singleton, K. (2002). “ESOL teachers: Helpers in health care.” Focus on Basics, 5C, 26-30. Siteki, M. (2004). Talking to Kids about Drugs and Alcohol. Retrieved December 6, 2004, from ctae/adult_ed/REEP/family.htm

About the Author

Donna Moss is the family literacy specialist at the Arlington Refugee Education and Employment Program (REEP) in Arlington, Virginia. She has been in adult ESOL education for more than 20 years as a teacher, curriculum developer, teacher trainer, and researcher. She was a contributing author of the Collaborations: English in Our Lives series from Heinle and Heinle.

Reprinted with permission of the author from Focus on Basics 7C.