Back-to-School Activity: Class-created puzzles

Sometimes I find that activities originally intended for elementary or middle school students can be easily adapted for adult ELLs. Such activities often include strong visual aids or interesting use of physical movement, which is appropriate for students who have limited proficiency in English.

I came across two classroom activities submitted by elementary and middle school teachers that would work well in the first week of school to help students get to know one another and establish a positive, supportive learning atmosphere. I’ll share one today and another later in the week. Each one has been modified and expanded for the ESL classroom.

Activity: Class-created puzzles (Originally submitted by Ellaine Barthelemy of Apple Valley, MN)

Object: To have each student contribute a piece of a puzzle that will symbolize the importance of every individual in the classroom. Each piece will display personal information about the student. This is especially effective if you wish to stress that yours is not a teacher-centered classroom and that you expect participation and support from everyone.

VARIATION 1: Whole group (15 or less, all levels)

You can use a large poster board and cut it into puzzle-like shapes so that there is one piece for each student and yourself. The idea is for everyone to write something on his/ her piece and then assemble it as a class. Model the writing by completing your piece first. During the assembly phase, let the students do most of the work so as to encourage interaction among them.

What you write on each puzzle piece can vary according to the students’ level. Suggestions:

  • Beginners: First names only. If students are true beginners and have yet to learn the alphabet, you can ask each student his/ her name and write the names on the pieces. As you do this, spell out loud and show each piece to the class as you complete it. After the puzzle is assembled, point to and read each name aloud again. You can ask, “Where is ___? Let’s say hello to ___. Hello, ___.”
  • Intermediate students: Name, home country, and one or two interesting facts. (Jennifer, U.S.A., mother, piano) As each student contributes his/ her piece to the puzzle, s/he must share the information written: “My name is Jennifer. I’m from the United States. I’m a mother. I play the piano…not very well, but I can play.”
  • Advanced students: Name, home country, and one language goal.

If you cut the pieces in advance, be sure to make enough. It’s better to have too many pieces than too few. You can use the extra pieces to write key words, such as the school name, or short phrases that motivate and support, for instance, Learn together or Ask questions.

VARIATION 2: Small groups (12+, Levels: intermediate to advanced]

You can use small poster boards to make smaller puzzles, one for each group. Groups should have 4-5 people. You can cut out the puzzle pieces in advance. Cut each board into six pieces. Keep each set in a plastic storage bag. The idea is for each group to build the small puzzle together. There will be 1-2 extra pieces. On those pieces, the groups can write common language goals or something they want to find in the classroom (support, answers, help, success, confidence, etc.) Have them tape together their puzzles. Then join all the puzzles together on the wall to symbolize the unity of the class.


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