Mind Games: How do we get students to think in English?

Over the years, I’ve heard a number of upper level students complain that despite having a good vocabulary and a strong handle on grammar, a certain amount of translating still goes on in their heads. I don’t think the influence of the first language is ever truly absent, and at times it can actually be beneficial. For example, reading skills attained in the L1 can often be transferred to reading in the L2, and while false cognates can be misleading, students whose first languages share roots and affixes with English stand a better chance of figuring out the meaning of new words. However, keeping a tight grip on the L1 during the study of the L2 isn’t ideal. All ELLs should make it a goal not only to communicate effectively in English, but also to think as much as possible in English. How does a learner make this happen? How can we teachers help?

What practices can we teach that promote thinking in the target language? I’d like to recommend simple mind games that can be made more complex as students progress to the upper levels.  Students can do these so-called mind games independently and discreetly  – because the games are played silently –  outside the classroom. The idea is to promote an internal monologue in English.

1) To-Do List

Encourage students not only to make to-do lists in English, but also to think out an action plan before tackling each errand. “Okay. Today I need to mail a letter and return my library books. I can mail the letter before I go to the library because there’s a mailbox in front it…”

2)  Roy G Biv

Teach students the mnemonic for the colors of the rainbow: Roy G Biv = red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. As they ride the bus or walk along the street, they can look for one thing of each color in the proper sequence. The should identify each person or object by name. “Red. I see a red shirt. Orange. That woman has an orange scarf. Yellow…”

3) I Spy

Teach students the opening line to this children’s game: “I spy with my little eye… . ” They should identify an object by name and then try to describe it in as much detail as possible within 15 seconds. “I spy with my little eye a water bottle. It’s plastic. It’s clear. The bottle is still almost full. I wonder how long it will take for that man to drink the whole bottle…”

4)  Categories

Students can play this game in a waiting room, on public transportation, or on the streets – almost anywhere. They must try to identify as many categories as possible for the people or objects they see. For instance, they can identify kinds of stores or types of shoes. They can also label groups of people and identify which people belong to which groups. “There are six people in this doctor’s office. Everyone’s waiting. 5 seem patient. 1 looks impatient. The woman can’t sit still. There are 4 women and 2 men. 2 of us are young. The other 4 look middle-aged…”

5) Movie Maker

This game can be played various ways, but it must be played in a public place, such as a subway train or cafe.  (1) Casting: Students can think of  a favorite movie and consider who they’d cast in each role. They should try to imagine the people around them at the moment playing different characters. “All right. Let’s cast Notting Hill. Who could play Julia Robert’s role? Maybe that woman across from me. She needs longer hair, but she looks like Julia…. ” (2) Script: Students can listen to conversation around them (assuming it’s in English) and create a basic movie plot. “The couple behind mentioned a surprise birthday party. Imagine a birthday party for a friend. It’s a surprise party, but the surprise turns out to be a bad idea…”

These are just some possibilities. Have you ever encouraged something similar?


6 Comments Add yours

  1. Adam says:

    Nice ideas. As a teacher here in the Czech Republic I suggest similar games to my students. One of them is “How long…?” It’s a good way to practice present perfect. The students should think about the present moment in terms of duration.
    – I am taking a shower now. How long? I have been taking a shower for 10 minutes.
    – I am eating my breakfast. How long? I have been eating my breakfast for 15 minutes.
    – I work for IBM. How long? I have worked for IBM for 15 years.
    A variation of this is “How many times…?”
    These mind games are great, but I may have to have some customized wrist bands made for the students so that they don’t forget to play them when they are out of class. 🙂
    I also use other means you suggested, like VLC Player for listening and video cameras to fight shyness.
    The possibilities are endless, the main problem is the status quo of language teaching. At least here in the Czech Republic.

    1. Thanks for sharing some other ideas. I love the use of a wristband as a reminder! Good tip.
      Best wishes to you!

      1. Nina Liakos says:

        Hi, Jennifer! I hope your trip home was good. I’ve been recommending internal dialog in English to students for years, because that is how I eventually learned to think in French back when I was young and living in Paris. The dumb French observations I made to myself were pretty effective in stilling the natural English mind chatter that would occur if I just let me mind do what it wanted to. I love your directed ideas, though (and Adam’s)–much better than just “talk to yourself in English”!

      2. Thanks, Nina. I returned safely to Boston. It was good to see you in New Orleans. I’m already looking forward to TESOL 2012. 🙂

        Re: Internal dialog. The “dumb” or mundane thoughts you mentioned actually have a lot of value since they were expressed in the target language. The directed ideas Adam and I offer make the activity a little more fun, but even just thinking about the discomfort of the bus seat or how many more stops you have to wait is a good exercise if all done in the L2. 🙂

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