talking sticks and twenty questions

When I arrived at work this afternoon, it was with highlights from #KOTESOL2013 still swirling in my head. I made my coworkers dizzy talking about motivation, ELF, reflection and intercultural communication until I ran out of breath.

However, when I walked into my first class, I found an eager group of 12 young learners, ready for anything. We started with a warm-up of 20 questions and Esther and Elly immediately put their hands up to start the questioning. And a thought occurred to me: one of the points my boss made when she was giving me feedback from observing that class is that those two girls do the majority of the talking in that class.

Professor Tom Farrell gives a plenary address at #KOTESOL2013

Professor Tom Farrell gives a plenary address at #KOTESOL2013

Then I remembered that Tom Farrell had shared similar observation statistics in his plenary address. He mentioned that the teacher in his case had solved the problem with talking sticks. I didn’t have anything like that prepared, but I decided it was worth a try. I told all the students that they each could only ask two questions.

This led to quite a bit of jostling as students negotiated who would ask which questions. Esther and Elly were mostly unsuccessful in trying to push other students to ask questions they wanted. During the game there was a lot of conversation and teamwork about what information they had already and what questions would be the best to ask. And everyone participated.

Overall it was a really interesting and positive result for that activity with that class and solved a problem I had worried about without Elly and Esther feeling like they were doing anything wrong. I’m curious to see how it works in the future.


UPDATE (11/11): I’ve used the 20 questions game with other classes and some insist on playing every day. One class has made up their own variations to the game, mostly changes for the better, and play it in their free time – in English! Here are the changes they’ve made:

  • 2 questions per students wasn’t enough and led to silence. They changed this to 4.
  • Too many options also led to silence, so they began to choose topics.
  • Guessing the answer right away led to random guessing, so they added a new rule: you can guess the answer, but if you’re wrong you’re out. That way students had to guess at clues that would lead to the answer. I suspected this would lead to uneven participation again, but so far it’s worked.
  • The winner gets to be “teacher” for the next game. They keep careful track of this, too!

What gets me is how cool it is that the kids have changed the game to suit them and to make sure it’s fast-paced, interesting, and can still involve everyone. They keep track of how many questions they have left and argue over the dynamics of saving all your questions till the end. In the end, all I do is facilitate and sometimes play.

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  • AnnLoseva  On October 15, 2013 at 4:37 am

    Thanks for writing this, I admire you for being able to do a quick post right after the conference! I’m always too overwhelmed but tempted to write nonetheless.
    I am always in search of interesting warm-ups, and I really love questions as such) in this activity, what kind of questions are these 20? Who do students ask them? I’d love to try that out with my students this week.;)
    Hope you’ve had a great time at the conference, sure you have!))
    Cheers from Moscow,

    • livinglearning  On October 15, 2013 at 10:28 am

      Thanks for commenting Ann. Actually, I usually can’t write just after a conference. It takes longer to sink in. But this just happened!
      The game “20 questions” is one where students can only ask questions with “yes” or “no” answers to try to identify a noun. My students are quite young and beginner levels, so I usually avoid abstract nouns. One person thinks of an answer first (usually some difficult word they are learning) and they ask questions like “Is it big?” “Can it fly?” “Does it live in the water?” They have to determine the noun within 20 attempts. The game can be adapted in a lot of different ways – like number, type, or complexity of the questions, breaking students into competing teams… I’m sure you will find your own variations. I hope this is helpful!
      Have a wonderful week!

  • Bryan  On October 16, 2013 at 8:51 am

    I connect with your concern about not wanting the answerers to feel they did anything wrong.

    About a year ago with a middle school class I did the passive aggressive “Why am I only hearing from one student??!” thing to a class, and immediately regretted the way I treated him (more than the pointless unhelpful treatment of the whole class). I made sure to talk to him later and apologize and let him know I really appreciate him in my classes (and wish other students were as responsive as him).

    I had his class yesterday. He was being the answerer during opening/instructions but this time I think he was the only one who had even mentally checked into the room. #adifferentproblem

    I’m glad talking sticks worked well for you. I have 3rd grade ‘free talking’ this afternoon, maybe I’ll try talking sticks. They really avoid using English in groups so maybe I could put one in each group in charge of talking sticks?? Ooooh.

    • livinglearning  On October 16, 2013 at 3:20 pm

      Thanks for reading, Bryan. I have totally done that same thing: (“Aren’t there more than two students in this class?”) and was horrified with myself. I hope your variation on the idea works out for your class. Let us know how it goes!

  • Rose Bard  On October 16, 2013 at 11:05 pm

    Hi Anne, thanks for sharing this.
    I just created a mind map based on your post to add more ideas of spotting the problem, strategies to use in class and named it Challenges. It is challenging, isn’t it? And I am not horrified at all to the fact that when a teacher realises that this is going on and may not know how to deal with it and does the best of her/his abilities (Keep in mind that some Ss love to put a little show too and get all the attention and also wouldn’t bother if others are learning or not – I have seen this type too)

    What horrifies me is the fact that there are teachers who actually would keep encouraging that particular student(s) to participate and praising him/her despite having other Ss in the class who might not be as verbal as that one(s) but are just as valuable and deserves the chance to show how great they can do with the language too and show their language development.

    Another thing that horrifies me is that we put a great emphasis on speaking without allowing Ss plenty of time to develop their language knowledge and skills, hence that is what ought to happen. In your post you show us the opposite, students had the time to get together, prepare questions, by listening to each other they are practising how to say it, and each student had a number of questions in which they will then practice their speaking and listening while playing the game. It is not a spoonfed approach, it gives students the opportunity for peer teaching, and also for you to guide them to accuracy during the preparation stage. I love this kind of collaborative planning stage for games.

    Thanks for sharing it.

    • livinglearning  On October 16, 2013 at 11:50 pm

      Thank you so much, Rose! I would love to see your mind map (and I bet I’m not alone) because I think your ideas might give me more ideas.

      I think you pinpointed the most amazing thing about the experience for me – the group collaboration among the students without much intervention from me. They did teach each other. I learned that there are times when I can step back.

      Another strategy I found today was to give the talkative ones the role of “teacher” (blatantly stolen from Kevin Stein’s recent post) and join the quieter ones in question-asking roles. That also worked quite well.

      On the other hand, I tried the same activity and strategies with a different class yesterday and it backfired – meaning after the talkative ones asked their questions, there was a good 2 minutes of dead silence before I prodded the others a bit. In the end I had to give up and let the talkative ones finish the game so we could move on. That class is older, but less confident and with a different dynamic than the other and I think those things factored into the difference in experiences.

      Anyway, thanks again for commenting and furthering my reflections. 🙂

  • Rose Bard  On October 17, 2013 at 1:56 am

    I was about to read Kevin’s post when I got the notification you had answered my comment. 😉

    There are couple of things I keep in mind when using the same activity in a different group. And I usually use the same activity in 8 different groups during the week with my 9th graders.
    1- Each group like you said yourself have their own dynamics.
    2- We apply/experiment with strategies that work on a particular situation within that group, groups of students or student in particular. It all depends on what we want to achieve/change/improve in the dynamics of the group.

    Although I use the same activity with 8 groups through out the week, I take in consideration the profile of the group. I might encourage them only to speak in one and write on the board in one group, and in the other one they write on their notebooks first. I might add the element of competition in one group and not in another. I might have to mediate the group discussion myself, and in another I can step back. I might use have candies a prize in one and not in another. I might not tell them they will have a prize at all, and give at the end to surprise them. And in other days, I’ll have to give a reason to engage so I’ll tell them about the prize b4 they start. In a group, I will be nudged to explain why I am proposing that activity and in another they would care to know.

    It wasn’t until I had the workshop with John Fanselow last year that I discovered that teaching is pretty much a game where you have to chose your rules careful or gamble at the times. Not sure though if I am making any sense here. Be flexible to twist things around without losing the goal. I think that is what I am trying to say.

    I am off to borrow some ideas from Kevin too and add to my mindmap. 😉

    Your blog and Kevin’s are two of my fav blogs. Thanks for letting me learn about your teacching context and for sharing your experiences.

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