Breathing Life into Checking Answers
By Hall Houston

What aspect of teaching do you find the most uninspiring? Is it taking attendance? Or grading papers? Or perhaps passing out exam papers?

One area I've found particularly dull is checking answers to exercises in the coursebook. While most of the exercises serve a good purpose, I feel as if I'm on automatic pilot. The energy level drops and I look forward to doing something else. I suppose my students feel the same way.

In order to make the class more engaging and interesting for everyone, I started to devise some new ways of checking the answers. I tried these out with my students this semester. I found students were more eager to interact, as they were no longer just reading out their answers, but having fun as well.

First, I would like to present a few pointers for making this part of your lesson a little more playful.

Vary the order of the questions. You can go from the last question to the first, or skip around.

Vary the pattern of interaction. You can allow students to call on each other or have a student come up to the front of the class to check answers. Alternatively, you can have students ask you some of the questions.

Vary the ways students give their answers. You can ask them to call out their answers, write their answers on the board, or even write their answers on index cards that they pass to other students to read.

Give students some choice. Permit students to select the question they want to answer, or who they want to answer the question for them.

Let students become critics. Call on a student to answer a question, and then get another student to evaluate the first student's answer. You can also ask students to critique the questions in the book by giving each question a score, or ranking them from best to worst. If there is enough time, get students to brainstorm some clever ways to improve the exercise. (For more information about brainstorming in the EFL/ESL classroom, I refer you to my book, The Creative Classroom, Lynx Publishing, 2007).}

Introduce a game-playing element. This can raise the interest level, particularly if you give a small prize to the winner of the game.

Take a break. Stop right in the middle of the page and tell students to look out the window. Challenge them to name 10 things they see outside.

Don't let the coursebook take over the class. Set the book down occasionally and ask the students how they are today. Comment on a student's new hairstyle or clothes.

Now I'd like to present some teaching ideas you can try out in your classes.

Your Worst Teacher

Tell students to imagine their most feared or hated teacher from a previous class or school. Ask them these questions:

What was the teacher's name?
What did the teacher look like?
What were the teacher's pet phrases?
Did this teacher have any funny mannerisms?
How did the teacher behave when upset?

Call on a couple of students to describe this teacher. Then ask one of the students to come to the front. You give the student your teacher's manual to check the answers in the role of the teacher she described.

Reward or Punishment

Write the words REWARD and PUNISHMENT on the board. Ask students what the two words mean. Call on a student to read a question from the coursebook, and then allow that student to choose another student to provide an answer. If the answer is satisfactory, he must offer a reward to the student (for example, the first student will buy the second student a snack after class or carry his books back to his place). If the answer is not satisfactory, he must think of a good punishment (for example, the second student must buy the first one a piece of candy or sing for the class). Repeat a couple of times, and then write the word EXTREME next to REWARD and PUNISHMENT. Tell students you want to continue, but this time they must think of an EXTREME reward (giving the student 1000 red roses for the next 50 years) or an EXTREME punishment (must be locked in a cage with a lion for 24 hours). Continue until all questions are answered.

A Personal Question

Call out the question from the book, and then wait for the answer. After the student answers, use a word from the question or answer and create a personal question to ask the student. After the student has answered your question, give a reaction and maybe even a follow-up question. Continue in this manner with all the questions.

Mind Reading

Read out a question, and then ask a student to look at another student. Can the first student guess the second student's answer? Allow him to make a guess, and then get the other one to verify is the answer is right. (This works best for exercises that ask for personal responses.)

A Good Reason

Call on a student to read out a question, but not to answer. Instead, the student should call on another student to answer the question. Before she calls on the other student, however, she must provide a superb reason why she chose that student. If you think the reason is acceptable, tell the second student to answer. If you think it's unacceptable, then the first student must answer the question. Continue this activity with all the questions.

Teacher's Mistakes

Tell the class that you are going to read out the answers, but you're not feeling well today, and you might make a few mistakes. Tell students that they must correct you immediately when they hear a mistake. Read out the answers, adding in some errors. Finally, let them know if they missed any of your errors.

Panel of Judges

Choose 3 students who will be judges for this activity, and have them sit in the front of the class, off to one side. Tell them to create a list of criteria for judging students' answers. These can include linguistic elements, as well as other factors (enthusiasm, tone of voice, facial expressions, etc.). While the judges are creating their list, give the rest of the class a few minutes to read over their answers. Next, call on 2 students to come to the front of the class. Have each one read out their answer. Then ask the judges to give each student a score from 1 (terrible) to 5 (terrific). Then call on 2 different students, and continue the procedure. When all the questions have been answered, ask students to count up their points. The student with the highest point gets a prize.

Roll the Die

This game is ideal for an assignment with many items to check. You will need a die for this activity.

Give students the following handout or write it on the board:

If you roll a….

1 - you can get someone else to answer for you
2 - you can answer in your own language, and get another student to translate
3 - you can answer a different item
4 - you can look at another student's answers if you need to
5 - you must give the answer for this item and the next one, too
6 - you must stand on top of your chair and read out the answer in a dramatic voice

Tell your class that they will have the option of rolling a die before they answer a question. Rolling a 1 to 4 might make the task easier, but rolling a 5 or 6 will make things even worse. Read out the first question, and call out a name. Give the student the option of coming to the front of the class and rolling a die. Continue until all questions are answered.


Hall Houston has taught EFL for over a decade in Hong Kong and Taiwan. He is currently a full-time English Instructor at Kainan University in Luzhu, Taiwan. His first book, The Creative Classroom, was published in 2007. His second book, Provoking Thought, was published in 2009.His professional interests include task-based teaching, group dynamics, discourse analysis, creativity and critical thinking.

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