Different Ways Of Brainstorming In EFL Classes

How to get away from the teacher standing at the board with a marker waiting for students to come up with ideas.

Brainstorming is used in all kinds of situations in EFL classes, for example:

  • Predicting what might be in listening or reading text
  • Listing good communication, learning or exam strategies
  • Coming up with vocabulary that is connected in some way, e.g. body words, negative words, collocations with the word “get”, or phrases that could be used in a particular situation such as a post office
  • Coming up with functional language phrases such as ways of apologising or things to say in immigration

I am taking as the starting point of this article maybe the most common way of brainstorming things like these – a teacher standing in front of the board and asking for student contributions to a list, table or mind map (a kind of spider diagram in which a central word, phrase or sentence produces linked ideas that branch off from each other like the roots of a tree). This can be a useful activity that embodies many of the principles of communicative language teaching such as:

  • The teacher helping students help each other
  • A good balance of teacher and student talking, with the emphasis on the latter
  • There rarely being just one correct answer
  • A belief in the students being able to come up with most of what they need with a little help

However, a teacher standing in front of the board and students shouting out ideas as they come up with them is far from the only way of doing brainstorming. This article gives many variations that can emphasise some of those selling points, add other advantages, or just add a little variety for the teacher and students.

Brainstorming with the teacher at the board

Things can be mixed up without changing the essential dynamic that is described above. In order to save time that can be wasted brainstorming obvious things, the teacher could start with a partially completed list, table or mind map. If you have a computer and projector in the classroom, another alternative is to use one of the websites that help with brainstorming.

Brainstorming with students at the board

There is a lot to be said for a student taking the role of the teacher at the board – the communication between the person with the idea and the person at the board is likely to be richer; that student will need to use the kind of phrases they are used to hearing the teacher saying in that situation; and the teacher can become a contributor to rather than a controller of the brainstorm. You might want to give the class useful phrases for the “teacher” role such as “Anything more for this section?” and “I’m not sure about that, but let’s put it up anyway”.

You can also have more than one student at the board, for example by splitting the class into two teams. The two teams shout ideas out to their representatives at the board, who write them up in different colours. This can be done with the two teams working on the same mind map etc or two different ones, and points can be given at the end for the greatest number of correct answers.

You can also get the whole team up to the board in sequence in a game called a Board Race. Teams stand up in front of the board in straight lines with the person at the front of each line being given a board pen. That person writes something on the brainstorm they are working on, passes the pen to the person behind them, and goes to the back of the line. If anyone gets stuck when it comes to their turn, they can take ideas from other people in the group, but they can’t pass the pen to the next person until they have written something.

Brainstorming in groups

Anything that can be done with someone at the board can be done with students in groups with pieces of A3 paper, mini-whiteboards, Post-Its, scraps of paper spread across their desks, laptops, etc. To keep everyone involved, students can be asked to pass the pencil in the same way as a board race, when the teacher shouts out once every minute or so, or simply when the teacher spots that someone is not very involved.

Although the teacher can check and help as they are going along, too much of that stops it really being a brainstorm and anyway it is always good to have a whole class activity and/ or comparing with another group stage to round things off. You could simply move to a whole class brainstorm to put together all their ideas, especially useful with classes who don’t contribute much to whole class brainstorming without that preparatory stage. With classes who are more competitive, points could be given for things that no other groups have and/ or are not on the teacher’s attempt at brainstorming the same thing.

Another possibility is for each group to swap their finished brainstorm with another group. The other group can then give them marks, choose the best ideas, add their own ideas, and/ or steal the best ideas for their own brainstorm. The same thing can be done with brainstorms being passed around the class from group to group until they get back to their original group, this time perhaps with strict time limits before they are passed on. This works both with all groups brainstorming the same thing and with different groups brainstorming different things.

A more unusual thing to do with their finished brainstorms is for the teacher to take them in, tell students that they can try to find out and memorise stuff to add to it before the next class, then let them continue the same brainstorming in the same groups at some time during the next lesson. Something similar can be done the lesson before the brainstorming activity, by telling them what the topic of the brainstorm in the next class will be.

There are many possible possibilities of dictionary use in group brainstorming, my favourite of which is allowing a limited amount e.g. only in the last two minutes of brainstorming or only five items per group.

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net November 2012
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

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