Physically Active Reading Activities

By Alex Case
One solution to many potential problems with reading is to use texts in ways that get students physically moving around.

There are all kinds of issues with using reading texts in class, such as it being silent, students finishing at very different times and needing to wait for the slow ones, being something students could just as easily do at home on their own, and reminding some students of the uncommunicative language classes they had at school. Another potential problem is that you can’t be sure what they are doing or what is going through their heads as they look at the page, unlike during a speaking activity. None of these reasons mean that we shouldn’t use texts during class time, however, as students may well be using bad methods like looking up every word in a dictionary when they read at home and never learn good strategies like skimming, scanning and guessing words from context without help. Texts are also often used as examples of language in context for later language analysis and production. In fact, when some of our students rarely read anything longer than an SMS even in their own language, it is increasingly important that reading is done in the classroom.

One solution to many potential problems with reading is to use texts in ways that get students physically moving around. Ideas like these are particularly useful when you need a warmer (especially in specific reading or exam preparation classes), when you have young learners, or when you have students who are so little motivated to read the text that you suspect some of them are doing little more than moving their eyes across the page and then waiting for you to give them the answers. Below are six ideas of how to put a physical element into almost any reading activity, with descriptions of different ways of using each idea. Most of the ideas are suitable for both young learners and adults, with the exceptions explained each time.

1. Cut up pieces of paper on the table

This is the most well known but least physical of the ideas here- cutting up the text and asking students to work in groups to put it back in order and/ or to match the headings to the paragraphs. A variation on this which works well for exam classes is to get them to match the questions to the texts in this way as a reading for gist activity before they later go on and answer the questions. You can add a bit more physicality to this and other cut up text activities by putting a huge pile of sections for everyone to help themselves to somewhere rather than giving out separate sets for each group. Putting this pile of slips of paper far from everyone adds to the amount that students have to move.

Another idea is to turn matching up cut up texts into a genuine jigsaw text activity where the meaning and whether the pieces physically fit have to be used together to finish the task, but note that this takes some planning to make sure that each section can physically fit in several places but not everywhere.

2. Texts pinned up around the room

Perhaps the most well known version of this is a running dictation, where one person from each pair goes back and forth from the text on the wall to their desk in order to eventually dictate the whole text for their partner to write down. Although reading is involved, the activity as described here is not a particularly good test of reading comprehension as people can write down things they don’t understand and it encourages reading slowly word by word rather than quickly searching for information that you are interested in. You can easily adapt the idea, however, so that the person sitting down has the comprehension questions, which they can read out (but not show) to their partner a few at a time. Their partner then goes up to the text to find the answers and relay them back so that the person sitting down can write them on the answer sheet. You can also have the whole class walking round in this way by telling them to keep their questions on the table and while the text is pinned to the wall, possibly split into pieces so that they aren’t crowding round the same piece of paper at the same time and have to move around more. You could also have the text on the table and the questions on the wall- or even the paper to write their answers on on the table, the comprehension questions on one wall, and the text on another wall. With young learners, you could get them more excited by making a statement about one of the texts on the wall so that they run to the right text as quickly as possible and touch it with their left little finger, put their Post It on it and sit down, or whatever other action you tell them to do.

Another activity where they all walk round the class at the same time involves the teacher putting envelopes on the wall below the bits of the text. I’ve used this for matching paragraphs to headings in the IELTS and other exams by giving each student a copy of all the headings on strips of paper and asking them to write their name on the backs and put each heading into the envelope under the text that they think it matches. They could also do something similar by writing their names on the back of true false questions and then putting them into boxes marked T and F as they read the texts put around the room.

A really challenging and fun reading task that involves following texts that are put all over the classroom and is suitable for both kids and lower level adults who like warmers is a treasure hunt. Write a series of texts where each one gives a hint about where the next one is, e.g. “The next clue is under the desk nearest to the plant”, and then put them round the room in the positions which are described there. Teams can take turns trying to finish the whole thing in a very limited time limit, the whole class could work together with students taking turns to look for the next hint, or you could have one treasure hunt for each team, e.g. on different coloured slips of paper. The students can then design similar challenges of the other teams.

3. Moving around a very big text

The easiest way of making the text big and therefore something students have to physically move around is to project it onto the board. You can then play games like asking pairs of students to race to underline the answer to the question you shout out. The questions can also be held up on a piece of card or revealed at the top of the board rather than shouted out. Another way of doing this is to paste the text into Word, change the font size to the largest one you can without breaking up individual words, e.g. 48, and print the whole thing off on 20 or so pieces of A4 paper. Tape these together in a long strip and then put it along students’ desks, on the floor or along one wall, to be used in the same way as the board ones described above.

4. React physically to a text

The simplest way of doing this is to call out a number on their worksheet or flash something up on the board and ask them to do the action there. A great variation for kids is Chain Actions, in which you make the list of actions they have to do in a row and read out loud longer and longer by adding one to the end of the list each time, until they are completely tired out. For example, you start with them reading “1. Stand up. 20. Sit down” off the board as they do those actions, and then add one from “2. Turn around.”, “3. Touch the carpet” etc each time (not actually getting up to 20 actions most of the time!).A more adult version is to give them a text where they have to move the people and furniture in the room (or paper versions on the board or on their table) around to match what is being described. This is more motivating if they then have to do something with that scene, e.g. solve a murder mystery or find the answer to a logic puzzle.

The problem with the read and react activities above as reading comprehension is that they depend on understanding every word and the texts are much shorter than the ones you would usually use in class. There are, however, physical ways of reacting to normal reading texts. For example, if you have a list of true/ false questions, you can read one out or flash it up on the board and ask them to do something physical to show which answer they think is the right one. Actions include holding up their right or left hand, sillier variations like touching their nose or knee, holding up pieces of paper with “T” and “F” written on them, pointing to similar flashcards on opposite walls, racing to slap their palms down on similar cards on the desk, throwing things at the left or right half of the board, or (with young learners) running and touching those cards on the walls. Similar things can be done with four cards to represent the options in a multiple choice question or letters to represent different paragraphs in the text.

An activity that includes longer texts but demands students listen carefully to every word is asking them to react physically, e.g. put up their hands, every time you make mistakes as you read out a text they have in front of them.

5. Reading as a prompt for mingling activities

Mingling activities, e.g. Find Someone Who, are well known ways of getting students moving around the classroom. Although it takes a lot of work, it is possible to write texts for each person that they have to read from in order to do a mingling activity. The classic Communication Games photocopiable books have some good versions of this, e.g. Haven’t I Seen You Somewhere Before, in which the students read from their life stories and compare with their partners (orally) in order to find when in their lives they could have met before. As with most of the ideas in this article, it is best if the texts are long enough that they have to use normal reading skills, e.g. skimming, scanning and reading for gist.

6. Run (or walk) and check

Do a normal reading activity but ask students to come up to your desk every time they think they have finished to be told how many of their answers are right and how many are wrong, and then go back to their pair or group and try again.

Written by Alex Case for Teflnet March 2010
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic and the Teaching...: Interactive Classroom Activities series of business and exam skills e-books for teachers
© Teflnet

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