Oct 31, 2014

On (and off) the wall vocabulary activities

I often make students (and teachers I work with) get out of their seats. I think movement in the classroom is important whether you believe in the now hotly debated concept of learning styles or because cognition is embodied. Apart from onion ring debates and mingling activities, there are many movement activities you can do using classroom walls.

recent article in English Teaching Professional suggested ideas for taking advantage of all four classroom walls using whiteboards. I would like to share some ideas on how I use walls in my classrooms without any additional whiteboards required.

All you need is paper (usually cut-up) and some Blu-tack

Taking strips of paper OFF the walls

This is a “kinaesthetic” alternative to a vocabulary matching activity. Stick the words on the walls around the classroom and hand out to students (in groups) lists of different definitions. Students have to walk around and take off the walls the words that match their definitions. The activity can also go the other way around: students have a list of words and find definitions on the walls. Instead of definitions you can also supply example sentences - my definitions resemble example sentences, anyway, for example:

When you do not have a steady job you can still earn money by doing ________ jobs (odd)

Round the room clozes / Strips of paper stay ON the walls 

Similar ideas to the ones above can also work without taking things off the walls. Students can be given a page with collocations forks (see related post HERE), walk around the room and find missing key words. Here's just an example - normally you would have at least 10 forks.

The missing words scattered around the room are:

cope with     pursue    look up     skip      ruthless     subtle

To make it more challenging provide more key words than the forks. In other words, add some "distracters”, for instance:

put forward    conscious

For example, I put the adjectives on the walls in Activity C in this series of vocabulary review activities accompanying my annual News Quiz. The distracters added were severe and human.

Besides collocation forks, gap-fill exercises can be done with a word bank scattered around the classroom, like in the activity below:

See description of the whole activity with an online game preceding it HERE

Writing on the walls

In the previous activities students had to look at the bits of paper on the walls or take them off the walls, but you can also get students to write things. The following activity is adapted from Ken Lackman's activity which he demonstrated at the IATEFL Conference in Harrogate in 2010 and which can be found in his resource book Classroom Games from Corpora.

Students are given a sheet with concordances for a word (usually a noun) taken from corpus - different groups get different concordances. Students scan through the concordances for collocations of the key word and put them into categories.

The categories are decided by the teacher in advance. For example, for the key word WEATHER you can have such categories as:


Write the name of each categories at the top of a large (preferably A3) sheet of paper. Stick the sheets around the room. Each group gets a different coloured marker. They walk around the room and add collocations - adjectives in this case - to appropriate categories:

Playing categories on the walls
Temperature (cold, hot, warm etc)
Sky (clear, cloudy)
Precipitation (rainy, snowy, humid)
Quality (good, nasty, rapidly changing)
Misc. (weather permitting)

Two important rules: students cannot add two examples in a row (this makes them move all the time from one category to another) and they cannot write an example that has already been written. At the end the team with most examples wins.

Note that WEATHER is probably not the best choice of a noun for this kind of activity; it would work better with more abstract nouns, such as jobprogress or business. Nevertheless, I've used this as a lead-in into the topic of weather and climate and it has always worked great (most of my students are familiar with corpus and concordances).

Reading on the walls

Finally, you can use the walls to stick various topics for discussion. Students move around the room in pairs and discuss or debate each statement. I usually give them about a minute for each statement / topic before I shout "Switch".

In my teacher training sessions I often post quotes on the walls to stimulate discussion or, simply, for bored audience's glazed eyes to gaze at :) I suppose it's very suggestopedic. Here are some quotes I use in my lexical workshops:
"A lexical mistake often causes misunderstanding, while a grammar mistake rarely does."  John Sinclair 

“When students travel, they don’t carry grammar books, but dictionaries.”  Stephen Krashen 

“Over-concentration on learning single words may hinder the development of the L2 phrasal lexicon.”  Michael McCarthy

"Ambient" quotes around the room at my IATEFL 2012 workshop
Photo by Sandy Millin

Of course, walls are also great for exhibiting students work. For example, you want the whole class to look at what each pair/group has produced – a piece of writing, a letter or a mindmap – you can stick these on the walls and get students to move around and read or look at their classmates’ work. Background music normally helps.

Have you ever done similar activities? Do you use the walls in your classroom? What do you do? I would like to hear your ideas in the comments below.

Thank you to Amanda Caplan for giving me the idea for this post


  1. I like the categories on the wall idea - particularly the incorporation of concordances. I generally don't like Ss to take off things that I've so lovingly put up on the walls (and they fiddle around with precious blutac) so I usually get them to write the word or phrase down. When I teach business & cultural skills, I use a lot of case studies which can sometimes get monotonous. So I distill the information in these cases into little 'caselets', slap on a picture and put them up on the walls. Ss walk around with a partner discussing case questions or comparing information from different caselets. I print these on coloured paper and put them up all at once. And then indicate to Ss which colour to focus on for a particular activity.

    1. First off the mark, Adi :)
      Thank you for your comment.
      I know what you mean about Ss taking things off the walls. Once my Ss were taking cards off the walls and the paint started coming off with the Blutack!

      I like your colour coding idea. With BusEng classes I used to post ads around the room.


  2. Hi Leo,
    And thanks for the post! Lots of great ideas.
    And yes, I love to get my students out of their seats and onto their two feet. i usually tell them it's to help get the oxygen back to their brains :-)
    What I've done is dictations - there are e.g. 7 sentences with new vocabulary (that we 're revising) scattered on the walls around the classroom. Students work in pairs, one is a secretary, the other the reader. Student goes to the sentence, reads and tries to memorize it. Then walks back to the partner to dictate it. Normally i do it as a competition to challenge them. They love it. Okay, there is one student sitting, but the excitemnt does get them all itchy on their seats ;-)

    I've also done somthing similar to your activity of adding words to categories. I scatter lots of theme words everywhere, e.g. Beauty and then students walk around with a sheet with for example four categories, positive adjectives, negative etc and jot down the words. If they have no idea what the word mean, they simply write it down and then work with their dictionaries later. There you go.
    And thanks again, I'll be using one of your activites next week for sure!

    1. Hi Sirja,

      I like the oxygen back to their brains line - I'll use it next time!
      And I like your "running dictation" with new sentences.
      Thank you for the comment and ideas.


  3. Love the quotes on the wall for teacher training - definitely going to use that idea to liven up some up-coming sessions, thanks!

    1. Glad you liked it, Julie!
      Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Leo,

    Thanks. Just a perfect post. Will be using so much of this in class from tomorrow.


    1. Hi Kevin,
      Let me know how it goes.

  5. Thanks Leo,

    Very practical ideas. I'm also a teacher who likes making use of everything within the learning environment. So walls have always been a favourite resource of mine as well.

    In addition to all the suggestions above, I find walls are great for collaborative creative writing projects e.g. different groups of Ss develop characters, plots, settings then hang their posts in different areas. Bit by bit ideas are collected as Ss move around and explore what has been written. Gradually stories come to life. These short stories are then hung on the walls and groups discuss and refine another groups' work. So much you can do.

    I think one of the benefits of this kind of activity is the production of language that goes on as Ss move around and engage with each other. It shifts beyond the language focus for that particular lesson. And of course it provides me with the opportunity to listen to not only their language output but how they go about organising themselves and developing ideas as a group. It also gives me insight into group dynamics which can be helpful with the learning design process for other activities.

    1. Hi Patricia,
      Great ideas!
      Your activities clearly go beyond the language focus whereas my suggestions were perhaps more "language-centred" - but I am aware of that :)
      Thank you for the comment.

  6. Hi Leo. Great ideas! Something maybe to add to these off the wall ideas is the treasure hunt. The teacher sticks a range of half chunks of language on small stickers anywhere around the class - on the floor, on the light switch, on the ceiling etc, some which follow 'keep' and some which follow 'let'. These could be things like '..it up', '..your hair down' , '..making the same mistakes' , ''..me help you' Learners work in pairs and have to go around the room, find collocations for each key verb, and then come back and write them in the right column (either 'let' or 'keep') The pair that finds the most is the winner.

    1. A point I forgot to say is that the learners don't take the stickers off the walls as they find them. This means that other pairs can find them too and it also saves your paintwork :-)

    2. Thank you for the comment and for your great idea - I'll definitely incorporate it in my repertoire of the on-the-wall activities.

      At the conference where I demonstrated one of the above activities (it must have been my Facebook post that brought you here) a colleague of mine showed one of your activities. She's a big fan of your Memory Activities book.

      Thanks for dropping by!


  7. Yes - this activity is from that book Leo. I demonstrated it during a workshop at the Lexical Approach conference where we were both presenting at the University of Westminster a couple of years ago. They're probably still cursing me there because they can't get the stickers of the walls :-)

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  9. Even if a single person in a team is not doing her/his job like they are supposed, it damages the integrity of them team which will then affect all the members of the team alike. So fun team building activities for work should be incorporated into the work routine at regular intervals.

  10. Hello, I am a student from Teaching Education and in my subject Organization Resources we have to look for educational blogs, media tools for teachers and so on. I found this blog pretty interesting. You have great ideas to make children learn in class. I think the wall activity is very original and easy to carry out. I agree with the kinestetic neccesity of children to learn. We can not ask them to be 6 hours sitting in their chairs and just read and do exercises. I bet for another way of teaching much similar to your own way. Thanks for share your creative ideas!

    1. Hello Cristina,

      Thank you for stopping by and leaving a comment. I'm glad you find the ideas on this blog relevant and useful. Hope to see you here again.


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