3 Standby Activities for When You’ve Drawn a Blank in Class


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Oftentimes when you’re teaching a lesson in your class, sometimes you’ll forget the plan.

When Good Lessons Go Bad

Many problems can arise in a lesson. Sometimes you’ll forget a lesson plan. Sometimes you’ll forget your notes and your students are just staring at you blank-faced, wondering what happens next, perhaps questioning your abilities and overall effectiveness as a teacher.

Trust me, I’ve been there.

This has happened to me many times as a teacher in the United States, South Korea and Thailand. Sometimes I would just not know what was going to happen next and I had to be able to think on my feet and improvise. Can you?

A Solution to Replace Thinking On Your Feet

Aside from taking improv classes, which are not always that accessible in rural South Korea, there are a few other things you can do to ease the burden of thinking on your feet, some things you can do in your class in the event that you draw a blank or worse, your students are just not understanding the material that you assigned and you need a backup plan.

Your Very Easy Backup Plan Has Arrived!

Very often, when material bombs, you’ve got to come up with a backup plan. Typically, I recommend thinking of backup plans while you’re preparing your lessons, but if you don’t have a backup plan because you’ve already exhausted all of your backup plans, then what happens? You obviously need to have a repertoire of different activities that you could just pull out of your hat and be able to execute on the fly that will be both as effective and useful for your students as any of the other activities that you were planning.

Use This Resource!

Before reading further, I highly recommend you get the book The Standby Book, which is from the Cambridge series. It is a great book and has a list of activities that you can just pick and choose for your classes, and it’s extraordinarily accessible. You literally just flip through the book and it will give you some different filler activities for your class, no matter what age group you’re working with.

I can’t tell you how many times this book has literally saved me countless hours of lesson planning and stress and will surely do the same for you. It not only gives you a way out, it empowers you and makes you ultimately feel at ease for the rest of your English teaching career. Get this book today, if you haven’t already!

Since human nature doesn’t change that much and the education systems around the world don’t seem to change much either, there are certain activities that prove timeless and that you can use in any scenario in any country.

They’re just so easy to implement and because humans all react and interact the same way (for the most part), and basically go through the same life experiences (e.g. going to school, dating, graduation, marriage, crippling credit card debt, divorce, remarriage, and that’s just before 40).

Emergency Games & Activities For Any Age

Activity #1

“Going on a Picnic,” is one of those timeless games that you can deploy at almost any age, even some adult classes, with a little more sophistication to them, such as Password, Telephone, or Rock Paper Scissors.

In this game, everybody takes turns providing a single word (or perhaps multiple words) in English that they can remember, but not before reciting the previous words offered by other classmates, from memory. This game admittedly is a very basic one and it’s something that you could just quickly do if you’re running out of ideas. It’s what I call an “emergency game.”

Related: 6 Fun Ways to Teach Vocabulary

Activity #2

If you’re in a high-tech country like South Korea or Japan, you could also use power points and play different PowerPoint games like memory or bomb games.  The gist is that students sit at the front of the class with a picture behind them and then they are given hints from their fellow students to figure out the word or phrase.

Related: 35 ESL Games to Help Your Students Learn and Have Fun

In addition, Jeopardy is always popular and any Quiz-show-type games usually go over very well in the middle school and high school years.

Activity #3

Memory games are also really great and even just reviewing the material from last week can also go a long way just to see what kind of retention the students have. For a whole list of memory games that you can quickly draw from, check out this book from the Cambridge series: Memory Activities for Language Learning. A highly readable and easily accessible book that will also save you a ton of time!

In addition, I highly recommend those types of memory activities where you can put a sentence on the board and erase words and have the students try to remember or recall what those words were.  It takes nothing but a writing utensil and something to write on so it’s hard to go wrong!

Or, you can show pictures them for a split second and then quickly hide them. The students will literally have a field day (especially young learners) with trying to describe for you in English what they just saw. Works every time!

Bringing It All Together

So these are all very quick easy-to-use, highly accessible standby activities to help you save face and time – there’s really no end to how much you can expand these different ideas and activities to suit the needs of your class.

One activity very often can spiral into other activities, and I encourage you to think along these lines. Maybe go from visual to auditory activities or go from writing exercises to reading. You can always jump from one medium to another and this is the best way of keeping busy with your standby activities, even if deep down inside you really have no idea where to go next and you’re just thinking to yourself “I need a drink, a nap, and junk food.”

Why feel the chills going down your spine when you can just give the kids one of these activities I have just mentioned and live on easy street? Trust me, it’s a lot easier.

Wrapping Up

So there’s really one thing to conclude from all of this and it’s that you have really nothing to fear. Or at least no excuses.

All of the activities that you’ll ever get in your TEFL courses and your readings are all covered in many different resources, including the articles that I give and the courses I teach. They’re also vastly flexible and expandable, leaving you an entire universe of ideas to work from. It’s all mindset, folks and it’s mind over matter.

And that’s really the point of a standby activity, isn’t it?

To be able to whip them out of the proverbial hat, almost on impulse, and start expanding again, in different directions, outwardly, so that students aren’t left to their own thoughts while you’re desperately grasping for straws. Because trust me, you don’t want students left to their own thoughts.

Of course, this all comes with preparation, but that thing we call “luck” usually comes when opportunity meets preparation, so why delay?

With the tips of this article, you’ll never feel the burden of teaching again. You’ll be on easy street and come away with the profound insight that it was never difficult, that it was only your thoughts that made it so and that it really is possible to hold down an English teaching job.


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2 Responses

  1. Can i just say first off that this topic has been a yoke of dread in my life as a newbie at ESL. Pure utter fear and panic when moments of blankness come. This article helped me not only in the sense that it offers some teaching tips, but that its also nice to know that i am not the only one who has drawn blank moments, and the students plus the homeroom teacher are looking at me like,,,,,,what’s next, and i am standing there telling myself that i am the crappiest teacher ever, and mentally,silently screaming inside “why am i here?”!!!!!!
    Thank you for your honesty sir.

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