Tag Archives: English language

Starters for English/English language unit 1 practice

For most teachers of English, the next few weeks in their classroom will be taken up with a focus on exam practice – quite a lot of it based around the skills needed for the unit 1 exam on reading and writing non-fiction texts.

A love for all aspects of your subject can blind you to the possibility that this can become boring! A couple of years ago, a lovely, hardworking student of mine commented that all the exam practice we were doing meant that she might lose her love of English. So gently expressed a protest could hardly be ignored!  So, I set about devising some fun starter and skills related activities that can be used to spice up exam practice. Some are my own and others ‘magpied’ from generous colleagues – so thanks to them.

Here are a few that are useful in preparing for the reading section:

1. Newspaper Quest – useful for buildings students’ reading speed, with lots of fun in the process.

Buy a selection of newspapers or ask someone to save them for you. A mixture of titles works well, with a paper between three students. Teams then compete to use their speedy reading skills to find out various information. You can vary the questions and circulate the papers as you wish. Questions like these work well:

a) What is on BBC3 tonight at 10.30pm?
b) What is the biggest story on page 4 about?
c) Name 6 sportsmen named on the penultimate page?
d) Which horse won the 2.30pm at Kempton Park yesterday?
e) Find the names of 5 female celebrities.
f) List 5 products advertised in the first 5 pages.
g) What is the weather forecast where you live for tomorrow?
h) Solve a crossword clue.
I) List the names of 5 politicians
j) Find a story relating to another EU country. Write down the country’s name.
k) Find a good news story and note what it is about.

The fastest team to complete the challenge wins the multipack of curly wurlies.

2. Leaflet prediction activity

Scan a leaflet front cover (or run round the class with it quickly so everyone gets a look). Ask students to predict some of the words it will contain (they are very good at this, usually). If you show a leaflet for a day out at a National Trust property, they will predict words like ‘history’, ‘heritage’, ‘garden’, ‘generations’, ‘future’. You get the idea. This builds confidence by making them feel like experts on how a text is pitched for a particular audience and purpose.

3. Front cover comparison

Scan and show two magazine front covers on your whiteboard. Students compare and contrast the covers. The focus can be varied to suit the group, but works well for presentational or language features. Similarities and differences can be noted, or students can fill in a Venn diagram. This works well as a paired activity and prizes/glory/house points can be awarded to the team with the most/most interesting ideas.

4. Beat the teacher

Distribute a text or show one with plenty of presentational features. Teams of 2 have to find more presentational features/facts/opinions – whatever else you went – than the teacher in a specified time. Winners improve their reading speed and have the glory of beating Miss or Sir. In my experience, the curly wurlies are yours for this one!

5. Student examiners

Students need a good, working knowledge of the exam paper before you can do this, but it helps embed their understanding of what to expect in the unit 1 questions. Hand out a newspaper front page or use the same papers you have used for Newspaper Challenge above. Students set exam questions based solely on the front page. Extra credit can be given for putting them in the same order as they are in the exam.

6. Pairs game

Make and play ‘pairs’. Make two sets of cards – one has language features named, such as ‘fact’, ‘alliteration’, ‘triplets’. The other set of cards (use a different colour) features examples of each language feature. At the start, all the cards are put face down on the table. Students take turns to pick up a pair of cards. If they match, they keep the cards. If not, they are put back and the game continues. Pairs can be made by you or the students for each other. Can also be adapted to be a ‘loop’ exercise.

7. Magazine adverts

These can provide endless opportunities linked to the exam, as well as allowing students to bring in their own to the lesson. Students work in pairs to compete against others to find as many aspects of language, structure and presentation as possible. Can be extended by asking some to convince others why theirs is the best and most persuasive advert.

8. Speed reading and summarising

Distribute a newspaper article. Using the local paper is a good idea because it reinforces the idea that there are expert writers on their doorstep; they are not just dreamed up by you or the exam board. This makes the students read at speed, which they need to do in order to be successful in the exam. The more you do it, the more confident they become and you get a more ‘nuanced’ summary of the text. The activity goes like this: students read the article and do one of the following:

  • annotate what each paragraph is about
  • tell your partner/write on a whiteboard what the article is about in exactly 100 words, then 50 words, then 10 words
  • find a selection of interesting language features

9.  Famous works of art – what’s the story?

This is a good one for building confidence with Q2 of the higher paper, in which students have to link different parts of the text – for example, headlines, images and the text itself.  Click  below for a selection of famous paintings. There are lots to choose from here and elsewhere on the web.   First of all, students can give them a ‘headline’ or caption and then challenge others to make links between those and the image, ensuring that evidence is given for the link.

Alternatively, students can write a one paragraph story based on the image and others can make links between that and the image. Drawing a line between the detail of the text and the exact spot on the image or photo is especially effective at encouraging precision.  This activity is only useful if they give detailed evidence for their links and comment on the effect of aspects of the image, as they would need to in the exam.

Extra challenge can be built in by giving rules for the story, such as an exact word limit or a variety of images.  This works equally well with still images from films or high quality news photography and contributes to widening students’ horizons generally.  However, some care is needed in the choice of images as there are plenty which are too upsetting for an activity intended to be fun.  If you google ‘famous news photographs’, you will find a selection.


10.  Discombobulate!

This is a made up game which attempts to replicate the general feeling of discombobulation that students experience in exams because they are stressed.  The general idea is that you replicate that feeling in the safe environment of the lesson so they get used to it and learn to manage it when it counts.  Here’s what you do:

  • Each student draws six noughts and crosses grids.
  • First of all they play their partner in a time limit.
  • Then they swap partners and play with their left hand.
  • Swap partners again and you tell them to swap being a cross for a nought and vice versa half way through the game.  This is tricky to explain, so practise in advance!
  • Swap partners again.  This time they have to try and lose the game.
  • Change partners.  This time, play the game with different symbols and, if they’re the type of class who will, they have to make a stupid noise at the same time.

This doesn’t really support any of the exam skills directly, but results in a lot of giggling, as well as the opportunity to practise keeping a cool head.

Have fun and if you try these out, let me know how you get on.