Get Active! 7 Foreign Language Activities That Keep Students on Their Toes

Teaching a foreign language is sometimes like pushing that stone up the hill, just to have it roll back to the bottom, just to have to push it back up again.

And you’re never pushing that stone alone, the burden falls on your students too—which can be a challenge for everyone.

So, your students are with you, trying to get that stone to the top and maybe keep it there for once.

The way to succeed is to make work not seem like work. Make it fun and engaging!

That means you’ll probably be searching for some engaging activities for your foreign language class.

You’ll be wanting something new and different to add a spark to their studies.

Sure, you’ll have the curriculum, the textbook, the quizzes and tests to give and grade. In the end, though, you want your students engaged in the class. You want them to see the top of the hill and have that stone feel light as a feather. You want them to taste the satisfaction of success, and feel intrinsically motivated to keep on going.

Being prepared with alternative activities is an excellent way to lighten the load and make class a breeze.

Get Active! 7 Foreign Language Activities That Keep Students on Their Toes

The Best Types of Activities for Your Classroom Enjoyment

From the wide variety of activities that can be done in the foreign language class, we’ll focus on four types here:

  • Multiple task. This activity presents a “plug in” structure to use with any number of tasks, from spelling bees to sing-alongs. You adapt and change content according to current lessons being learned.
  • Everyday language. These activities help your students acquire and practice the most common language of day-to-day situations. They will encounter this language when communicating with native speakers as well as when consuming authentic media such as videos from sources like FluentU.

    FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

  • Improvisational speech. With appropriate clues, improvising becomes second nature. Once students get the hang of saying what they think while improvising, they can branch out and truly communicate, no matter what their current level of proficiency is.

Now let’s get into those activities!

7 Foreign Language Activities That Students Actually Look Forward To

1. The Long, Mysterious Adventure

Type: Multiple Choice 

Like a scavenger hunt, your students randomly discover tasks to perform for you to earn the “clue” for the next task. This adventure offers focused practice on specific, already covered language points. Much more fun than a pop quiz!

You’ll Need

  • Several colored envelopes (five or six envelopes of all different colors)
  • Task cards
  • Several tokens of the same color as the envelopes

Preparing the Activity

Make task cards with different activities, like the following.

  • sing a song
  • spell a word
  • have a short conversation
  • answer a riddle
  • do a simple math problem

Each of these task cards should get more specific than this, though. On the task card for “sing a song,” you would write “sing ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.’” For “spell a word,” write “spell ‘barnyard’.”

For the brief conversation, try something like “ask your partner the time—tell your partner the time,” the riddle could be the classic “what’s black and white and read all over?” and the math problem could be “what’s 123 plus 456?”

Put one task card in each envelope. In the blue envelopes put five different task cards from each of the five different types of tasks. Then in the red envelopes, put another five different tasks from the five categories you have chosen. Continue with the other colored envelopes. Each color group of envelopes will now contain one card from each category.

Running the Activity

Push all the tables to the edges of the room and set your teacher’s chair in front.

Put all the blue envelopes on one table. Put all the red envelopes on another table. Follow through with the other colors.

Pair the students up, using a dice or playing cards to keep the pairings random.

Give each pair a colored token. Students will go to the table with envelopes of the same color and choose one at random.

Couples, each one with a task envelope, should form a line in front of you. The first pair is ready to perform.

  • Open the envelope and read out their task.
  • The pair performs the task.
  • A satisfactory performance earns a token drawn randomly from a bag or hat.
  • While that pair rushes to the next table to get another task, evaluate the next pair’s task.
  • An unsatisfactory performance sends the pair back to the same table to choose another task. They can’t get a new token until they’ve done a task to your satisfaction.

Keep the tasks quick to perform and make sure they aren’t terribly tricky. That is, the students should be familiar with most of the tasks from regular class activity.

The activity can last the entire class if you make enough tasks, or it can end when one of the pairs of students has managed to get one token of each of the available colors.

2. Travel Agency Posters

Type: Target Language Culture

This is a quiet activity in which pairs, or groups of three or four, create a poster of a tradition to be explained to the class as a whole. Good for visual language cues and question and answer practice.

You’ll Need

  • A list of target language traditions, such as wedding ceremonies, coming of age ceremonies or specific local celebrations
  • A number of pulp magazines with pictures to cut out
  • Local newspapers to cut out letters or words
  • Poster board, crayons or markers, paste or glue

Preparing the Activity

Explain different types of traditions celebrated in the local culture. Give several examples, and do your best to compare local traditions to your students’ own cultures. What are some good similarities to look out for? This will help create a cultural connection.

Running the Activity

Give or randomly choose one tradition for each pair or small group to cover.

Tell the students that they’re making destination posters for a travel agency to attract tourists.

Posters should include the name of the tradition and pictures that represent the tradition. As students prepare their posters, you should walk about the room, sharing more details of each of the traditions. Make sure students know how to ask you well-made questions in the target language, such as: “How do they dress?” “Where do they meet?” “How much does it cost to….?”

Give your students a couple of sessions to complete their posters. One entire class could be devoted to this, but it’s more fun to spend a small chunk of time in multiple classes leisurely making crafty posters. It gives them something cool and low-pressure to look forward to each day.

Once the posters are finished, hang them around the room. Have one member of each group stand by their posted to give a quick explanation to anyone who comes to look. Have the rest of the class move from poster to poster while the creators explain the points on the poster and answer any questions from the others.

3. Folk Tales

Type: Target Language Culture

In this activity you’ll share a couple of folk tales from the target language’s culture, illustrating basic aspects of the folk tale to your students. You’ll then ask your students to create their own folk tale to share.

You’ll Need

  • At least two folk tales with a lot of similar points, like structure or character or magic
  • Children’s picture book of the tale (optional)
  • An understanding of the structure of the folk tales

Running the Activity

Sit your students in a circle, like they’re at a campfire, and tell them one of the folk tales. For example, tell a classic tale involving an animal character that’s always getting into trouble, making his friends pay for the trouble and then always finding a way out of that trouble. A picture book helps in telling the tale. No matter the subject matter, tell the tale as dramatically as you can.

Tell a second tale that shares characteristics with the first: the animal character, the trouble, the friends, the resolution of the problem.

Divide your students into pairs or small groups. Outline the basic concepts found in both of your tales. Have the students copy this outline of general concepts: characters, situation, type of conflict, resolution of conflict.

Tell your students that they’ll create a folk tale of their own, based upon the target language culture. This can be anything ranging from a Greek tragedy to the shenanigans of Br’er Rabbit, but needs to be based upon target language culture.

Schedule 15 minutes every week for several weeks of folk tale preparation.

After a few preparation sessions, change things up so that they can practice telling the tale at the campfire. Seat them at group tables and let them practice telling tales for a couple of days amongst themselves. Let them know that it is okay to make mistakes, tell a flat story or lose their train of thought while telling the tale in these sessions—that’s how you practice!

The preparation of both the tale and the telling should have minimum writing involved, just some notes to remember the basics while students make up details to tell. You’ll naturally help them out with vocabulary and structure along the way.

Sit them around the campfire again. Turn out the lights and set a lamp in the middle of the circle, or maybe even a couple of dry logs, just to create ambiance! Have each pair or group tell their story. Make sure the listeners applaud when each story is over.

4. Shopping Spree

Type: Everyday Language

The everyday language you’ll be practicing with your students here will involve vocabulary, money exchange and numbers. This “Monopoly” style board game just keeps going, while focusing on a few useful language items in the world of going shopping.

You’ll Need

  • Dice
  • Play money
  • Food cards
  • Shopping cart folders
  • Luck cards

Preparing the Activity

Make the game board. Draw it out like a “Monopoly” board, with a “Go” square, a couple of “Lucky Day!” squares, at least one “Supermarket” square per edge and other creative squares like “Exchange a Product” or “Sell a Product.” Of course, this should all be written in the target language.

In class, have your students cut and paste pictures of different food items from publicity fliers on cards. You’ll make a price list for these products. It isn’t necessary to write the name of the food on the card, your students should learn to name the product from its picture.

Other students can make the shopping carts. These will be cards that are a bit larger, folded in half, with a shopping cart drawn on the front.

You’ll make up a couple dozen “Lucky Day!” cards with rewards related to shopping, like “10% discount on your next purchase” or “You’ve just won $10 in the super sweepstakes!”

Running the Activity

Following general “Monopoly” rules, players will collect a sum of money each time they pass “Go.” They’ll have to pay parking when they land on the “Parking” corner (“Jail” square). They’ll choose a Luck card when falling on the “Luck” square. Be creative with the spaces they land on and what they’ll need to do in each case.

When students land on a “Supermarket” square, they choose a food card from the top of the pile. They say “I’d like some peas, please” or “How much are the carrots?”, and you tell them the cost from your price list. They pay the bank and put the food into their shopping cart. Have them count out the money, have the cashier (the person who’d be the banker in “Monopoly”) count out the change.

This activity can go on without end, or you can set a goal, such as having five products in the shopping cart earns you another shopping cart to fill. The student with the most full shopping carts is the best shopper (winner) of the day.

5. The Native Restaurant

Type: Everyday Language

This is a role-play activity involving opening and running a local restaurant. It will practice both customer and worker language in the restaurant setting.

You’ll Need

  • Several plastic table settings (plates, flatware, glasses, napkins)
  • Cardboard to make menus
  • Pads to take orders
  • Role cards

Preparing the Activity

Hand out role cards to each of your students. There will be a role card for each of the following:

  • Cook
  • Waiter/waitress
  • Host / hostess

Tell your students that they’re going to open a restaurant featuring local dishes. As a group, each keeping their role in mind, they make a short menu with appetizers, main dishes, desserts and drinks native to the target language, with prices.

Once the menu is prepared, each group practice having customers. Here, tasks will be:

  • Welcoming and seating the client (Host/Customer)
  • Giving the menu and describing any specials (Host)
  • Taking the order (Waiter/Customer)
  • Serving the food (Waiter)
  • Addressing a complaint (Customer/Waiter/Cook)

Some questions to guide them in the preparation are as follows. You’ll want to pose these questions and get answers in the target language.

  • What do you say when you seat a customer?
  • If you are a customer, how do you greet the host?
  • How do you sell a particular dish from the daily special menu?
  • How do you order food?
  • How do you lead the customer through the order?
  • What do you say when you set the food before the customer?
  • How do you react when you get your food?
  • What if you don’t like the food?
  • What different ways are there to complain?
  • How do you explain your dissatisfaction to the waiter?
  • How do you apologize for the problem, and how do you make it right to make your customer happy?

Running the Activity

Once students have practiced, set up a table in the restaurant and have one person from a different group play the customer.

Each group presents the restaurant scene from greeting to handling the complaint.

Move on to the next restaurant group.

Finally, ask the students who have been customers to award Michelin stars to each of the restaurants, based upon service and response to the complaint.

These next two activities begin with a pair and gradually add more participants. While these two situations are described, you can expand by using any number of real-life situations where a group of strangers will be sharing a common experience.

6. The Airport VIP Lounge

Type: Improvisational Speech

Several people from different walks of life are waiting in the VIP lounge for a flight that has been delayed because of bad weather.

You’ll Need

  • Role cards
  • Situation cards

Preparing the Activity

Brainstorm with your students what kinds of people would use a VIP lounge at the airport. Exaggerate these roles, for example:

  • A rich business tycoon
  • A famous movie star
  • A popular sports player
  • A prince or princess

Note these ideas on the board, then assign your students to make role cards for the characters, giving them names, personality traits, income levels, etc.

Now brainstorm about things that can happen in an airport that we love to complain about. For example:

  • Security check nightmares
  • Lost luggage
  • Unpleasant ticket agents
  • Extra fees
  • Flight horror stories

Note a couple dozen of these ideas on situation cards.

Running the Activity

Choose two students at random.

Give each of them a role card and a situation card. Have them sit in the “lounge” where there are five chairs set up. They first make small talk regarding the late flight. They then talk about a personal experience based upon the situation card.

After about two minutes, choose another student, hand him a role card and a situation card, and have him join the first two. He’ll change the subject according to his situation card. The others share their ideas on the situation.

Add a student every two minutes, with their roles and situation cards.

Once the last student has been complaining for two minutes, stop the activity and start over with two fresh students.

Rotate the students rapidly in this activity. Use an egg timer to keep track of time. Each time it rings, make a flight announcement to cue the next student’s entrance.

Remember to lead applause when you end one group before beginning a new pair to restart the activity.

7. Waiting in Line

Type: Improvisational Speech

Everyone has to wait in line. To pass the time, we make small talk.

You’ll Need

  • Role cards
  • Place cards
  • Situation cards

Preparing the Activity

Brainstorm three lists:

  • Places where you have to wait in line (the bank, at the ticket window, at a government office)
  • Kinds of people who wait in line (housewives, students, taxi drivers, other occupations)
  • Reactions people have while waiting in line (get angry, complain loudly, ask to skip turns, try to butt in, wait patiently, make peace)

Have your students write their brainstormed lists onto note cards, using different colors for each list (role, places and reactions)

Running the Activity

Choose a place card and announce to all students where they’re standing in line.

As in the VIP lounge, start with just two students waiting in line and acting out their role and reaction.

Add a new student every two minutes.

When five students have been in line, stop the activity, choose a new place and begin again with two fresh students.
Learning a language should be an activity that involves the students themselves. By bringing their attention to how much they can participate both in the preparation and the activity, you’re encouraging them to take an active part in the language learning process.


Tweaking these activities to suit your course material will help to make the book work more engaging. It will also help it stick!

Revel Arroway taught ESL for 30 years before retiring into Teacher Training. His blog, Interpretive ESL, offers insights into language teaching, simplifying the classroom, language class activities and general thoughts on ESL teaching.

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