Jeopardy is a perfect ESL classroom activity for any level, any size of group, and any topic area.
It’s extremely adaptable and can be used for almost limitless purposes:
- Review of the day’s material, or before a test
- Check understanding of key concepts and terms
- Diagnostic tests, to help draw up a syllabus or decide the students’ level
- Quizzing the students’ general knowledge, either to discover weak areas, or just for fun
- Build team spirit and an atmosphere of healthy competition
In adapting this much-loved institution to the ESL classroom, I’ve found some ways to keep it simple while retaining its ever-so-useful flexibility. I generally omit the cryptic word-play aspects, sticking to easily comprehended categories. I also do without the tradition of beginning the answer with ‘What is...’, preferring to vary between requiring short, factual answers and longer, explanatory responses. Double Jeopardy comes only at a pre-determined time (down to the exact minute), chosen at random by the teacher at the beginning of the game, and kept as a surprise. My students have absolutely loved it, and I’m sure this simple but thoroughly enjoyable game could find a place in virtually any class.
The teamwork aspect is something I’ve come to emphasize. Students are asked, at the outset, to discover their teammates’ strongest and weakest topic areas (be it business, geography, history, culture, or sport). Answers must then be reached by consensus, after a period of quiet, hurried discussion, so that no single student dominates proceedings. Between rounds of the regular game, additional rounds add to this discursive aspect, requiring students to choose a numerical answer; they must persuade, reject, agree and modify opinions in a fast-paced exchange of language.
With classes of up to 8-9 students, I normally organize two teams, while larger classes might have three. More teams than this could slow down the game too much, resulting in frustrations. The teams could be selected in many ways; here are some favorites:
- Assign each student a number (1, 2 or 3) or a letter (A, B or C)
- Give the teams a name, and assign students this way; “Peng? You’re in Ravenclaw. Martina? Please join Gryffindor”, etc. Sports teams, tree species, names of mountains, almost anything can be used.
- Select a team captain to pick students one by one to join their team. Be aware that the students last to be picked might take this personally, just like we all did in high school!
- Boys versus Girls, provided that it wouldn’t cause unhelpful levels of class division!
- I don’t recommend organizing mixed-nationality ESL classes into national teams, or continent teams. Apart from the obvious danger of encouraging nationalistic fervor (a China versus Japan setup, for example, could have dire consequences for class harmony!) I’ve found that the most successful teams include people from a variety of backgrounds.
Before the game proper begins, consider a first round which encourages teamwork and communication. I’ve found success in asking the students to guess a numerical answer, and then awarding $500 to the closest response. This could also be the format of alternative rounds, played between the main rounds. Good questions might include:
- What’s the height of the world’s tallest mountain? (8848m – Mt. Everest)
- How many national neighbors does China have? (14 – don’t forget Bhutan!)
- How long was the longest ever stay in space? (437 days, Valeri Polyakov from Russia)
- How many countries have English as their official language? (60)
Possible Subject Areas
I’ve simply been writing three topics on the board, and then $200, $400 and $600 in a column beneath each one. I explain that greater rewards mean more challenging questions. Here are some of the topic areas I have found most useful to include, based both on my students’ abilities and the gaps I’ve found in their knowledge; remember that Jeopardy can inform as well as review.
- Ask for three (or five, or ten) synonyms for a given word. Try: nice, beautiful, old, big, small.
- Similarly, ask for antonyms, e,g. “Give me five opposites of ‘placid’”.
- Ask for a definition of a recently-learned word, or one which the students might be able to puzzle out, based on other words they know. “Remember how a ‘psycho’ is a crazy person? What work do you think a ‘psychotherapist’ does?”
- Provide a definition and ask which word this relates to, e.g. “How do we call a building where you can borrow books?” or “What word do we use for the Jewish house of worship?”
- Ask for a set of adjectives to describe a given object, person or place, given in ascending order of strength (e.g. good – awesome – tremendous – unimprovable), or register (cute – pretty – attractive – elegant), or level, basic to advanced (big – huge – gigantic – titanic - monstrous).
- Begin a sentence using a recently-learned structure, and ask the students to complete it, e.g. “If I hadn’t bought the lottery ticket...”
- Provide a sentence and ask which tense is being used. “’Sheila has been complaining about our noisy neighbors for six months’. Which tense am I using, team B?”
- Ask for a sentence using two modal verbs, perhaps one in the past and the other in the present.
- Ask for an explanation of why a particular tense is used, e.g. “Why might I use the future perfect?”, or, “In what situation might someone use the past continuous with ‘when’?”
- Ask for a sentence which uses a particular tense, e.g. “I’d like a question in the future simple, please,” or, “Let me have a past perfect continuous passive.”
- Ask for combinations of grammar points in one newly-composed sentence, e.g. “Let us hear a sentence which includes two apostrophes, a modal verb and finishes with a tag question.”
These questions are often really very challenging, and require the students to think about grammar in an unusual way: explaining and justifying its use, rather than simply creating accurate examples or (at a lower level) completing controlled, gap-fill type exercises. Verbalizing these contexts has genuinely helped my students to see the rationale for using sophisticated grammar.
- Ask for a brief biography of a famous business person
- Ask in which country a multinational has its headquarters
- Ask for the meanings of acronyms (WTO, NAFTA, AIG, SEC)
- Ask for brief descriptions of important pieces of business-related legislation
- Ask for marketing tag-lines or celebrities who endorse a particular product
- Ask which currencies are used in some given countries
- Ask about the names of rivers which flow through given cities
- Ask in which city certain landmarks might be found
- Ask which languages one might hear on a journey from A to B (e.g. along the Mediterranean coast from Haifa to Gibraltar)
- Ask which states you might drive through to travel from one US city to another
- Ask for three (or five, or ten) countries in a given continent
- Ask when a certain event happened (perhaps accepting answers plus or minus a few years)
- Ask how long a certain figure was president, or monarch
- Ask for the names of five twentieth century US presidents
- Ask which products a certain country became famous for trading during a given century
- Ask when a certain law was passed, and give bonus money for extra detail
- Ask for a short biography of a historical figure
- Ask for the name of the director, or actors, involved in a given movie
- Ask for the author of a famous book, or ask which books a certain author wrote
- Ask the students to name three albums by a famous band
- Ask where a certain museum is located, and what it’s famous for
- Sing a famous TV theme tune and ask which show it’s from
- Show a picture of a celebrity and ask for their most important achievements
- Ask for the names of the planets of the solar system (in order, perhaps including some moons)
- Ask which chemical element is represented by some given symbols (O, He, W, etc)
- Ask who invented the steam engine, the practical electric light bulb, the TV, etc
- Ask from which country certain inventions emanated (gunpowder from China, etc)
- Ask students to explain a natural phenomenon: why is the sky blue? Why are there longest and shortest days of the year? Why do we build expensive particle accelerators?
The sky is the limit.
I play this version of Jeopardy at least once a week, and it never fails to engender team spirit and enthusiasm, as well as reviewing important material and plugging some gaps in the students’ general knowledge. I hope you’ll give it a try!