Six favourite five minute activities (that aren’t really five minutes)

Disclaimer: this post was not sponsored or solicited by anyone! I’m blogging about one of the classic teacher resource books which happened to be one of the first ones I owned and used until the pages almost fell out.

Even though I’m doing a fair bit of travelling, I’ve managed to land some teaching hours this fall and I’m currently preparing my classes. After choosing the main texts and activities we were going to do I pulled down off the shelf my battered old copy of Five Minute Activities, the classic resource book from Cambridge University Press written by Penny Ur and Andrew Wright (the newer cover you can see on the image above).

Looking through it, I remembered when this (and Grammar Games by Mario Rinvolucri) were my only two resource books. I’ve used so many of the activities in here that they feel like old friends. There are two things about the activities in this book that I’d like to mention: 1) they are very sensible and doable in almost all teaching contexts and 2) they often last longer than five minutes. Both these are compliments, I hastily add! I love elastic activities that could be five or twenty five minutes depending on the level and interest of the students. I thought I’d share half a dozen of my favourites:

1 Adjectives and nouns

Students suggest adjective and noun combinations such as a black cat, an expert doctor. You write these up on the board and add some yourself. The students then have to use these words to suggest different combinations (e.g. a black doctor). If someone makes an usual suggestion then they have to justify it.

2 Delphic dictionary

Students suggest some typical problems, which you write on the board. A student chooses one of these problems, and then is asked to open an English-English dictionary at random and put their finger on the page. The word they indicate has to form part of the solution. I let students choose a word on the page, in case they really fall on a really hard word.

3 Match the adjectives

Another adjective activity! This time you write three words on the board e.g. important, heavy, dangerous. Students have to suggest a word that goes with all three (e.g. an army, a car, a plane…). There is a really good list of groups of adjectives to go with this. What, for example, could be small loud and fat (no nasty comments here about directors of studies please!)

4 Odd one out

Write a list of six words on the board from a lexical set. Students have to decide which one is the odd one out. They must explain this. Once they have, then challenge them to nominate another one which could be the odd one out for different reasons. Great for lateral thinking. The variation is great too, where every time they argue one is the odd word out you cross it out and they repeat the activity with the words left until there are only two words. Far, far longer than five minutes for my classes. Sample lists are provided in the book.

5 Spelling bee

This is hardly a new activity, a spelling competition. And it usually takes longer than five minutes in my experience. But my classes have had lots of fun with this, and they often consider it useful. The best part is the authors have listed a whole bunch of words that are commonly spelled wrongly at various different levels. Priceless little resource to have at hand.

6 Wrangling

I love this activity. Write a two line dialogue on the board. My favourite of the ones suggested is

A: Still, I think you’d better tell them.

B: Oh, no, they’ll kill me.

Students have to say the lines together, as an argument. They can repeat the lines as many times as they like but they cannot add anything else. They must vary stress, intonation and gesture to convince each other. After a few exchanges I’ve seen students really get heated up and in fact their delivery of the lines becomes much better. Leads on to a good discussion of what the context and who the speakers might be (again, longer now than five minutes).

There are many many more in the book that are just as good, it was hard to choose only six! A little footnote to this post: last year at the IATEFL conference Penny Ur explained a reading activity during a talk, and she used me as the subject of the activity. Wow. Call me an ELT nerd if you like (do it quietly please), but it was a bit like having your favourite singer suddenly belt out a song with your name in it during a concert. Thanks Penny!

Does anyone else have a favourite five minute activity (from this book or your own)? Go ahead and share! And if Penny Ur or Andrew Wright are reading this, I wonder what their favourite activity is?

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Published in: on September 19, 2010 at 8:34 pm  Comments (22)  
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  1. Thank you for sharing such a great book. I came across this book at work and I have to agree; the best resource to have for teachers.

  2. My favourite (out of many) is “My neighbour’s cat”, page 54. This activity is great for eliciting adjectives from A-Z. You write up all the letters of the alphabet on the board and then you begin by saying “My neighbour’s cat is awful, and write awful next to the letter “a”. Give students a timed limit eg 5 minutes, for them to add more adjectives in any order.

    This has sometimes lasted a good hour and the board has been filled with some fab adjectives. There is a very handy list in the book which can be used in conjunction with the activity.

    It’s also a good excuse for me to bring in a picture of one of my cats to use as realia!

    • I love this one too, and for me it has also lasted a good hour!

  3. I’m a huge Penny Ur fan too. My favourite book of hers, however, is my equally worn out “Discussions that Work”. Fewer activities per page than 5-Minute, perhaps, but some great inspiration for developing longer and more complex communicative tasks.

    • You’re right Marcos that is another good title, despite the weak joke that some teacher friends of mine make about the title “Discussions that don’t work”. That book is also rather dog-earned on my shelf especially from planning early teacher training sessions.

  4. “Ur” brilliant! love the drama! thanks.

  5. I am SO happy that you have found ‘Five Minute Activities’ to be so useful! For me, as it is I am sure for all other teachers, happy feedback is as important as earning a living.
    It is strange that ‘Games for Language Learning’ in the Third Edition, also published by Cambridge University Press, has far more games and activities in it than ‘Five Minute Activities’ but is hardly ever mentioned.
    Has anybody used, ‘Games for Language Learning’?

    • Hi Andrew

      Yes! I have also used Games for Language Learning but only the first edition. It’s also a fine book, but was acquired by me later on after the Five Minute Activities book.
      Is the 1000 pictures for language teaching still available (apologies if I have the title wrong, it was a book I remember from several staff rooms I worked in)? I remember that as being quite useful as well!

      • I second that, the “1000 pictures” book changed my life teaching-wise.

    • Yes, I definitely have used your excellent “Games for Language Learning”. In fact I have used my 1979 copy of it many times over the years. “Kim’s Game” is one of my many favourites!

      I have a copy of “1,000 Pictures for Teachers to Copy” right next to me on my bookshelf. I bought it in 1989 when I was doing my RSA Diploma in TEFL. It saved my life during my various teaching practice tasks which involved using pictures. I would strongly recommend this invaluable resource to all teachers.

      • Lindsay, Nicky, Janet
        It really is a pleasure for me to hear that my books have been valuable to you. As you all know it takes so long to write a book.
        It took me two years to do the third edition of ‘Games for Learning’ but you are still using the first edition. I promise you lots more games and activities and a new section of Solo Games, in the new edition!
        Yes, Lindsay, the 1000 pictures book is called, ‘1000+ Pictures for Teachers to Copy’ and it is published by Longman Pearson. It is Copy Wright and copyright.
        Funny thing is that my daughter Katy when she was eight advised me on the drawings in hte first edition and now she is 108 and works at Longman and is, amongst more important things, in charge of my book! Funny old world, innit?
        Andrew

    • I’ve just double checked my copy and it says “1,000 Pictures for Teachers to Copy” and it was first published by Collins ELT in 1984. I have often used the pictures especially when teaching Beginners, as the drawings are so clear.

      I really love the “adjectives” and “verbs” sections. I used to copy and then cut them up and do all sorts of great activities with them. Eg pair forming, pelmanism, noughts and crosses etc They always worked a treat!

      Thanks very much, Andrew, for bringing back happy memories.

  6. Hi Lindsay!

    This is probably not new to you, but I use it as filler or warmer whenever needed. It’s a classroom version of a boardgame you might know (Taboo).

    I prepare cards with vocabulary related to the topic being discussed in class or vocabulary recently studied). The card should have the chosen word on the top of it and 5 other words related and commonly used to describe the word chosen. Here’s an example:

    SUSTAINABILITY (chosen word)

    – environment
    – natural resources
    – responsibly/responsibility
    – develop/development
    – use / using

    (Yeah, I know I actually put pairs of words, but I just wanted to make sure students didn’t use the word or close variations of it 😉

    Now, I ask for a volunteer student (you can also turn it into a competition, splitting them into groups. I like competitive games, but usually try to go with colaborative) to be the first, and the student has 2 minutes – I use an hourglass – to define the chosen word without using any of the owrds under it. The teacher has to stay around and keep an eye on the words, to make sure the student doesn’t use any of them – if he does, he loses it. The objective of the activity is student oral fluency, creating strategies for being able to communicate even when they don’t have the exact word they’re looking for. And we usually have a blast with what comes out.

    By the way, loved the Delphic Dictionary activity. Will use it on Wednesday with a High Intermediate group to introduce the new topic: environment & sustainability.

    Thanks for sharing!

  7. Iuse both – and the books are in a similar condition 🙂 Another one I use is the Ant-Grammar grammar book. Has some wonderful stuff

  8. ooops typos galore … should read ANTI-GRAMMAR GRAMMAR BOOK

  9. Funny, as I read this post, that very same book is staring at me from the top of a pile I have in the corner of the room. It’s a book I always recommend to any teachers I’m working with.

    Actually my favorite 5-minute activity (really at least 10) is Alibi. I can’t find it in the book, so I guess it’s from somewhere else. Great any time and especially to introduce or end crime lessons.

  10. Great book and post! First time visiting this blog. There are many great posts here around. I should check it a bit more. Thanks for the useful post!

  11. I bought this book over a decade ago in a bookstore in Hong Kong. It was the first resource book for teachers I ever bought. At the time, I was teaching adult classes at a language school in Taipei, Taiwan. I began using some of these activities in my lessons and saw how much students enjoyed them.

    Some classic activities here such as Blackboard Bingo, and Words Out Of…

  12. I like the six activities you selected. Here is an activity that I use as a five minute activity but which usually takes a longer time.
    1. Students choose 4 words (eg table write fall ill)
    2. they try to write a sentence (or a short story if you want the activity to last a longer time) using all the 4 words

  13. I agree: an excellent resource! I’ve used these activities many times with my students. They especially enjoy the two-line dialogues. After awhile, they try to outdo one another in using two-line dialogues throughout the day, in everyday conversation. It can get quite amusing!

  14. My favourite five-minute activity is “Rub out and replace”. It’s one of those activities that works at all levels and really does only last five minutes! Another book I use A LOT is “700 Classroom Activities” by David Seymour & Maria Popva, published by Macmillan. Just a great resource full of nice ideas and so easy to find what you’re looking for.

  15. […] few posts ago I talked about my favourite Five Minute Activities, the much-loved resource book by Penny Ur and Andrew Wright. I had the honour of receiving a […]


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