In your career  you might well be asked even on short notice to jump in for a colleague and substitute a class you have never met. Very often, you don’t even know what the class have been doing and what you should teach.

If your school applies a loose syllabus and gives you lots of time for extra-curriculum activities, you might have the possibility to organize a free conversation lesson. If your school instead expects you to follow a strict long-term plan you cannot really waste time and need to find out where your colleague left off with the class. This latter case is a bit unpleasant to handle since asking students about their last lesson might give the impression that you are unprepared or that teachers are not coordinated in your school. So you practically need to be sly. How can you save face? You give your students a quick task and while they are working on it, you walk around in the room and look into the book and notebook of some students. This way, you will see where they are more or less in the book and what the next untouched topic might be. All other gaps can be covered by the absent teacher once he/she is back.

For both cases, a whole conversation lesson or gaining some time, the following conversation task can be really entertaining, engaging and useful.

Level: from pre-intermediate to advanced
Number of students: 2 students are sufficient, but more you have more fun the game is
Materials: whiteboard and marker
Preparation: none
Time: min 10 minutes

Lead-in: Depending on the level, you might recap family vocab (A2), expressions for (dis)agreeing (B1), language of negotiation (B2), language to express intense feelings (anger, astonishment, happiness for C1 level). You can also ask students to discuss in pairs or small groups if they have a rich aunt or uncle, if they have ever inherited anything (clarifying the meaning of ‘inherit’ and possible synonyms or related words like left behind, inheritance vs heritage), if they know anybody who got rich thanks to an inheritance, etc.

Ask students to get into group of 2/3/4 and move in different corners of the room (in order not to disturb one another).

Main part: Then introduce your students to the following situation:

“You are cousins and have a very old and rich Aunty, Emma. Aunty Emma has been in coma for more than a week and there is not much chance that she wakes up. She never wrote her last will, but ask her nieces and nephews to decide together who gets what. There are the following things to decide about:

  • a castle in Scotland
  • a hotel in London
  • a casino in Las Vegas
  • a library with ancient books
  • 2 Rembrandts
  • jewels, worth 500,000 euro
  • a Harley Davidson
  • 2 cats and a parrot.

Aunty Emma set the following rules:

  • her nieces and nephews cannot sell or give away anything;
  • they cannot divide things (e.g. books of the library);
  • they need to explain why they deserve what they ask for;
  • if they cannot divide the goods, everything will be given to charity.

You have 5 minutes to negotiate.”

Student’s practice: While students are discussing, monitor them and make sure they don’t only agree to each others’ requests, but negotiate and tell also anecdotes about these items (e.g. when I was a young boy, Aunty Emma took me out for a ride on her motorbike every Sunday, so I’d like to get the Harley Davidson).

Feedback: After 5 minutes, ask students to choose one spokesman and tell about their final compromise (if there isn’t any, they have lost the right to get anything).

Give them content and language feedback.

Follow up: You can tell students, the following story:

“It came out that Aunty Emma secretly got married about 20 years ago, but her husband, Uncle Harry, passed away. His family has also the right to inherit something.” Put two-two of the previous groups together (they move closer to each other) and point at one of the groups: “They are nieces and nephew of the late husband. Now discuss again who is getting what and why. You have 7 minutes to do this.”

Monitor your students and after 7 minutes, ask for feedback. Your notes you took during monitoring the students can be a good way to understand what language to revise in the remaining part of the lesson.

Nota bene:
I found this exercise in a German course book: em Brückenkurs (Hueber Verlag), with Tante Erna and have tried it with very different levels and groups of students many times in the last 10 years (in German and English). On every occasion, it was a big fun. This exercise also helps to understand group dynamics (students who work well with each, students who dislike each other, etc.), something really useful, if the teacher is unfamiliar with the class.

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