Lesson Idea: Taboo

Taboo has always been one of my favourite warmers.

Of all the language learning games I’ve used, this particular one has really stood the test of time in my teaching. I used it when I trained in primary education, when I started my career in EFL as a high school teacher and I’ve had such fun using it these past six years of teaching in higher education.

I can’t quite believe it took me until today, 15 years into my teaching career, to adapt it!

This is how I play taboo:

  • I split my class into two or three groups, suggest that each group come up with a name and write them down on the board to award points.
  • Each group sends a person to the front to describe a card. Each card has a word that needs to be guessed and several associated words below that cannot be used in describing the main word.
  • The student has to describe the word in under 1 minute and only his / her team members can guess the word during this time.
  • The student describing the word gets the team to guess as many words as he / she can in under a minute. As soon as there’s a correct guess they work on another card.
  • Once the minute is up, other groups can guess what the final word being described was. Whichever team guesses it, gets a point.

So what did we do today in class? We played taboo, but then, we stopped and made our own taboo game.

After warming the class up with my trusty set of cards, I set them the task of preparing their own taboo cards, based on local language. Local to our institution that is.

The key to the success of this activity was allowing non-English words on the cards. I felt the use of own language words (in our case French) was fine because the task of describing them would still be done in English. And ‘home’ words are just so much more fun than the translations that sterilise them.

All sorts of words came up, words that weren’t even in French but in their own special ‘studentese’, as I call it, taking my understanding of ‘own language’ to a whole new level. I don’t have their permission to share these delights with you so all I can say is that it worked really well. The activity had them all in stitches with me struggling to understand all these special words that opened a window onto their lives, their stories, their jokes and their meanings. Oh and doing it all in English was a no brainer because everyone just wanted to play the game.

And so, my set of cards, the same set of cards that have been used by my seven year-old students, my fifteen year-old students and my twenty-three year-old students over the years, will I think be used less and less as I learn a little more about celebrating what’s local.

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