Review: 101 EFL Activities for Teaching University Students

This resource book for university EFL teachers is written by Hall Houston, an experienced teacher and author. You’ve no doubt seen/read his contributions to ELT magazines over the years, or come across him on social media – a friendly and knowledgeable chap. The book is published by ITDI, who provide great training courses for teachers. I’ve done a couple of them, see here and here for reviews.

In this practical ebook, Hall provides a range of classroom activities to use for the beginning, middle and end of a semester. As the author mentions, most activities would be useful in other EFL settings too.

The book focuses of three themes and is organized into three chapters.

The themes…

  1. University context –activities address the university setting and relate to learners everyday lives as students.
  2. Group dynamics – Hall mentions how group dynamics evolve over a semester. He aligns the chapters in the book to activities that suit these stages of group development.
  3. Active learning – Hall points out that while many EFL teachers may use pair and group work activities ‘as standard’ to actively involve learners, this is not a universal approach. The book is a nudge for more university EFL teachers to move away from lecture-like passive approaches. Hall provides plenty of practical activities to help with this.

Hall briefly explains the profile of ‘a university student’ – they are developing into adults, transitioning into the world of work, grappling with academic challenges, etc. The author could frame this profile in more detail, perhaps giving more insight into Uni students in Asian contexts. He has plenty of experience of teaching in this particular region, and I feel those experiences are what has motivated him to draw out that ‘active learning’ focus more in the resource. A more explicit connection to this in the intro might help orientate readers. That said, it might limit the audience for the book unnecessarily – it is still relevant to uni contexts beyond Asia.

The chapters…

Chapter 1: activities to help learners ‘get off to a good start’. Rapport building and GTKY activities, developing speaking confidence, etc (around 40 activities).

Chapter 2: Maintaining motivation – keeping the learning interesting, relevant and personalized in the interim weeks of term, reviewing and consolidating learning, getting feedback on the course (around 30 activities.

Chapter 3: ‘Ending the semester gracefully’ – reviews, reflections, plans for next steps in the learning journey (around 30 activities).

There’s slightly more weight given to activities for the start of the semester, but generally a good balance throughout the resource. Each chapter ends with a short section on teacher development tips related to that stage of the semester. This is a nice touch – quick tips for teachers encouraging reflection, collaboration and follow-up reading/links. These sections may be short, but they include some useful info.

Delving into the chapters a bit, this is what you get…

Chapter 1

This section includes tons of ideas for rapport building and setting expectations for the term.

Activities cover five topics: learning names, learning about the teacher, learning about other learners, learning about the university, learning about the course/syllabus. This is well thought out. Each activity typically covers a half or a whole page (occasionally more), and includes info on aims, timing, skills practiced, preparation and procedure. Here’s an example from the section on learning about the university – this is probs my favourite activity in Chapter 1:

This is the maximum amount of information provided for an activity, making the book a quick read and a very accessible ideas bank for busy teachers. Some of the activities have links to downloadable worksheets, which is another nice touch.

I’d probably say that Section C in this chapter, ‘Learn about other students’, is most important for the start of term. There are some useful activities here that are explained concisely – the section would make a nice listicle to draw out as a (longish) blog post to promote the resource. I think lots of teachers would buy it off the back of that as it certainly gives a good impression.

Three things to mention about this section:

  • It’s apparent early on that the activities in this book are general and applicable to a range of contexts. They provide a good springboard for teachers to work with and in some cases offer more, but as with any book like this, they still need shaping to your own context. As I said, it’s an ideas bank, not a copy and go.
  • This section reminds me a lot of what Walton Burns did with Community Classroom Builders. Certainly some crossover – both books useful.
  • This resource fits with what I’d expect from the publisher (ITDI). When I take their courses, I find them concise but highly informative, full of practical tips, well-organised, well-delivered. The same applies here – the only minor layout thingy I’d change might be to bullet point the activity procedures, but that’s a fairly trivial thing all told!

Chapter 2

This section is more about activities for delivering course content – how to make it more interactive, collaborative and so on. There are some general tips for this as the start of the chapter related to managing the classroom, creating your own resources, involving the learners, etc. These could all be drawn out into more substantial tips, but that would detract from the overall approach here (IMO).

Again, activities are in sections, relating to… listening and reading, media and song, video activities, activities with surprise, personalized activities, reviews, and getting feedback from learners. A lot, right?! There are roughly 5 activities in each. I like the reviews bit (you can’t beat a memory palace task), and the sections on receptive skills and viewing are probably the most substantial and applicable to the context (jigsaw readings, halfalogues, KWL charts, and summary tasks all appear).

The ‘surprise’ activities are fresh, but some may have limited application. Apart from that, the author does a good job of keeping activities general but relevant. I wonder at times whether the resource could do with some specific examples of dealing with course content. Not necessary in the resource itself, but perhaps in an accompanying blog. It would be nice to read the general activity in the book, then have a link to ‘here’s how I used this activity during a taught module on XYZ this semester’. Not for every activity, just for the ones in which a clear example might help (ha, guess that depends on reader’s experience…).

Overall, a strong chapter. The teacher development bit is shorter here though.

Chapter 3

This final chapter is split into sections on reviews, reflections, looking to the future, and positive endings. I found quite a few new ideas in this section – I don’t know what that says about the way I close a term to be honest (‘just get out, I’m off on holiday!’ ha). I really liked one idea for future directions – writing letters to future students. This would be a great task for reflecting on expectations, progress, challenges and so on. I like the fact that the review activities here are more like longer tasks to demonstrate understanding, rather than just knowledge recall. For example, giving impromptu presentations on topics and then reflecting on gaps in understanding, or making an end of semester one-pager.

I enjoyed this section the most, although there’s more meat overall in Chapter 2 as it’s the most relevant throughout the term.

Overall

This is a really well-organised and accessible resource. It includes something for teachers of all levels. It’s particularly useful for those who are new to (university) teaching and are looking for ways encourage interaction, collaboration and reflection among learners. The focus on building a class dynamic is clear and the resource places the emphasis on getting things right from the start – a good choice, and great advice for less experienced teachers. This would be a worthwhile purchase for EFL teachers whatever their teaching context – a great resource to dip into for inspiration.

Rating 4.5/5

Order the book from iTDI here.



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