by Hall Houston

(Articles for ESL/EFL Teachers)

How many times has this happened to you? You're standing in front of the class, ready to have an energetic discussion about something you've just read together. And nothing. You ask a few questions and they stare at you blankly. Minutes pass. Finally, you take a deep breath as you rack your brain trying to think of a filler activity to take up the next 15 minutes...

A common reason such discussions fail is that the students aren't quite ready to participate. They need time to gather their thoughts and prepare themselves for a robust discussion.

In this short article, I'm going to suggest some brainstorming activities that will help your students connect with what they're reading and motivate them to talk more in class. In my experience, getting students to think and write about a topic is an ideal way to lead them into a discussion. It's also very useful as a first step in writing an essay.

While brainstorming is a common word, the origins of brainstorming are not as familiar. Alex Osborn, an advertising executive from New York, is the brain behind brainstorming. In 1941, he devised brainstorming as an activity for people to create ideas together in a group.

Here are the basic rules for a successful brainstorming session:

- Start with a problem. This is usually summed up in a sentence called a problem statement. (You can choose a topic in your coursebook to create a problem statement for brainstorming in class.)

A problem statement can focus on a subject of direct concern to the students:

How can I make more friends? OR How can we learn more vocabulary?OR How can we make our classroom more attractive?

Alternatively, it can focus on a larger issue:

How can we deal with racism?OR What can be done about sexual harrassment?OR How can we improve the environment in our city/country?

- Give participants a few minutes of "think time". Then they call out their ideas one at a time, while someone records the ideas on paper or on the blackboard.

- Participants should be as creative as possible. Wild and outlandish ideas are encouraged.

- Criticism and judgement should be delayed until the very end of the session.

Michael Michalko, a creativity expert, suggests playing classical music during a brainstorming session, or putting up pictures that relate to your problem statement. Another creativity expert, Doug Hall, recommends loud rock music or classic TV show theme songs.

For those of you who would like to practice brainstorming with your classes, these 5 activities will generate a lot of writing and discussion from even the most passive groups.

Brainstorming Roll Call

At the end of class, assign everyone to write 2 or 3 ideas related to your problem statement for homework. At the beginning of the next class, call the roll and have each student read off an idea after you call his or her name. Send the first student on your roll up to the board to take notes on everyone's ideas. After roll call, allow a few minutes for discussion of the ideas.

Paper Airplanes

First, teach everyone how to make a paper airplane. (The website is a good resource.) Then read out your problem statement. Give the class a few minutes to write out an idea on the plane. Have the students send their airplanes to someone else in the class. When a student gets an airplane, he or she should read the idea and expand on it, or simply write a new idea. Repeat for 15 minutes. Collect the airplanes and put students in pairs. Ask each pair to list as many ideas as they remember. After a few minutes, ask which pair remembered the most ideas, and tell them to read out their list. Other students then mention any ideas the pair left out. At this point, you can have a discussion of the ideas.

Coursebook Character Brainstorm

Write up a problem statement on the board in big, bold letters. Now ask your students to flip through their coursebook. They need to find someone they find interesting. Tell them to stare at the picture. What is this person like? What are this person's interests? What is this person afraid of? What is this person's dream? Direct students' attention up to the board and imagine what ideas this person would have about the problem statement. Give them 10 minutes. Call on a student to read out his or her ideas. Can the other students guess which picture he or she is talking about? Repeat with other students. Finally, round things off with a discussion of the ideas.

Reverse Brainstorming

Write 3 problem statements up on the board. Take a quick vote to decide which one the class wants to work with. Erase the other two statements. Tell the class you want them to do something rather unusual today. You want them to think of as many ways as possible to make this problem worse. Put them in pairs, and give them 10 minutes to list as many ideas as they can. When time is up, have each pair read out their ideas, while you take notes on the board. Finally ask the class if these ideas suggest any practical solutions to the problem.

Brainstorm Interrupted

Write a problem statement at the very top of the blackboard. Ask one student to come to the front of the class. The student's task is to write 3 ideas, while the other students must ask him or her questions(any kind of question is acceptable). Each time someone asks the student at the board a question, he or she must stop writing, turn around, and answer it. When the student at the board is finished writing 3 ideas, he or she chooses another student to replace him or her. Repeat 5 or 6 times. When everyone is back in their seats, read out some of the ideas on the board, and call on students to comment on them.

For more information about brainstorming, I recommend the following resources:


Cracking Creativity by Michael Michalko

Brain Storm by Jason Rich

Creative Teachers, Creative Students by John Baer


Creativity Techniques - Mycoted


Creativity Tools - Mind Tools



This article originally appeared in English Teaching Professional.
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