I heard once that teaching without reviewing is like trying to fill up a bathtub without using the plug; water doesn’t last in the tub very long before it disappears down the drain. When students don’t revisit what they’ve learned, they’re likely to forget it. Whatever they’ve learned needs to be reinforced multiple times before it truly sticks. The best way for learners to remember new things is to put them into practice soon and often (say for example, they start using a particular sentence structure in their daily life), but since they don’t always have the opportunity to do so, teachers should fall back on the second best way: review.
A Tiny Review, 2 or 3 Times a Week
More often than not, my classes start off with a five-to-ten-minute activity, sometimes to prepare the students for that day’s lesson, and sometimes to review something they learned previously (or something they should otherwise know). Bonus points if the activity does both. The review may be on a topic we covered within the last two weeks, a topic that needs a bit more attention, or a topic that will be relevant for the upcoming lesson.
Here’s an example for a pre-intermediate group: On the board, I’ve got two identical tables that show the following:
Off to the side of each table is a collection of sticky notes. The yellow sticky notes say I, you, she, he, it, we, you, they (one note for each word); the green notes say me, you, her, him, us, you, them; and the pink notes say my, your, her, his, our, your, their (which, by the way, are technically determiners, but that’s beside the point). At the beginning of the lesson, I divide the class into two teams, then tell them to place the sticky notes into the correct positions in the table. The first team to complete their table wins!
Types of Activities
I’m a fan of kinesthetic activities to get my class started. I’ll often either have something on the board or will have lots of little paper (perhaps notecards) for the students to handle. Here are some of the types of activities that I tend to do:
Categorizing - like the example above, students need to put the correct things into the right place.
Grouping - different from categorizing in that students decide what the groups are; sometimes there are multiple acceptable answers.
Sorting - putting things in order
Matching - find which two things go together, such as a common subject-verb pair or standard adjectives with extreme adjectives (e.g. cold and freezing)
Locating - Given a paragraph on the board, students need to underline certain words (and perhaps circle other words).
Here’s an example of a sorting activity: Students are put into groups of four, and each group is given a few slips of paper. Each paper has one modal verb on it, and each group should have all of these words: must, must not, have to, don’t have to, can, can’t, should, shouldn’t. Student should arrange these in order according to how likely the listener will do the task given them (assuming they’re not the rebellious sort). If the student’s aren’t clear on the idea, must should be on one end (the ‘do it’ end), and must not should be on the other end (the ‘don’t do it’ end). The final result should look something like this:
must not > can’t > shouldn’t > don’t have to > can > should > have to > must
although the case could be made to put a couple of these side-by-side. The further to right we go, the more strongly the speaker wants the listener to do the thing.
By the way, you may want to turn these activities into games/competitions.
These activities almost always require a fair amount of work to prepare. Ideally, everything should be ready - including whatever you want written or projected on a board - before students enter the classroom. Sometimes this takes almost as much work as the lesson itself, but the good news is that whatever papers you use are very reusable. I collect the notecards or sticky notes or whatever we’ve used after the activity, and later I toss them in a drawer full of quick review activities. I can often make small changes to fit the level of a class below or above what they were originally used for. Also, I sometimes reuse the activity as it was first made with the same class a few months later to see what they remember.
This post turned into one about pre-lesson activities, but of course you can use these little review activities at other times. Maybe save them for days in which your lessons run a little shorter than planned. You can also use them during review days before an exam, but make sure that’s not the only time; frequent review is more likely to make a difference.