My students love playing ____.

(Answer: Verba!)
UPDATE! The Verba Kickstarter campaign has started! You can get a set (or more) of Verba by donating to the cause. If you're curious about Verba, watch the video below and send a few bucks to  help get the project off the ground. Thanks! 

Original post follows:

Fill-in-the-blank activities have a bad rap.

When I was a student, I remember filling in endless blanks. Endless blanks. For no good reason that I can remember other than to practice a grammar point (nominally) or just to complete the assignment (closer to the truth). 

As a teacher, I use fill-in-the-blank, or cloze, items sometimes, mostly in listening comprehension activities. They can be useful scaffolding tools when students aren't yet proficient enough to produce whole sentences on a certain topic. Cloze becomes more fun when the activity resembles Mad Libs, where students can plug in silly or creative ideas. But I'd never call cloze wildly fun or exciting. 

Oh, but there IS a wildly fun and exciting way to use cloze in the classroom...  

It's called Verba, and it was developed by The Pericles Group, who originally designed the game to be played in Latin. My Twitter friend Kevin Ballestrini (@kballestrini) reached out to me to create a test set in Spanish, and I was intrigued by the possibilities that this game offers for language acquisition. 

The premise of the game is essentially the same as Cards Against Humanity or Apples to Apples. Simply put, students use the many noun cards to fill in the blank on a sentence card. (See a full description here.) The best sentence--the funniest, the silliest, whatever--wins. Here are some examples of what came up in class today:

Translation: I am going to the party with my... orange, woman, wrestler.

Translation: Do you have an extra...? dinosaur, head, sword

Translation: I did not do my homework because my (mouth, shark, teacher) ate it.
When I say that my students had fun with this game, the word "fun" does not even come close to how much they loved it. The giggles and guffaws were immediate and they played happily for 15 minutes. They could have played for quite a bit longer, but the period ended (and they did not want to stop playing). 

So, it's fun, but how does it aid acquisition? 

The sentence cards use language structures that the students have learned in context. As they read the sentence, they have to comprehend the language and determine which noun would make the "best" sentence. Then the judge has to read the sentence aloud several times with the different nouns, changing the articles and nouns so that they agree in gender and number. The different variations of the nouns (masculine, feminine, singular, plural) and of any adjectives that might describe the noun in the sentence are provided for the student, thereby scaffolding their language production. They get repetitions of comprehensible input as well as many opportunities--and a compelling reason--to create meaningful output. 

When my students play again (probably tomorrow!), I'll set some more ground rules to maximize both input and output: 

  • No English.
  • The judge has to read each sentence out loud completely with the different nouns.
  • I'll provide them with some phrases in Spanish like "the silliest," "the funniest, "the weirdest" and "the grossest" so that they can justify their decisions about which sentence wins.
The set I used is a Print and Play document, which you can download for free and print out on card stock.  

But if you don't feel like spending half an hour at the paper cutter, there's an even better way to get Verba for your classroom. [Shameless promotion alert!] The Pericles Group has begun a Kickstarter campaign to fund production of high-quality playing-card sets of Verba en español. Contribute to the campaign and you could have your very own real Verba card set for your students to play with for years to come! 

You can also suggest sentences and nouns here.

One last plug: the class that played Verba today has students ranging from 8th to 12th grade. Here are two eighth graders, an 11th grader and a 12th grader playing together. I think it speaks to the power of Verba that the game appeals to such a wide range of ages.  

Verba for everyone!


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