Combining history topics and English grammar

Summary: Activities suitable for English through History classes, CLIL classes, as supplementary activities when there are historical topics in an EFL textbook, or as grammar practice

These activities are suitable for English through History classes, CLIL classes, as supplementary activities when there are historical topics in an EFL textbook, or as grammar practice with classes who might find history an interesting topic.


Prepositions of position

  • Not there, there!

Students read a text or listen to the teacher and mark the positions of people and equipment on a map of a battlefield. They then have to guess who won the battle or what happened next (e.g. what strategy Napoleon decided to take, which could also add prepositions of movement), and then read or listen and check. You can do something similar with drawing towns or areas of control of an empire on a map and guessing which was more successful.


  • Coats of position

Students are given the elements of a coat of arms and have to tell the teacher or one person in their group where to put them to make the most impressive crest. They can then check with the original and see if they still think their design is better. Something similar can also be done with portraits with symbolic objects in them.


Prepositions of time

  • At that point

Give students true sentences about history with the preposition taken out and replaced by a gap. Choose or write sentences where more than one preposition is grammatically possible but only one is true, e.g. "The Second World War ended _________ September 1945" (the correct preposition is "before", but "in" is grammatically possible). Students get one point if the preposition is grammatically possible and five points if it is the correct one. You can increase the fun by letting teams choose which one they want to answer next by how confident they are about it. This game can also be played as a Grammar Auction.


  • Prepositions are your friends

Give students true sentences about history that are cut off after the preposition of time, e.g. "The 100 Years War really lasted for_______________" The endings of these sentences should be given mixed up somewhere else on the page. Choose sentences where each preposition of time is different, so that only one or two of the answers are grammatically possible each time. This will mean that students who are good at history and students who are good at English will have an equal chance of getting the answers right. This game can also be played as dominoes or pellmanism.


  • Historical and prepositional errors

Take some sentences about history with prepositions of time in and change them all to make them incorrect, approximately half by making the grammar wrong, e.g. "People didn't used to have toilets in their homes in the 15th century", and half by making them factually wrong, e.g. "WWI started in 1915". Students get one point for spotting what kind of error each one is and 5 more points if they can correct the error. This game can also be played as a Grammar Auction, and could work with almost any other grammatical point.



  • Give me my article or give me death!

Students are given sentences with gaps that could be filled by different determiners grammatically but for which only one determiner gives the real historical answer, e.g. "Buddhism was ________ religion in India in 300 BC" ("a", because there were many religions)


Reference words (pronouns etc)

  • Who me?

Students guess what is being referred to in sentences with "it", "he" etc. Give more and more sentences about the same thing until they guess.


  • I don't think you mean me!

Give two sentences with the same reference word, e.g. "He lived in the 17th Century" and "He was a pilot", and students have to guess if the person is the same or different.


  • Match me!

Students are given many sentences with words like "it" and "them", and try to match up the sentences that refer to the same person or thing and then guess what they are. They can then read or listen to texts about those people or things and check their answers.



  • Was the king passive?

Give students key words from sentences about history that could be written in the passive but have had all the grammar taken out, e.g. "Sir Walter Raleigh/ execute/ King James". Some of the sentences should be given with the agent as the subject and some with the agent as the object. Students have to say or write full passive or active sentences depending on which one they think is correct, e.g. "Sir Walter Raleigh executed King James" or "Sir Walter Raleigh was executed by King James", and get points for correct grammar and factually correct sentences. You can make it more challenging by adding sentences that they have to make negative to make them accurate, e.g. "Sir Walter Raleigh/ execute/ Queen Elizabeth".


  • Passive inventions

Give the students split sentences in the passive, e.g. "Paper was invented" "by the Chinese". Students have to put the sentence halves together. If you print out the activity as a table of two or four columns, it is also possible to organise it as a jigsaw by cutting out several cards together rather than cutting them out individually. Alternatively, it is possible to rearrange the pieces in the table before you photocopy it and cut it out and turn it into dominoes. There is an example of this activity in one of the Reward Resource Packs.


Reported speech

  • You reported what??

Students convert the quotes they have been given into reported speech and the people listening have to convert it back into direct speech and then guess who said it and/ or what the topic was.


  • Reporting what wasn't there

Students imagine a conversation from the past, either one that really happened like the Potsdam conference or an imaginary one like Alexander the Great meeting Napoleon. They imagine they are telling the story of what people said, and so instead of role-playing the conversation they tell the whole thing as reported speech.


  • That's what I would've said

Explain the situation behind a famous quote and see if students can guess how the person responded (telling you their ideas in reported speech), and then reveal the real response.


  • You will report what I have said

Students read predictions of the future (written in reported speech) and guess whether they came true or not.


Present Perfect and Simple Past

  • Listen to my graph

The teacher dictates a graph from the past (e.g. the population of the world) without saying what it is, and the students draw the shape they are hearing and try to guess what it represents. The first time you describe the graph, only explain how it goes up and down and don't give any figures or explain what the axes of the graph mean. If they can't guess, you can give them more clues, e.g. those things or continuing the graph up to the present (in the Present Perfect). Students can then research other graphs about the past and dictate them to each other and guess in the same way.


Past Continuous

  • Walking side by side through history

Students try to find things that were happening at the same time, e.g. people who were contemporaries, e.g. "Was Charlie Chaplin making films when Elvis Presley was releasing records?"


  • A dangerous thing to be doing bluff

Give students sentences about things people were doing when something happened to them but with the details wrong, e.g. "Abraham Lincoln was watching a movie in a theatre when he was shot". They have to spot the wrong word or phrase for one point, and can then give the correct version for five points. The students can then challenge each other by changing correct sentences you have given them to make them wrong and then reading them out to be corrected.


  • History lining up

Students are given a cut up version of one of those timelines that shows things happening in different parts of the world at the same time, e.g. the dynasties in the great civilisations. They listen to the teacher saying things like "The Ottomans were just arriving in Turkey when the Vikings were coming to an end" and try to put the slips of paper representing those things into the right places.


Past Perfect

  • Life running backwards

Type out a series of historical events (e.g. the development of agriculture or the life of George Washington) in a single column table, with one event in each box. Cut it into cards and give one pack of cards to each group or 3 or 4 people. The group should spread the cards along the table face up. Give the answer key to one student, who will be the referee of the game. The first person to play should take two cards and say which thing happened first using the Past Perfect, e.g. "When the Egyptians created the Sphinx, they had already built the first pyramid". If they are right, they get one point and the cards stay on the table in that order. The next student should then take one more card and place it in that sequence of events, saying which thing it happened before or after using the Past Perfect again, e.g. "When Christianity arrived in Egypt the Sphinx had already been built". If the position in the sequence and the sentence are both correct, the card stays there and they score one point. Students continue taking turns until the whole sequence is complete, maybe with hints from the referee to help them if they get stuck.


  • Past past sequences

As in the game above, give students cards that represent a sequence of events such as the important events in the reign of Henry VIII. The students should work together to try to put them in order. When they think that they have finished, give one person in the group the answer key. They should then tell their partners what is wrong about their sequence using the Past Perfect, e.g. "When he met Anne Boleyn, he hadn't divorced his wife yet".


Present Perfect Continuous

  • How long??

Students try to guess how long humans have been doing certain things and are told if it is longer or shorter until one person gets it right, "People have been making art for 5,000 years" "No, much longer". For the grammatical use to be correct, the events will have to be things that have been done continuously since that time and are still going on now, i.e. not hunting mammoths.


Past Perfect Continuous

  • Extinctions

This is similar to the game above, but talking about things that are finished. Students try to guess how long things had been going on for when they came to an end, e.g. "The Dodo been living with humans for 200 years when it became extinct" "No, much shorter" or "The Japanese had been living more or less isolated from the world for 150 years when Commodore Perry and the Black Ships arrived" "No, quite a bit longer".


Used to

  • We used to be stupid

Students look at a picture or scene from a film and try to spot anachronisms and describe them with the structure "(At that time) they didn't use to..." There is a version of this game in the book Play Games with English. As such pictures can be difficult to find, you could also show a present picture or sequence in a film and get students to spot things that weren't the same in the time in the past that you are studying. As a warmer or extension, they can look at something that is supposed to be the future, pretend they are living at that time, and make disparaging comments about people's lack of ability in 2009 (or whatever year it is when you are reading this).


  • I used to know what time it was

Students are given a selection of different time periods and maybe places and describe what people did with "used to" and "didn't use to" until their partners guess which one they are talking about. This can also be played as 20 Questions.


  • People used to be people

Students are given a list of particular people from the past, such as Roman slaves and apprentices in the Middle Ages, and have to describe one person's habits until the other students guess which one it is.


Will for predictions

  • No they won't!

Students roleplay being a fortune teller and a client in the time in the past that they are studying. The fortune teller has to tell the client what the world will be like in 2009 (or whatever year you are reading this), with the client responding with disbelief to statements like "People will fly to different countries in big metal tubes" but just interest to things like "Most people will wear black jackets and trousers to work". If the fortune teller says too many "unbelievable" things, the client can refuse to pay because they think the fortune teller is a fraud. You can also do the same roleplay with someone who has come back from the future.


Second conditional

  • A nice old fashioned dictator

Students try to think of reasons why they might reintroduce rules from the past such as branding or prohibition of alcohol, e.g. "I would reintroduce child labour if all the schools were closed for some reason", and get one point if no one else in their group can think of a better reason for doing it.


Third and mixed conditionals

  • Rather him than me

Students are given a list of people in history who had difficulties. One student chooses one of the people without telling anyone which one and then says how they would have done things if they had been in their place (e.g. because they think it was a better idea or because they aren't as brave and intelligent as that person was). The other students have to try and guess who they were talking about.


  • Alternative realities

One student starts a sentence about what would have happened if something had happened differently in the past, e.g. "If Hitler had invaded England, the Americans would have joined the war earlier". The next student then continues the same story, e.g. "If the Americans had joined the war earlier, they wouldn't have been ready". Continue until the consequences reach the present day (e.g. "...we would be living in an American colony now") or the set number of turns has finished. This can also be done as a writing task, and can be made more fun by folding over previous people's sentences so that people don't know which story they are continuing (= Consequences/ Chain Writing).


  • Testing alternative explanations

Students take two or three alternative explanations for what happened in the past and take them to their logical conclusions to see which one more matches reality and so which explanation is more likely. For example, two (of many) explanations for the disappearance of Neanderthals are that they interbred with our ancestors or that our ancestors committed some kind of genocide. For the first explanation, students could create chains of sentences like "If Neanderthals had interbred with our ancestors, some children would have looked very different from other children" "If those children had looked very different, they would have been rejected from the tribe" etc until they reach the present consequence and then do the same for the other explanation.


  • Impossible conversations

Students are told to imagine being able to say just one thing to a person in history, e.g. some encouragement, praise or advice, e.g. "If I could have met Marilyn Monroe, I would have told her to give her pills to someone else to keep safe". Students vote on their favourite of other people's ideas, with the person with the most votes winning.


  • What went wrong?

Ask students to make choices on their way to achieve something like becoming a knight or joining a guild. Tell them at the end if they were successful or not. They then have to make true sentences about what would have happened if they had made other choices, e.g. "If I had gone looking for dragons I wouldn't have become a knight, because there was really no such thing as dragons".


  • Life was a trial

Students read about a real trial from the past, e.g. an obvious mistrial like Galileo's, and discuss what other questions they would have asked, what witnesses they would have called, and what verdict they would have come to depending on what people said.


Linking words

  • Split and link

Give students split sentences about history where the second part starts with linking words like "because", "then" and "unless". Students then use their knowledge of history and grammar to link the sentences together.


Infinitives of purpose

  • To confuse people studying history

Students try to guess why people did strange things in the past such as duck women into lakes on special chairs.



Modals of obligation

  • No more strange laws

Students read about strange laws in the past. Possibly tasks include choosing which ones are true, putting the right modal into them (weren't allowed to, could, didn't have to etc) and matching them to the country or historical period. The same things can be done with typical parenting and household rules, with school rules, prison rules, poor house rules, rules for soldiers or sailors, or with rules in factories.


  • The best time to be a slave

Students read descriptions of conditions and rules for a particular group of slaves, serfs, agricultural workers or factory workers and try to guess the period. Try to include some texts that are very recent but students might first of all think are in the past, e.g. modern day slavery or sweatshop factories in the developing world.


  • Guess how classy I am

Students read conditions and rules for particular classes such as merchants or peasants and try to guess the period, country and/ or class. Alternatively, the teacher can read out the description line by line and the first person who guesses correctly gets 10 points (with minus 1 point for each wrong guess).


Modals of ability

  • Incompetent ancestors

Students try to guess what people could and couldn't do at a particular point in history, e.g. "Neanderthals couldn't make metal tools" or "In the First World War, people could fly planes". They then get points for correct answers, or read or listen and check.


  • Machines that can't

Students predict what machines in the past could and couldn't do, e.g. whether cars at the turn of the century could drive in reverse or not.


  • He really could

Students are told they have to undergo a challenge such as a difficult journey and are given a choice of mythical creatures, real or fictional heroes, Greek gods etc that they can take with them on their journey. As they reach each challenge, if they can say which ability their person or monster had that could help them at that point, they can pass. This works particularly well if you set it up as a board game with dice and the challenges on particular squares on the board. Similar games can be played with students describing a race or fight between their characters (a bit like Pokemon).


  • I would've told you not to

Students are given different stories of comically unsuccessful attempts in history, such as early attempts at flight. They tell their partners what that person could have done, should have done, shouldn't have done or needed to do until their partners guess what the attempt was about.


  • He couldn't look this stupid!

Students mime an ability or lack of ability of Neanderthals and people try to guess what they are miming, e.g. walking or not speaking (maybe by having their mouth tightly closed or making a cross in front of their mouths with their hands)


Comparative adjectives

  • People from history Top Trumps

Students are given cards with details about famous people from history such as their height, weight, length of reign, number of husbands and wives etc. The student whose turn it is tries to guess which thing is better on their card than on their partner's (meaning both people's cards at the front of their packs- they can't choose which card), e.g. "I think my person was richer than your person". They then compare the numbers on their card, and the person with a larger number wins the other person's card. Continue until one person has all the cards.


  • The usual used to suspects

The students try to put pictures of the ancestors of modern humans in chronological order, then the teacher explains what is wrong using comparatives like "The third person's head should be bigger"


  • Bring me up to date, please

On a computer graphics programme, students change a picture of very distant ancestor of humans to a more recent one using a written or spoken comparison. They can then look at the original picture to check.


  • Bigger better faster more

Students are each given a period of history and have to argue why theirs was a better time to live in than their partner's, e.g. "Cities were less polluted then"


  • Surprisingly primitive (Yes, we are)

Students try to make comparative sentences about Neanderthals and modern humans and then read or listen and check. There are some nice surprises for them in this, such as Neanderthals' bigger brains!


Copyright © 2009

Written by Alex Case for

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