Favourites in ESL classes
Summary: Stimulating and useful practice with one of the easiest and most motivating ways of getting lower level and younger students to talk about themselves in English.
I’m not entirely sure why, but my students, particularly the young learners, just love asking “What’s your favourite colour/ sport/ computer game/ food/ movie/ TV programme/ cartoon character/ book/ subject/ meal/ drink?” etc. In fact, when I allow them to ask each other any personal questions that they like, I often have to ban “What’s your favourite…?” after a minute or two to give questions like “Can you…?” and “How many… do you have?” a chance. Perhaps the appeal of asking and talking about favourites is that they feel that they can express themselves and who they really are with just one very simple form. Whatever the reason, it is well worth introducing the idea of favourites early and exploiting it as much as you can. This article gives many ideas for how you can also teach other vocabulary, grammar etc at the same time as practising this supremely motivating language point.
Typical student problems with “favourite”
Some languages don’t have the clear distinction between “What… do you like?” and “What’s your favourite…?”, so some students might use the former question when they mean the latter. However, this is unlikely to be a problem for long given how much most students love asking “What’s your favourite…?”
Students can tend to add “most” to “favourite” to make sentences like “What is your most favourite flavour of jam?”, with the “most” being unnecessary as “favourite” already means “most”. This isn’t a huge problem given that younger native speakers might well say the same thing, but if they aren’t having many other problems it might be worth insisting on accuracy on this point.
Presenting “What’s your favourite…?” and “…favourite is…”
Although I very rarely use translation in class, you can save an awful lot of class time and possible confusion just by saying what “favourite” means in your students’ first language(s). Because from then on students generally find the language point easy to understand and fun to use, you are unlikely to have to use that translation more than once.
Should you particularly want to avoid translation, the best way of presenting this language is by combining it with the language of likes and dislikes and adding the idea of ranking. For example, on the left-hand side of the board you could give three kinds of fruit that are really that something you dislike, something that you like and your favourite, with those words and a disgusted face, happy face and even happier face to show their meanings. On the right hand side, give three other things that you have the same feelings about, e.g. your favourite Japanese food, another Japanese food that you like, and one you dislike, but this time in mixed-up order. Ask students to try to make true sentences about those three things and you, using the language on the left-hand side of the board. You can then continue with the same ranking preferences game with different categories like patterns for clothes and kinds of public transport, perhaps with students coming up to the board and drawing their own likes, dislikes and favourites mixed up for other people to guess, or doing the same thing on paper in small groups. If they are having problems with the concept of “favourite”, you can help them with translation, gestures such as one thumb or two thumbs up, and writing a number 1 next to the favourite. When they seem to have got the idea, do a couple more rounds of that ranking preferences guessing game, then move onto other activities such as those explained below.
Students who already know “favourite” might be ready for longer expressions like “second favourite”, “least favourite”, “my favourite kind of…”, “my favourite way to…” and “I like…, but it’s not my favourite”, or to talk about other people like “My grandfather’s favourite…”
Favourites practice activities
Once students have grasped the meaning and form of sentences with “favourite”, you’ll want to get onto fun practice activities as quickly possible. Most of them fit into these categories:
The many classroom activities below are explained in the same order, starting with games.
The ranking preferences guessing game above can also of course be used as a practice activity. There are many more interactive practice activities below, divided by what kind of activity they are. The headings below are in approximate order of how often I use those kinds of activities in my lessons on this language point, but as there are many different ideas under most headings you’ll probably find that at least one of each kind is suitable for use in your lessons. The activities in each section are not ranked.
Favourites brainstorming games
This is the simplest and most popular of all the favourites activities that I have tried. In the very simplest version, students take turns asking each other different “What’s your favourite…?” questions (always answering the last question before they ask the next question). They have to stop and start the game again if anyone repeats a question that has already been asked, can’t answer a correct question, answers a correct question wrongly, asks a question that doesn’t make sense, or can’t think of any more questions. The other people playing the game get a point, then they try again, perhaps after changing groups.
If your class are likely to lack ideas or vocabulary, it’s a good idea for the teacher to take part in the first couple of rounds of the game and then for the students to be allowed to use the same ideas in future rounds (if they can remember them). Some of the hundreds of things you could ask about include:
- Art and media, such as pop group, karaoke song, book and movie
- Brand (of particular kinds of goods such as guitars and sports shoes)
- Character, such as animation character, superhero, and comic character
- Colour (of particular thing or in general)
- English word
- Famous person, such as sportsman or pop singer
- Kind of drink, such as hot drink, cold drink and flavour of milk shake
- Kind of food, such as fruit, vegetable, kind of meat, hot dish, breakfast cereal, topping on toast, breakfast, candy and pizza topping
- Kinds of animal, such as pet, African animal, bird and dangerous animal
- Place (to do particular things)
- Restaurant or café
- School subject
- Shop (to buy particular things)
- Sport (to do or watch)
- Team (for a particular sport or in a particular country or league)
- Thing they have been studying in other subjects in school, such as planet, plant, or classical composer
- Way to do something, such as relax, study before an exam, keep fit or travel
In order to avoid repeating questions, you could also let them ask about other people, e.g. “What is your brother’s favourite Pokémon?” if “What’s your favourite Pokémon?” has already been asked. If this leads to a whole string of incredibly similar questions each time, you can disallow questions next to each other about the same person or thing.
This game is most fun with a ball being thrown back and forth between the questioner and answerer, or alternatives to that such as pushing toy cars or pen caps back and forth across the table if a ball would be too distracting.
You can play a brainstorming answers game by drilling “What’s your favourite…?” while brainstorming the many possible answers. Someone chooses a single favourites question such as “What’s your favourite subject at school?” and two students or two teams of students take turns asking that same question back and forth, each time giving a different answer. That round ends when anyone can’t think of another possible answer, repeats an answer that has already been given, pauses too long or answers with something that doesn’t match the question. You could then ask them to guess if any of those answers are true for anyone. They can then play the same game with other questions.
Comparing your favourites games
Although there is some personalisation in the games above, there isn’t much focus on the main selling point of this language point, which is making it easy for students to talk about themselves. One of the many ways of putting personalisation into a game is getting students to compare their favourites. For example, you could ask each pair of students to find ten favourites in common, then maybe have a whole class feedback stage where you give points for any of their favourites which no other groups of students share.
You can also get students doing the opposite, namely trying to find favourites which other people don’t share. The nicest way of doing this is as a mingling game. Each student chooses one favourites question to which they think their own answer is unique, stand up, and go around asking that question to everybody in the class. If everyone gives a different answer to what their own answer would be, they score one point (and can sit down, if you want to finish the game quite quickly). If anyone gives the same answer that they would give, they have to choose another question and start the whole process again. For example, if they ask everyone “What’s your favourite British football team?” and their own answer is “Brighton and Hove Albion”, they will almost certainly win the game after they hear everyone else say “Manchester United”, “Liverpool” and “Chelsea”.
Favourites drawing games
The simplest way of combining drawing and this language point is with a version of Pictionary. Give students cards with sentences like “His favourite animal is pigs”, “The elephant’s favourite activity is washing” or “What’s your favourite fruit? Apples”. They draw that thing for their partners to guess the whole sentences from, perhaps drawing slowly to make it more of a challenge to guess. This can also work with their own true sentences, e.g. a picture of their own grandfather and a soapy car for the “My grandfather’s favourite Sunday activity is washing his car”. Alternatively, after ten or so sentences prepared by the teacher, students could work together to make similar sentences for other teams to draw and guess.
Students can also make their own sentences all the way through a drawing game. For example, students can roll a dice to decide if the sentence that someone else will draw starts with “1:my”, “”2:your”, “3:the dog’s”, “4:the elephant’s”, “5:the teacher’s” or “6:the alien’s”, then the same thing for six words after “favourite” like “1:vegetable” and “2:sport”. The final words after “is” could be chosen freely by the students or have to match a letter of the alphabet that they pick. If you want to continue using the dice right until the end of the table, the options can be given in a table form for each of the six kinds of favourites, e.g. “1:cucumber”, “2:cabbage”, etc for the “vegetable” option.
The same kind of game can also be played with students having more a free choice of what sentences they want to draw or make other people draw by giving the words on cards for students to pick and arrange in any way that they like.
Difficult favourites questions
Students ask other students “What’s… favourite…?” about themselves and people that they probably don’t know the answer to. They get one point for each time they get an “I don’t know” answer to questions like “What’s your favourite planet?”, “What’s your mother’s favourite song?” and “What’s your teacher’s favourite hot drink?” To stop there being too many questions which are absolutely impossible to answer, you can tell them that all questions must include “you” or “your”. This means that it is possible to ask “What’s your favourite sportsman’s favourite sports shoe brand?” but not “What is David Beckham’s favourite colour of underpants”.
Guessing the class’s favourites
The easiest way of organising this is for groups of students to try to make ten true sentences about the favourites of the class such as “The class’s favourite TV programme is Mr Bean” and “The class’s favourite cold drink is milkshake”. They then change those statements into questions like “What’s your favourite TV programme?” to check. The team who wrote the greatest number of true statements wins the game.
To make the game more challenging, you can give students partial sentences like “Three people’s favourite… is…” and “No one’s favourite… is…” Students could also make questions to test other teams with like “What’s the class’s favourite brand of sports shoes?” and “Who’s the class’s favourite tennis player?”
Other favourites guessing games
There are many other possible guessing games for this language point. The simplest is for students to just guess each other’s answers to “What’s your favourite…?” questions. This is easiest if the person guessing can choose to ask any question they like and guess its answer, as that way they can use the tactic of asking questions that they think they probably know the answer to. For example, fairly easy exchanges would be “What’s your favourite colour?” “Guess!” “Is your favourite colour blue?” “Yes, it is” or “I think your favourite car brand is Ferrari” “That’s not true. My favourite car brand is Mini”.
A more challenging version of this game is for students to choose the questions that they want their partners to guess the answer to, leading to exchanges like “What’s my favourite day of the week?” “Your favourite day of the week is Friday” “Yes, that’s right”.
Students can also guess other things from clues with favourites in them. The easiest option is for them to guess whose favourites are being talked about. For example, students describe the favourites of one person with sentences like “Her favourite food is salad” and “Her favourite time is early in the morning”, perhaps in response to questions, until the people who are listening guess that “It’s your mother” etc.
Students can also guess an object from hints starting with at least one sentence with “favourite” in it. For example, for “apple” they could say “It’s my favourite fruit. It’s red or green” etc until their partner correctly guesses what they are describing.
Like the TV quiz game Jeopardy, students can also guess the questions from the answers, e.g. “What’s your father’s favourite F1 team?” if they hear the answer “McLaren” or “What’s your cat’s favourite food?” if they answer given is “fish”.
The ranking game described in the presentation section is also a kind of guessing game. You can do something similar without needing all three things each time by students choosing cards which say “like (but not your favourite)”, “dislike” or “favourite”. They say a thing that matches what is written on their card without showing it to anyone else, and the other people try to make the correct whole sentence, e.g. “You don’t like earrings” for the word “earrings”.
A freer communicative game is guessing other likes and dislikes from people’s favourites. For example, if they say “My favourite composer is Debussy”, students could say “I guess you also like Milhaud then” or “I suppose you hate Philip Glass”. They get one point for any correct guesses and half a point if their partner says “Actually, I don’t know” (but perhaps still one point if they can persuade them that they would like it).
Favourites blind dates games
For the simpler of the two possible dating games for this language point, give students some pictures of famous people or characters such as Dracula, one picture per group of two or three students. Get them to make at least ten sentences about that person’s probable favourites, writing on a different piece of paper to the one with the picture on it. Put all the things that the different groups have written onto one table and get students to match the people who seem to be most suited to each other, all without being able to see the pictures. Then ask them to reveal the pictures of each pair, with hopefully some amusement when they do so.
The other blind dates game to practice “favourite” is a speaking game. Give out pieces of paper with weird favourites on them like “Your favourite weekend activity is climbing skyscrapers” and “Your favourite karaoke song is the ABC song”. Students ask each other favourites questions for five minutes to try and find out what is strange about their partner. For any questions which they are asked which are not connected to what is written on their card like “What’s your favourite food?”, they can give their own real answer or give imaginary answers as they like. They then change pairs and ask questions in the same way. After the second interview, ask students which of the two people that they spoke to seem more normal, what seemed strange, and if they can guess what was written on their card. Hilarity is likely to result as they choose someone who had something really strange on their card which they didn’t ask about, or if they think something was strange enough to be what was written on the card when it is in fact someone’s real favourite.
If the topic of dating is not suitable for your classes, these games work just as well with the similar topic of making friends.
Favourites make me say Yes
Students ask each other Yes/ No favourites questions like “Is your father’s favourite drink beer?” and “Is your favourite school subject maths?” and get one point for each time the answer is “Yes”
Favourites bluffing games
The simplest bluffing game for this language point is for students to say two true favourites sentences and one false one and for students to guess which is which, perhaps asking follow-up questions like “Why do you like black?” and “Do you have many black clothes?”
A more complex but perhaps more fun game is for students to answer all “Do you like…?” questions with “Yes, I do, but my favourite… is…”, for example “Yes, I do, but my favourite animal is tigers” to “Do you like snakes?” Perhaps after asking questions like “Have you ever touched a snake?”, the other students guess if that “Yes, I do, but…” answer was true or not.
Another option is for students to choose a letter at random, e.g. by picking Scrabble letters from a bag, and making a true or false “… favourite… is…” with a word starting with that letter at the end of that sentence, e.g. “My sister’s favourite cartoon character is the Queen of Hearts” for “Q”. Perhaps after asking for more details with questions like “Why?”, the other students guess if it was the truth or if they were bluffing. To make the game slightly easier, you could allow students to use a word starting with that letter in the beginning of the sentence instead, e.g. “My favourite religion is The Force” for “R”.
Although this game only really works with classes who have good enough English to be able to make follow up questions, you can also use the topic of favourites to do a version of the TV quiz show What’s My Line. Put the class into groups of two to four students. The students in each group work together to write different “My favourite…” phrases which are true for each person in their group, making sure that each one isn’t true for the other people in that group. Get the whole class together, then ask all the people in one group to read out one of the statements. For example, all three people in group B say “My favourite flower is daisies”, i.e. one person tells the truth and the others lie. The other groups ask all the people questions about that favourite and try to work out who is telling the truth from their body language, how believable their answers are, etc.
For a bit more variation in the phrases that they make during a bluffing game, you can give students sentence stems like “… used to be my favourite, but I don’t like it anymore” and “… is my friend’s favourite… but I hate it” to make true and false statements with. As with all these games, you will probably want to let them ask follow up questions before they guess which statements are true and which are false.
Favourites chain speaking games
This is about like the brainstorming game at the beginning of this section, but in this version students go around the circle saying “I like frogs but they are not my favourite”, “I like pigs but they are not my favourite”, etc for a fixed number of turns, e.g. ten. The next person then says “My favourite (animal) is (flies)” with something that hasn’t been said so far. The other students can then guess if that sentence is true, and possible the same for what the other students said if they can remember.
The second of those two variations ties in well with my favourites song below.
I could find surprisingly few songs with repeated use of “favourite”. Perhaps the only famous one is My Favourite Things from the musical The Sound of Music. Although it’s quite tricky to match the rhythm, it might be possible to get your students making up alternative verses like “Anime DVDs and Godzilla figures, cola floats and origami storks,…, these are a few of my favourite things” Like this example, you might want to allow versions that don’t rhyme.
I’ve also made up an easier song for students to take part in. I’m far too embarrassed to share the tune I made up and anyway can’t write music, but here are the words for you to come up with your own tune to or use as a chant:
I like red but it’s not my favourite
I like pink but it’s not my favourite
I like orange but it’s not my favourite
My favourite colour is black
I like strawberry but it’s not my favourite
I like vanilla but it’s not my favourite
I like chocolate but it’s not my favourite
My favourite ice cream is wasabi
I like Mickey Mouse but he’s not my favourite
I like Pooh Bear but he’s not my favourite
I like Bambi but he’s not my favourite
My favourite character is Hook
I like pepperoni but it’s not my favourite
I like margherita but it’s not my favourite
I like extra cheese but it’s not my favourite
My favourite pizza topping is peas
Students should be able to make up many other verses, either working together to write them down or improvising them orally. If possible, it’s nice if the last line is a surprising one, as in the examples above.
Strange favourites matching
As with the song above, for many students the most amusing and motivating thing about this language point is the surprising or downright bizarre sentences that can come up, be they unexpected true ones like “My favourite number is zero” or totally made-up ones like “My favourite method of transport is donkey”. While it’s possible to use this selling point in matching games like pelmanism, the secret is to design the activity so that the matches are often funny (“My favourite place to sleep is under the table”) but no more than occasionally totally nonsensical (“My favourite food is seven”). Perhaps the best way to do this is with a mixing and matching book, something like the classic book Ketchup on Your Cornflakes. Like that book, the best way of organising this is with ten to twenty pages, each of which is cut into two horizontally to make a split between the top half and bottom half. Choose a single topic for the book such as “My favourite animal to… is…”, “My favourite colour for… is…” or “My favourite place to… is…” Draw a sensible sentence on each page with the final word on the bottom half of the page, e.g. “My favourite place for relaxing is” + “in the bath” and “My favourite place for keeping my money is” + “under my carpet”, perhaps with pictures for one or both halves. The things that you include should be chosen because they also make funny (but usually just about possible) sentences when they are combined different ways, e.g. “My favourite place for relaxing is under my carpet”. With the completed book students can try to find the most sensible matches and also try to make the most amusing alternative matches. They would then almost certainly enjoy a chance to make their own variations (on the same or different topics). Alternatively, you could get students to draw their favourite strange combinations from the book.
If there is some difficulty with making the combinations in book form, it is possible to do the same thing matching up cut up cards on the table. However, it is for some reason much more motivating to turn page in a book format. Although it needs careful planning first, you can fairly easily produce the book format by cutting horizontally across ten to twenty pages of a new exercise book and writing in hand on each page. That format is also of course easy for students to copy if they make their own versions.
Here are some possible combinations to put into the book:
Book 1: Favourite animals
My favourite animal to ride is + horses.
My favourite animal to pet is + cats.
My favourite animal to have at home is + guinea pigs.
My favourite animal to look at in the garden is + hedgehogs.
My favourite animal to feed is + fish.
My favourite animal to catch is + grasshoppers.
My favourite animal to see in the zoo is + pandas.
My favourite animal to see in the circus is + lions.
My favourite soft toy animal to cuddle is + bears.
My favourite animal to take for a walk is + dogs.
My favourite meat comes from + cows.
Book 2: Favourite colours
My favourite colour for hair is + black.
My favourite colour for my bedroom walls is + cream.
My favourite colour for lipstick is + red.
My favourite colour for a school uniform is + dark blue.
My favourite colour for a ring is + silver.
My favourite colour for a sunset is + purple.
My favourite colour for a sea is + greenish blue.
My favourite colour for a leaf is + orange.
My favourite colour for a business shirt is + white.
My favourite colour for a house is + brown.
Book 3: Favourite places
My favourite place to sleep + on the sofa.
My favourite place to jump is + on a trampoline.
My favourite place to do my homework is + in front of the television.
My favourite place to keep my money is + in my pocket.
My favourite place to keep my diary is + under my bed.
My favourite place to eat is + on the beach.
My favourite place to relax is + in the bath.
My favourite place to sit is + on the sofa.
My favourite place to play sports is + at school.
My favourite place to use my mobile phone is + on the bus.
My cat’s favourite place to sleep is + behind the curtain.
Book 4: Favourite foods
My favourite kind of pizza is + meat.
My favourite kind of milkshake is + strawberry.
My favourite kind of ice cream is + chocolate.
My favourite kind of soup is + onion.
My favourite kind of lollipop is + blueberry.
My favourite kind of pasta sauce is + tomato.
My favourite kind of donut is + jam.
My favourite kind of sandwich is + ham, lettuce and tomato.
My favourite kind of potato chips is + cheese.
My dog’s favourite kind of dog food is + rabbit.
Why my favourite… is…
As great as the activity above is, I have to admit that it is not really a story as the section heading would suggest. This activity combines silly combinations with actual storytelling. Students make up or are given funny favourites sentences like “Why my favourite animal is fleas” or “Why my favourite book is the dictionary”. Students then tell and/ or write stories trying to come up with a good reason for that favourite.
Favourites is almost as popular a topic on the internet as it is with my students, so it is fairly easy to get students searching for people’s favourite wallpaper colour, British people’s favourite foreign food, etc. With this information students can make quiz questions to test each other with (including in the Jeopardy format explained above). Alternatively, they can make a poster on one topic or one country, perhaps with points for the most interesting information, best presentation of the information, etc.
If there is some kind of problem with using the Internet in class, the teacher could print off some articles, graphs, etc for each class to select the most interesting information from, and/ or the teacher could search for any information that the teams ask for. Alternatively, they could just survey each other or other people they know and make a poster or quiz questions based on that information.