Perhaps surprisingly, miming and related games using body language and gestures are one of the best ways of practising grammar points such as tenses, comparative and superlative, and gradable and extreme adjectives. The article Using Body Language and Gestures to Teach Grammar includes ideas on how the teacher can use their own body to elicit and explain English grammar, so this article concentrates on game ideas. Most of the ideas are also adaptable for other grammar, as well as other language points such as vocabulary and functional language.
The most basic Total Physical Response (TPR) grammar games are:
- The teacher or a student mimes something and the other students try to say and/ or write a matching phrase or sentence (like the old TV show Give Us a Clue)
- The teacher or a student says and/ or writes something and the other students compete to do a matching action first and/ or best (like Simon Says, but without the trick part)
Both of these games work well with pairs of contrasting sentences, e.g. “You have lots of wallets. You have lots of luggage” for countable and uncountable. You can also combine the two ideas, e.g. students watching the mime of and shouting out the name of “big” and then doing the action of and saying “bigger, biggest”. There is also a variation which is kind of between the two, where more than one student does the action and the other students rank them, e.g. deciding whose mime is “very sad”, whose is “extremely sad” and whose is “absolutely devastated” by the extremity of their mimes.
Miming games can be made more interesting by including physical actions which are difficult to achieve, e.g. giving a student a card saying “I _________ touch my head with my foot” for that person to try and other students to say “You can…” or “You can’t…” about depending on how successful they are. Asking students to balance objects “on your head” etc also has a similar appeal. A particularly nice way of doing this is giving students cards to arrange into sentences to make their partners do, including challenging and/ or amusing things like “Put a cat on your head”.
You can also play games which are more similar to Simon Says. My favourite is to say inaccurate things and accurate things about your action (“I’m sitting on a chair”, “I’m sitting on a desk”, etc) and asking students to only say the sentence and copy the action when they match. You could also get them to only copy the sentence and/ or action when it makes sense, e.g. doing the action when you say “A frog can swim” but not when you do “A frog can fly”.
Actions can involve things in the classroom, pictures of things (on flashcards, posters, etc) and/ or just imaginary objects. If pointing at things and pictures in the classroom would be too easy and/ or not match the meaning of the grammar being practised, you can ban doing so.
To mime things that they can only imagine, they can draw in the air (make shapes in the sky with their hands or fingers), mime being such a thing (e.g. putting their arms out to be a plane) and/ or mime interacting with that thing (e.g. opening and closing an imaginary door).
Another great miming game is to get students to brainstorm actions and sentences with the key words that you give them, e.g. saying and acting out “I can fold a pizza”, “I can eat a pizza”, “I can make a pizza”, etc with the key word “pizza”.
You can also get them to go beyond the thing that is acted out, e.g. predicting that “You will fall over” after saying “You are going to jump over the chair” if their partner crouches down in front of their chair. You can also do personalised versions of this, such as getting them to guess that “You never play rugby” after guessing that their mime was “You are playing rugby” to practise both present tenses at once.
Most of these activities only work for some language points and you need to make sure how students do the actions totally matches the meaning of the grammatical points (e.g. making sure that mimes for “going to” don’t actually start the action), so there are descriptions of games for individual grammar points below.
Present tenses TPR activities
Present Simple TPR games
Miming is not particularly well suited to Present Simple sentences like “I have a shower at 8 p.m.”, because the action looks more like Present Continuous while it is being acted out and past when it has finished. However, miming can work for just “is” and “are”, with mimes like “It is an ice cream” and “They are ice creams”.
Present Continuous TPR activities
Present Continuous mimes
Miming is a perfect activity to teach sentences like “I’m walking” and “You are looking for your wallet”. To show the “ongoing action” meaning of Present Continuous, and to make sure that it doesn’t get mixed up with Past Continuous, you should make sure that the mime goes on until the right sentence is said (not stopping when someone puts up their hand to guess).
Present Continuous is such a simple tense and so obvious for describing mimes that is works really well in combination with other language such as vocabulary, modal verbs and cultural differences. The same is also true for Past Continuous and for going to. See below for ideas on all of these.
Present Continuous actions brainstorming
Give students a key word like “spoon” and ask students to make as many matching sentences and mimes as they can (“I’m bending a spoon”, “I’m balancing a spoon on my nose”, etc).
Present Continuous and vocabulary mimes
Make a list of Present Continuous sentences with vocabulary related to the lesson (e.g. collocations with sports like “doing kung fu” and “playing volleyball” or travel compound nouns like “putting luggage into an overhead + locker”) for students to mime, then test them on the vocabulary in another way.
Present Continuous and functional language mimes
Ask students to identify mimes like “You are trying to get someone’s attention” and “You are answering the phone”, then ask them to say what language you are probably using to do those things.
Present Continuous extreme actions game
Students take turns miming more and more extreme versions of the same sentence and the class decide on which is the most ambitious and extreme mime, with ones which are more extreme but don’t look like what they say being ignored. For example, one student says and mimes “I’m juggling three balls”, then other students try the same with “I’m juggling seven balls” etc, with the other students voting that “I’m juggling five balls” was the best of the more ambitious attempts.
Present Continuous Simon Says
The teacher or a student says a Present Continuous sentence and does an action, and the class only copy the sentence and/ or action if the two things match, ignoring them if they say “I’m hopping” while they are jumping with two feet, etc.
Present Simple and Continuous TPR games
Present Continuous and Simple miming and personalised guessing
If you want to get students miming Present Simple sentences like “I get up at seven o’clock”, you’ll need to make sure that they repeat the action at least twice to make the “repeated action/ habit” meaning and its contrast with Present Continuous clear. Instead of that, I prefer to get students to identify the mime with Present Continuous and then try to make a true sentence about the person who did the mime with Present Simple (with suitable time expressions), e.g. “You are putting on a tie. You put on a tie five days a week”.
Present Continuous and Simple example sentences game
Students identify the mime with Present Continuous and then make a true sentence about who does that thing, where it usually happens, etc, such as “You are giving an injection. Vets give injections.”
Present Continuous and Simple cultural differences mimes
Students identify the action and then make a Present Simple sentence about who does it, who doesn’t do it, etc, as in “You are ordering the bill. English people order the bill that way” or “You are saying something is okay. Brazilians don’t say something is okay that way”.
Past tenses TPR games
Past Simple TPR games
Past Simple mimes
Past Simple is the natural tense to use in sentences like “You jumped over the ruler” and “You sat on the floor”, as long as the mimes are totally finished before the people watching make their guesses.
Past Simple chain mimes
Perhaps the most fun way to use mimes for Past Simple is for the teacher to do a long chain of actions and then test students on their memory of those actions. This can be done by asking them to list everything that they remember or by asking them questions like “What did I kick?” This is particularly useful to practise a mix of regular and irregular Past Simple forms, e.g. “rode” and “passed”.
Used to and Present Simple mimes
Students watch an action and try to make a true Present Simple sentence about that person and that action (“You sometimes skip”) or make a used to sentence if that thing is no longer true about that person (“You used to skip, but now you never do”, etc).
Past Simple and Present Perfect mimes
Students guess what a mime that was just performed (and is now finished) means and then try to make a true sentence with Present Perfect about the person who made the mime, e.g. “You rode a motorbike. You have never (really) ridden a motorbike” or “You sneezed. You have sneezed once or twice today”.
Past Continuous mimes
Although it is perhaps less obvious, you can easily justify using mimes to teach Past Continuous in the same way as Present Continuous above, especially if you get students to stop their partner when they think they know what they are doing to say “When I said ‘stop’, you were…”
Past Continuous and Past Simple mimes
The person miming can also add the interrupting Past Simple action, e.g. miming “When I was doing my homework, I feel asleep” and “I fell when I was coming down the stairs”.
See Past Tenses mimes below for one more idea on using mimes to teach Past Progressive.
Past tenses mimes/ Narrative tenses mimes
The teacher or a student mimes a selection of actions and then tests the others on their memory of those actions with questions like “Did I jump?”, “What did I do after I sneezed?”, “Had I passed the desk when I kicked the chair?” and “What was I doing when I touched the curtain?” This can be done to practise one or more of Past Simple, Past Continuous and Past Perfect.
Present Perfect TPR games
Present Continuous and Present Perfect Continuous mimes
This is a really good way of showing what tenses with continuous aspect have in common and so helps make the meaning of Present Perfect Continuous clear. Students start by guessing what is being done with sentences like “You are hopping” and then say how long that thing took to guess with sentences like “You have been hopping for thirty seconds”. Make sure that the students carry on doing that thing until the correct second sentence is said, so that Present Perfect Continuous is the right tense to describe the action.
Present Perfect Simple and Present Perfect Continuous mimes
Students mime “I’ve been running”, “I have washed two windows”, “I’ve been washing two windows”, etc, making sure that they stop that action just before people guess in order to make the grammar make sense. Silly sentences like “I’ve been washing two windows” (which would entail two sponges at the same time, with one on each window) are good for showing the differences between the tenses. For some, you could also just mime the present situation and get students to guess what that situation is and why it exists, e.g. miming leaning and panting for “You’ve been jogging” or “You’ve run a long way”. This ties in well with feelings, as in “You are feeling proud. You’ve won something”.
See above for ideas on how to contrast Past Simple and Present Perfect with mimes.
Future tenses TPR games
Going to for plans and predictions with present evidence TPR activities
Going to mimes
Students can either mime the preliminary part of the action (e.g. miming getting into the blocks for “You are going to run”) or mime actions leading up to a future plan (miming putting on really long boots for “You are going to go fishing/ You are going fishing”).
Going to can also be linked in with vocabulary, functional language or cultural training, as is suggested for Present Continuous and Past Continuous above. For example, students could do a gesture that will probably be followed by a typical phrase such as pointing one hand towards someone with the palm up to elicit “You are going to say ‘Yes, the gentleman in the corner, please go ahead’”.
Complex plans Present Continuous and going to mimes
Students guess what a person is doing with Present Continuous and then try to guess their purpose for doing all those things, e.g. guessing “You are putting on a balaclava” and “You are zipping up your clothes” before guessing “You are going to ski”.
The same thing also works the other way around, with the person who is miming saying “I’m going to ski” as a hint and then doing preparatory actions for the other people to guess with Present Continuous.
Will and going to TPR games
Predictions physical challenge betting game
One student says something that they are planning to do, e.g. “I’m going to run to the whiteboard” or “I’m going to pick up books”. The other students guess something about their ability to do that thing, e.g. “You will take seven seconds” or “You will be able to hold twenty one books”. They could also bet a number of points on that outcome depending on how sure they are, e.g. “I think that you will only be able to do one one-handed press up. I bet seven points”. They then see what they actually manage to do and get (and maybe lose) points depending on how right their predictions were.
See modal verbs below for how to add different levels of certainty (“will probably”, “may well”, etc) to this activity.
Predicting consequences will and going to TPR game
Students approach doing an action without starting it, e.g. start bringing up their gun (made of two fingers) ready to shoot someone, making sure that they don’t start the actual action (so that it is still in the future). To contrast this with will for predictions (without present evidence), they then guess the consequences/ further actions, e.g. “You are going to shoot someone. You will probably miss”.
Will TPR games
Personal predictions mimes
Students guess an action with Present Continuous (“You are hanging up the washing”, etc) and then predict when that person will really next do that thing (“You will hang up the washing tomorrow”, “You will do that tomorrow morning”, etc), with the most precise correct prediction getting a point.
See modal verbs below for how to add different levels of certainty (“will probably”, “may well”, etc) to this activity.
Spontaneous decisions mimes
You can mime many typical sentences with will for offers etc like “(Just a moment,) I’ll be right back” and “I’ll text you”. The other possibility is to mime a situation that someone might want to help in to elicit will for spontaneous decisions sentences, e.g. miming your pen not working to get the other people to say “(Just a moment) I’ll lend you mine”.
Other TPR grammar games
Comparative and superlative TPR games
Comparative adjectives mimes
Students mime sentence like “An elephant is bigger than a mouse” (e.g. by miming an elephant with a long nose, making a big circle, and then crouching down and putting their hands on their head to be the ears of the mouse).
Comparative and superlative mimes
With use of their arms, face, etc, students mime all three of “happy, happier (than), (the) happiest”, “wide, wider (than), (the) widest”, etc. To make the meaning clearer and make sure that they don’t forget those words in freer speaking, I tend to insist on “than” with the comparative form and “the” with the superlative. For drilling, I usually get one person miming and the other students shouting out and/ or writing down the correct comparative and superlative forms. However, it is also fun to ask three students to try to be even more extreme than the other students, then get the students watching to rank which one is “uglier” and which one is “the ugliest”.
Comparative and superlative guessing then miming
One student mimes an adjective such as a feeling. The other students guess the action then do more extreme mimes and say the correct comparative and superlative forms. It also works with the first person miming the adjective and a more extreme mime to mean the comparative and the rest saying those two things and then saying and miming the superlative.
Gradable and extreme adjectives TPR games
Gradable adjectives pick and mime
Students pick and arrange cards to make sentences like “An elephant is absolutely huge” to make their partners act out (in this case purely for their own amusement, with no guessing etc needed).
Gradable and extreme adjectives mimes
Students mime sentences like “It’s fairly hot” and “It’s absolutely boiling”, trying hard to mime exactly the right level of extremity of that thing for their partner to guess exactly the sentence that they chose. To make this easier, you could get them to mime all the levels of extremity in order as their partners chant “slightly hot”, “fairly hot”, “very hot”, etc, then repeat just one of those mimes. You could also get them to mime whole realistic sentences to add context and make guessing easier, e.g. “The sea is absolutely freezing”.
Countable and uncountable nouns mimes
Students mime sentences like “You are adding/ using lots of (black) pepper” and “You are carrying one piece of luggage/ very little luggage”, with the people saying or writing the sentences making sure that they don’t make mistakes with countable and uncountable forms while doing so.
Countable and uncountable paired mimes
Students could also mime related countable and uncountable noun sentences together for their partners to say both of with the correct grammar in each, e.g. “I put on a bikini. I put on some/ lots of suntan lotion”.
Modal verb TPR games
Modals of obligation, prohibition and permission mimes
It is easy to mime “You can’t/ mustn’t/ aren’t allowed to…” by doing an action and making an X shape with your arms, shaking your head, or moving an index finger or forearm from side to side like windscreen wipers. The opposite forms “You must/ have to…” are more difficult to mime, but can be done by making a strict face and pointing forcefully, like a headmaster or PE teacher imposing 20 press ups on a naughty schoolkid. “You can… (but you don’t have to)”/ “You are allowed to…” can be shown with a shrug, thumbs up or circled forefinger and thumb, with the shrug also working for “You don’t have to…” To add more context, you can make students mime true sentences about their family, school.
Modals of obligation, prohibition and permission mimes and guessing
Students guess that individual mimes mean “You can’t run”, “You have to wear a hat”, etc, and then guess the place that they have been describing (e.g. a swimming pool).
Present Continuous and modal verb cultural differences mimes
Students identify mimes like “You are eating with your hands” and “You are ordering two things” and then try to identify where and why such things are okay, are forbidden or a good idea with sentences like “You mustn’t use that gesture in Brazil”.
Modals of possibility/ probability TPR games
You could get students to say what they are going to do and get students to bet on how likely that is with “You will probably do that”, losing or getting more points if their prediction was more certain, perhaps with this scoring system:
- will definitely (not) = 7 points
- will (not) = 6 points
- will almost certainly (not) = 5 points
- will probably (not) = 4 points
- might well/ may well = 3 points
- may/ might = 2 points
- could possibly = 1 points
You could also get them to guess an action with the usual Present Continuous sentence (“You are smoking”) and then predict how likely that person is to do that thing in the next 24 hours (“You almost certainly won’t smoke in the next 24 hours”), with points for the level of prediction that person who did the action thinks is more realistic.
Can and can’t TPR activities
Can and can’t mimes
A much more common use of mimes to teach modals is with “You can swim” and “You can’t swim” for abilities, with the negative ones shown by attempting to do that thing but failing, e.g. sinking to the bottom of the pool or splashing around randomly.
Can and can’t actions bidding
The teacher or a student ask a question about level of ability like “How many erasers can you balance on your head?” and students outbid each other in exchanges like “I can balance two erasers on my head” and “I can balance four”. The person with the most ambitious bid then tries to do it, and gets or loses points depending on how successful they are. You could also let other students bet on if they can or not before they attempt it.
Can and can’t extreme actions miming game
This is the same as the Present Continuous extreme miming game above, but this time with students saying and acting out “I can wash three windows at the same time”, “I can wash four windows at the same time”, “I can wash five windows at the same time”, etc, with the class voting that the four windows one is best (because the more ambitious mimes didn’t look like what they said and the lower ones weren’t so ambitious).
Can and can’t Simon Says
This is perhaps the best point of all for Simon Says, by miming and saying either “I can catch a baseball” or “I can’t catch a baseball”, with the people watching only copying the action and/ or repeating the sentence if the sentence is true of the action.
Can actions brainstorming
The teacher or one student chooses a verb or object and students say and act out as many matching sentences as they can, e.g. “I can catch a ball”, “I can sit on ball” and “I can hold a ball under my arm” for “ball”. To add the negative, you can ask students to challenge each other when they say things which aren’t possible with exchanges like “I can eat a ball” “You can’t eat a ball”.
Can you… challenges
Students ask each other “Can you…?” questions. The person answering gets only one point for saying “No, I can’t” and no points if they say “Yes, I can” but can’t do that thing, but five points if they say “Yes, I can” and then really do it.
Imperative TPR games
The mimes for obligation and prohibition above (wagging finger, crossed arms, etc) can also be used for orders/ commands like “Stand up”, “Don’t sit down”, etc. This can be good for teaching good and bad classroom actions like “Listen to the CD” and “Don’t push”, therefore hopefully improving behaviour while teaching useful language.
Perhaps the most common everyday use of imperative is to give directions such as “Turn right and right again” and “Go back two steps”. Students can follow the instructions or guess the action in the usual ways, or follow the instructions until they guess where they are going.
Left and right actions
To prepare for more detailed directions work later, students follow or identify actions like “Put your right hand up”, “Touch your right eye” and “Hop on your right foot”.
Imperative act and guess
Students follow instructions like “Push the button” and “Turn it over”, interacting with an imaginary object, until they guess what they are supposed to be doing all those actions with.
Imperative pick and act
Students pick and arrange cards to make sentences like “Don’t pick your nose” and “Stand on one leg” for their partner to act out, with “Don’t…” meaning that they should very nearly do the action but then stop. The same thing could also be done with just a list of sentences to choose from.
There is/ There are mimes
Students can mime “There are three boxes” by pretending to stack those three boxes, “There are three knives and three forks” by miming eating a complex meal, etc. I would ban holding up fingers to show the number that they mean, as that takes away the meaning from the actual mime and makes the activity too easy.
Phrasal verb mimes
To add the actual grammar of phrasal verbs you could get students miming ones with objects like “I’m winding him up”. To make the game easier and the language more memorable, I would tell them to do the idiomatic meaning first and then the literal meaning of the verb and particle (together and/ or apart).
Students mime “two toothbrushes”, “a motorbike”, etc, perhaps from a worksheet containing tricky plurals like “mouse/ mice”.