Classroom activities for teaching opposites

Summary: Fun practice activities for adjective opposites, verbs with opposite meanings, etc.

Lessons and practice activities on opposites like “near”/ “far” and “noisy”/ “quiet” are a great way of introducing new language, checking that students really understand vocabulary, and making words and expressions memorable – all without any need for translation. This article gives some fun and useful interactive classroom games and other activities to use with all that great vocabulary. There are activities for both adults and young learners below, starting with ones which are suitable for initial presentation of the language and very controlled speaking, and moving towards freer speaking ideas. There is also another article called How to Teach Opposites with advice on how to present the language and lists of adjectives, verbs, prepositions etc with opposite meanings.  

Opposites jigsaw activities

There are two different possible jigsaw activities for opposites – putting together just the words, or putting together the words in context to make a single text such as a whole conversation (a kind of “jigsaw text” activity). 

For the individual words jigsaw activity, prepare a table with two columns and at least 15 pairs of opposites in the two columns, e.g. “outgoing”, “reliable”, “warm”, etc in the left-hand column and “shy”, “unreliable”, “cool”, etc in the right-hand column. Cut between the two columns. Cut each column into cards, but don’t cut each column into individual boxes, because then students will have no way of matching the cards unless they already knew all of the words (in which case the activity would be pretty pointless). Instead, cut each column into cards with at least two boxes in each card, e.g. “outgoing”, “reliable” and “warm” all on one card and ““shy” and “cool” together on one card. As with this example, it is best if the cards from the right column are cut in different places to the cards from the left column. Students use the matches that they know and some guesses to put the jigsaw together in a nice rectangle shape, then look at an un-cut-up version of the table to check their answers. They can then be tested more intensively on their memory of each pair of opposites.

If you choose the words carefully, this game can also be played with three or four columns by including synonyms of the words in one or both columns, e.g. “happy”, “unhappy” and “sad” in three columns. In that case, the cards can be cut in the same way as described above (column by column then into cards including at least two rows) or you can have some cards which go across the columns, e.g. “happy” and “unhappy” on one card and “sad” plus at least one more word on another. You can also make a few square cards made from two columns and two rows.  

Students putting together a whole “jigsaw text” is a better known TEFL activity. To do this for opposites, first you need to find or make a conversation, phone conversation or email exchange with a large number of opposites pairs. Any of the situations suggested for roleplays below are possible for this, e.g. a complaint about something that wasn’t as expected, a disagreement, varying memories of something that happened a long time ago, or telling off of someone who didn’t follow instructions.  

Cut the conversation into at least five bits and ask students to use clues such as the topics, question and answer pairs, reactions to things that are said and opposites to put the text back together in the right order. You need to make sure the task is possible but not too easy, for example by including just the right number of clues like repeated words and reference words. It can be a good idea to cut the dialogue between pairs of opposites so that students start thinking about that key language straightaway. However, as with the individual words jigsaw you’ll need to make sure that the text can still be put back together even if students don’t know all the opposites, for example by providing other hints such as synonyms of some other words.


Opposites dominoes

Unlike the traditional game of dominoes, I tend to make a pack of dominoes where each card only matches with one other card on the right and only one other card on the left. I then ask students to work together to put all the dominoes into a big circle on the table. This makes it similar to the jigsaw games above, and so again you need to provide some kind of help so they aren’t just “practising” words and matches that they already know. For example, you could provide sentences like “a fire is hot” on the right of one domino and “an ice cream is cold” on the left of another domino to match, or students could match opposites of longer phrases with more context such as functional language like “I’m afraid he’s not here at the moment” and “Of course. Please hold the line”. Dominoes doesn’t work with just pairs of words like “long” and “short”.


Opposites reversi

Make packs of cards with opposites on either side, e.g. “boring” on one side and “interesting” on the other. Students spread the cards across the table and take turns trying to guess what is on the other side of the cards until they make a mistake, at which point it is their partner’s turn to try and do the same thing. In order to aid memory, the same cards can be used many times over the length of the game. It’s important to tell them to leave any correctly guessed cards turned over so that they also have to do the transformations the other way round (e.g. going from “stressed” to “relaxed” after going from “relaxed” to “stressed” last time). If you make cards with different colours on each side you can get them to play something like the board game Othello. Alternatively, they can choose any cards that they want to guess the other side of, in which case the winner can be either the person who has the longest string of correct guesses without making a mistake during the game (e.g. 12 cards in a row before they guess wrongly), or the person who has the most correct guesses added together from the whole game (e.g. 35 correct guesses in total).


Opposites ranking

Getting students to rank adjectives etc, e.g. the best character traits for a manager, is a fairly common TEFL activity. It also works well with opposites. If students aren’t (very) familiar with the opposites, you can give them a worksheet with all the words in opposites pairs and ask them to choose a top 5 and bottom 5 from any of the words that are there, e.g. things that make the best and worst holiday. When they finish that ranking activity, test them on their memory of the opposites that they just saw and used.

With students who have already had presentation and some practice of opposites, you can do the same thing but giving only half of the words (without their opposites) and allowing them to also use other use words not there such as opposites in the ranking exercise. If you want to push them to use more opposites, you could give points for words which are not on the list and that other groups agree match the question.


Synonyms and opposites simplest responses games

Students listen to two synonyms or two antonyms and race to show if they think the words that they have just heard have the same or different meanings. Young learners can run up and down the classroom touching walls with “=” and “ßà” on them, or the same thing can be done sitting down by students pointing at those two walls, raising cards with those symbols on them, raising their right or left hand, etc.

A similar game can also be played with individual pairs of opposites such as “intelligent/ smart/ clever” and “stupid” by the teacher shouting out names of things which fit one of those two categories (e.g. “a rock” for “stupid” and “a supercomputer” and “a dolphin” for “smart”). Students run and touch, point at or raise cards to show which of those two categories they think the thing that they have just heard fits in. This brings loads of other nice vocabulary into the class, but to teach a reasonable number of adjective pairs this way you’ll need to play it quite quickly and change which adjectives you are talking about after four or five examples each time.


Opposites volleyball/ Opposites tennis

Split the class or each group into two teams. Teams take turns “serving” with words which have opposites and “returning” with the opposite. This can actually be done while throwing or bouncing a beachball back and forth, or they can just imagine it’s a ball game and do it only with words. They continue sending words and opposites back and forth between the serving and receiving sides until someone says something which doesn’t have an opposite, doesn’t say the correct opposite, pauses too long, or drops the ball (if you are using one). The winning side gets a point and the game continues in the same way. You can use the scoring and service rules of badminton, tennis, table tennis or volleyball, or you can just make up your own variation.


Opposites hangman

Even though my students love it, I’m not a huge fan of the spelling game “Hangman”. Perhaps the biggest problem is that hangman is usually just practice of a single word with no context at all. This can be partly solved by students trying to find what pair of opposites their partner has chosen (rather than guessing a single word in the usual version). For example, if a student writes up “_ _ _ _ _ _ _ – _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _” on the board, their partners can use the length of the words, their lucky guesses of the first few letters and the fact that the words must be opposites to help them until they have successfully guessed all the letters in “boiling – freezing”.


Opposites brainstorming

There are two possible uses of brainstorming to practise opposites. Perhaps the most obvious is for students to choose a category such as “electronics” or “animals” and brainstorm opposites pairs which can be used to describe that kind of thing. Alternatively, they can choose one side each of an opposites pair like “rough – smooth” and brainstorm examples of things which match their word.


Opposites guessing game

There are several ways of using guessing games to practise opposites. The simplest is for the person who chose something to give hints including opposites until their partner works out what they are speaking about. For example, they could give clues like “It is usually long. It is never short” and “It usually lives in hot places. It never lives in very cold places” for a snake. The same thing can also be done by students asking and answering Yes/ No questions like “Is it short?” “No, never. It is usually long”.

You can also do the guessing the other way round, namely guessing opposites from examples,  e.g. students guessing that their partner is thinking of “soft and hard” from hints like “A mattress and a table” and “Moss and a rock”.


Opposites drawing games

Opposites Pictionary

The simplest drawing game is for one student to draw something to represent two opposites and the other students to race to shout out the right words, e.g. shouting out “Up and down” or “North and South” if two arrows are drawn on the board or some scrap paper.

A more fun opposites Pictionary game is for students to draw things which are wrong in a way which can be described by a sentence including opposites, e.g. “The hat is under his head. The hat should be on his head” if they draw a hat in the opposite place to normal.


Spot the opposites

Prepare a picture that includes things which are opposites in some way, e.g. a long snake and a short snake, or a tall building and a low slide. Students race to find all the opposites in the picture and then draw similar pictures to challenge other groups with.

The same thing can also be done as a spot the difference picture challenge, e.g. the man in the picture on the left having a hairy head and a big mouth and the man in the picture on the right having a bald head and a small mouth.

The most amusing variation on this is for students to spot things which have been drawn the opposite way round to how they should be, e.g. that “The elephant has a short nose. Elephants have long noses” or “The elephant has a short nose. It should have a long nose”. There is a great example of this in the back cover of the picture book Fast Slow High Low by Peter Spier.


Opposites TPR games

The Opposites Simplest Responses game above is a good physical warmer if you play the running around version. As long as you choose the words carefully, you can also get students to act out “Left and right”, “Long and short”, “Wide and narrow” etc for their partners to guess and shout out. Alternatively, you can do action chains where the next student mimes and says all the opposites pairs so far and then adds one more pair of mimes and words, leading to chains like “Hot and cold” (miming fanning themselves and shivering), “Hot and cold. Big and little” (with the same mimes then arms stretched out then held close together), “Hot and cold. Big and little. Happy and sad”, etc.


Opposites memory chains

This is similar to the action chains above but without the actions. The most similar version is for students to just repeat the opposites said so far and add one more. For instance, one person says “I was told it was luxurious but it was actually really basic” and the next person repeats that and then says “I was told the bar was cheap but actually it was really expensive”.

You can make the activity more challenging by students having to remember what was said but then say the opposite. In pairs, students take turns building up a story or description, each time saying the complete opposite of what their partner said and then adding one more step. For example, if their partner says “My car is fast”, they have to say “My car is slow and…” plus something like “old”, to which their partner replies “My car is fast, new and beautiful” etc. All words used must be ones which have opposites and match the thing being talked about it. They continue as long as they can or until someone makes a mistake such as saying a word which doesn’t have an opposite. Other suitable topics include new products, people, and places.


Finding opposites challenge

Students try to think of the best examples they can for strange things like “The opposite of this city” and “The opposite of an Oscar winner”. They get one point for each reason they can give why it is opposite, e.g. two points for “My hometown is boring but this city is really stimulating and my hometown is near the sea but this city is far from the sea” for “the opposite of this city”.


Opposites personalised pairwork

Students work in pairs to find as many things as possible that are the opposite between them, e.g. that one of them has straight hair and the other has curly hair. When they run out of ideas you can extend it to things that are opposite between their friends, relations, homes, hometowns, holidays, etc. Students will probably need a list of such topics and/ or suggested opposites to help them.


Opposites bluffing game

Students make a true or imaginary sentence including opposites such as “I expected the weather in Turkey to be hot all year but actually it was really cold in winter”, “People told me being a postman would be stressful but in fact it was fairly relaxing” or “My hotel in Florence was terrible. The shower was cold but inside the fridge was warm”. Perhaps after asking questions to find out more details, their partners try to guess if the sentence was true or not.


Opposites personal opinions speaking

Students try to match words to different opposites that they are given. This can be done in two different ways: trying to agree on things which match both sides of the opposites pair (e.g. both agreeing that pandas are cute and hippos are ugly), or trying to find something that they have completely opposite opinions of (e.g. that one of them thinks hippos are ugly and the other thinks hippos are cute). To do this you’ll need to provide them with lots of adjective pairs that it is possible to have opinions about. For example, it is difficult to have an opinion about “hot – cold” and “big – little”, but possible with “too big” or “not big enough”. They will also probably need a list of suitable topics.


Opposites roleplays

Opposites duelling roleplays

Students take turns boasting about their own possessions/ romantic partners/ skills etc and saying bad things about their partner’s, using with opposites pairs each time. For example, one exchange could be “My house is huge and your house is tiny” “That’s true, but my wife is beautiful and yours is ugly”. Each sentence must have opposites, different opposites to all previous turns and a different topic to all the previous sentences. However, if they can think of another opposite for a word that has already been used, they can reuse that word again together with the different opposite. They continue the game as long as they can or until someone repeats something that has already been said.

Something similar can also be done with disappointing experiences, taking turns saying how their holiday, summer job etc wasn’t what they had every reason to expect, trying to outdo each other with how disappointing each thing was.


All the wrong way round roleplays

One student criticises the other student for everything they have done (while decorating the kitchen, doing the weekly supermarket shop, running their company, etc), saying that everything is the opposite of how they were told to do it or the opposite of how it should be.


What a swell party it was roleplays

Two students reminisce about an experience or conversation that they shared, but remember everything (the weather, the other person’s opinions, etc) as the opposite of what the other person says.


Not ideal shopping roleplays

Students have to buy or book something together but start with opposite ideas about the characteristics which would be best, e.g. that one wants a rather expensive multi-function hard disk recorder but the other wants a cheap and simple DVD player.


The opposite of good complaining roleplays

One student complains that their meal, hen night, etc was the opposite of what they were promised and/ or what it should have been. The other person claims to have promised the opposite of what the customer is claiming they were promised (i.e. that what happened was what they were told would happen) and/ or that what it was like is perfectly acceptable.


Opposites stories/ picture books

Opposites is very common topic of picture books both for native speakers and EFL learners. Activities you can do with them include getting students to:

-       Guess what the opposite will be and then pull a tab, open a flap or turn a page to check (e.g. with Opposites by Robert Crowther or Are Elephants Tiny?)

-       Act out the opposites (Me Myself from Apricot Books or the Robert Crowther book again)

-       Make as many sentences as they can with the adjectives and/ or the objects with those characteristics that they can see on that page (e.g. with Fast Slow High Low by Peter Spier)

-       Brainstorm things which match the opposites in the book (e.g. with Quiet Loud, Yummy Yucky, or Big Little by Leslie Patricelli).


There are also lots of stories where everything is wrong, usually set in a different country, in a different world, or in a dream, such as the Mr Men book Mr Silly. Although the things which are strange are not usually actual opposites, after reading you can get students to make up similar stories with the target language in. The benefit of such stories is that they provide the most difficult thing to come up with, which is a plot with a proper beginning, middle or end – something EFL books often lack. With my own attempt, I made a story where the world is full of stranger and stranger opposites each time a boy wakes up but he gets so used to it that is seems strange when everything goes back to normal in the last few pages. Another nice structure is in the book Is it Dark? Is it Light? in which more and more hints are given with the structure “Is it square? No, it’s round” until students can work out what is being talked about (in this case the moon).


Opposites songs

There are far fewer songs with opposites than there are picture books, which is surprising given how many possible pairs of actions with opposite meanings you can use to accompany such songs. One nice action song that exploits that TPR possibility is Open Them Shut Them, which is on the website and YouTube page of those reliable lifesavers of EFL teachers everywhere, SuperSimpleLearning. It’s really easy for the teacher and/ or students to then make up and act out extra verses with other opposites like “standing/ sitting” and “coming/ going”. 

There are some other songs which have less obvious actions, such as Opposites Opposites (Like Different is to Same) and the Sesame Street opposites song. A possible activity with such songs is to pause just before each opposite is sung and ask students to guess what is coming, then listen to check. They can then sing along and/ or make up their own verses.


Opposites poems

As much as I would have loved to make up my own opposites song in the way that I did an opposites story, I’m afraid I don’t have the musical ability (as anyone who has had the misfortune to come with me to karaoke could tell you). However, I did manage to come up with a variation on my story that should work for songs and poems, namely verses where all the things are the right way round or all the wrong way round, with the students guessing which one is being described in each verse. For example, if they read or hear “The moles go up and the planes do down./ The coins are square and the notes are round.” they can guess “It’s all the wrong way round.” before they hear precisely that in the last line of the verse.

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Written by Alex Case for

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