As well as being one of the most popular and useful topics with Technical English/ English for Engineering classes, inventions can be a great way of introducing topics like passives, describing objects (useful for BULATS and IELTS), giving presentations, etc. It is also introduced in many textbooks, including IELTS and General English ones, and can be narrowed down further (gardening inventions, OA inventions, etc) for very specialised ESP courses. This article gives many different ways of exploiting this topic.
Kinds of inventions that you could cover include:
- Recent inventions
- Top inventions (e.g. of the year, decade, or century)
- Inventions that are becoming obsolete
- Recently disappeared inventions
- Long disappeared inventions
- Unsuccessful inventions
- Science fiction inventions that became (more or less) fact
- Science fiction inventions that haven’t become fact (yet)
- Science fiction inventions that will probably never become fact
- Gruesome inventions, e.g. for surgery, torture or execution
- Accidental inventions
- Inventions that everyone dismissed as silly but later became successful
- Inventions which were really pushed but quickly disappeared or failed
- Failed inventions
- Spoof inventions, e.g. chindogu (Japanese “unuseless inventions”)
- Crazy inventions
- Dangerous inventions
- Pointless inventions, e.g. to solve problems that are completely trivial
You can also divide them by what area of life they affect, e.g.
- Arts and media/ Entertainment
- Connected to human appearance, e.g. plastic surgery or make up
- Crime fighting and detection
- Health and fitness
- Transport and travel
- War and fighting
- Work, e.g. office work
- Green technology
- Food and drink
Things that students could talk about, listen to or read about inventions include:
- Advantages and disadvantages
- How it works
- Physical appearance
- Story of its invention
- What it replaced and/ or will be replaced by
- How it is/ was/ will be better than what went before
- How they are/ were controlled, e.g. people walking with red flags in front of the first cars
- People’s reactions to them
- Predictions, including completely wrong ones
- Which country they came from
The inventors themselves are also a popular topic, perhaps even more than the things they invented. You could look at:
- Eccentric inventors
- Inventors who failed many times then finally became successful
- Inventors of many things
- Very young inventors
- Inventors who never lived to see their product(s) become successful
- People who were doing other jobs when they invented things
- The similarities between great inventors and their upbringings
- Whether education can be designed to produce more inventors
Another approach is to try to link inventions to the grammar point in the book, for example:
- Passives (“It was invented by…”)
- Past Continuous (“He was trying to invent something else when…”)
- Third conditional (“If the plane hadn’t been invented,…”)
- Zero conditional (“If you press this handle,…”)
- Modals (“It might be a way of making parking easier”)
- Predictions (“It will probably disappear in the next ten years”)
- Used to (“Before the tractor, people used to…”)
The same can be done for functions, e.g.
- Persuading (e.g. to try a new medical procedure)
EFL activities on the topic of inventions
Below is a selection of activities more or less in the order above, following a more general guide to useful activities for this topic.
General activities for the topic of inventions
Make your own inventions
The most fun and speaking-intensive way of tackling inventions is for students to make up their own in pairs or small groups and then present them to the class or try to sell them to their partner (see below for details of those later stages). You can add language and help give them ideas by giving them:
- a list of objects that they can combine the functions of
- objects that they should invent replacements for
- actions that they could make their invention do
- problems in modern life that need to be solved
- objects that it should interact with (e.g. “apples” or “tables”)
- words they could use to describe their invention (materials, shape, types of power, actions, positive adjectives, etc)
They could also brainstorm those things instead of or as well as using ones you have given them.
Sell the invention
Either with their own inventions or ones they have been given (pictures and/ or descriptions), students roleplay trying to sell them to each other. This can be made more involved and fun by giving them roleplay cards such as “You are very conservative and don’t like anything new”, “The last thing that this sales representative sold to you was quickly discontinued” and “Price is the most important thing to you”.
Students can also go further by designing posters, TV ads etc to help sell their inventions.
As in real life, presenting inventions makes a lot of sense. This can be their own inventions, real inventions (including from the past or near future), or science fiction inventions. People listening can ask questions, argue that it won’t be a good idea or work, or just vote at the end on who has the best idea (apart from their own).
Guess the invention
Students read or listen to descriptions, perhaps from their classmate or teacher, and guess what invention is being talked about.
Guess the invention and check
Inventions is perhaps the best of all topics to do the TEFL classic of guessing things from the photo and then reading to check. This works best with very old inventions, prototypes of things coming up or inventions in science fiction that don’t exist yet.
Inventions for and against
It can be quite amusing and a good test of their argumentative powers to get students to argue that inventions have made or are likely to make life worse, e.g. that the computer has made working life more intolerable. It is also possible to find articles and blog posts on this topic by searching the internet for topics such as “How mobile phones have made life worse”.
Inventions roleplay debates
It’s quite difficult to come up with opinions on inventions, so to make debates work it is generally a good idea to give them roles like “You distrust all technology” and “You work for the health and safety inspectorate”.
Alternative stories about inventions
There are quite a few inventions where there are alternative stories about who invented it or how it was invented, for example because it was a long time ago, because several countries have their own local inventors who could have done it, because several people were working on it at the same time, or because the inventor has tried to make their story more interesting. You can find such stories with search terms such as “Who really invented…?” and “Myths about…” Students could read alternative stories, decide who they believe and then read an unbiased analysis such as Wikipedia to see what the consensus is on that. They could then have roleplay conversations where they both claim to have invented the same thing.
Bluff is a TEFL classic where students give a mix of true and false information and the people listening try to work out which is which. With inventions they could:
- Be given one true story of an invention and the names of two more inventions and be asked to make up the other two
- Be given a real invention that will be released in the next couple of years and two things that are just from science fiction and make up stories for the sci-fi ones
- Be given an inventor’s life story and be asked to add two false pieces of information, for example inventions that the person didn’t really come up with
Guess the year from the invention
Students are given a list of years and past and/ or future inventions and must describe what inventions they imagine were used or will be used in one of the years until their partner guesses the year that they are talking about. They can then discuss whether that description is likely to be true.
Decide on the rules
Students decide on government controls for a future technology such as cloning or time travel.
Students put inventions into order, for example by:
- How desirable they are
- How important they are
- How suitable they are to go into a museum of inventions
- When they are likely to disappear
- How likely they would be to take them into a nuclear bunker with them
Funding for inventions and inventors
Students can decide which ideas to give research funding to and how much, which inventors to give prize money to and how much, or which inventions (e.g. health or environmentally friendly ones) people will be able to get government subsidies for.
How much would you pay?
This is similar to the two ideas above. Students discuss how much they would pay to have certain inconveniences taken out of their lives or to have certain amazing experiences, e.g. to not need to go to the toilet or to be able to fly like Superman. They could also predict how much other people would pay and pick the ones that they think people would spend most on (e.g. as a business investment), or negotiate with people about how much they have to pay for something.
Invest in inventions
As mentioned above, students could decide which inventions or technology companies to invest in. This works best if you have real sales figures or share prices from the past and include some which were successful much later than you might think.
Inventions balloon debate
This is variation on the ranking tasks above. Students choose inventions to take with them in a particular situation such as a desert island and then discuss how they will use them. This can also done with the students not knowing what the situations will be, e.g. with a board game with challenges that they must pass using the inventions that they chose as they go around it.
Inventions random pelmanism
Students choose two inventions from a list and say one way in which they are similar, e.g. “They are both expensive” or “They are both more than ten years old”. They can then cross those two things off and score a point. The game continues until all the words have been crossed off or everyone gives up. The similarities must be different each time, i.e. they can’t say “They are both electronic” more than once.
Students try to guess how things were done just before the inventions that they are given appeared, then read and check.
Activities for specific aspects of inventions
Students can predict which inventions are likely to have an impact, try to guess something about the inventions then read and check, or roleplay trying to sell them to each other.
Students can rank inventions then compare to a real list, or put inventions into different lists (e.g. the greatest 20th century inventions and the greatest Victorian inventions) then read and check.
Inventions that are becoming obsolete
Students can predict when something might entirely or almost entirely disappear, then read other people’s predictions.
Disappeared inventions/ Inventions that were really pushed but failed/ Unsuccessful inventions/ Inventions that everyone dismissed as silly but later became successful
Students could guess the reasons for the lack of success of inventions like Video Disc, then maybe match the reasons to the inventions and/ or read and check. They could also guess the inventions from the enthusiastic receptions at the time, match old and new inventions (e.g. as Random Pelmanism), or roleplay trying to sell inventions that did and didn’t become successful, reflecting on any differences between success in that activity and the success in real life.
Science fiction inventions
Students could guess which things were and weren’t predicted by science fiction, play Bluff with real and made up stories of things being predicted by science fiction, say which things which have been predicted but haven’t happened yet are most likely to become reality, decide which science fiction writer was the most impressive futurologist, or discuss whether the predictions by science fiction writers were more than chance (the thousand monkeys paradox).
Students could decide which are suitable to get little boys interested in science, or which are suitable for a science museum. If there are people who have invented bad things but done other good things in their life, they could also decide on their treatment after death, e.g. whether they should have their awards posthumously stripped from them or not
Students can match the beginning and ends of accidental inventions stories, play Bluff with real and made up accidental inventions stories, or guess which stories of accidental inventions are actually exaggerated or myths.
Students could speculate on how life would be different now if certain inventions had worked.
Spoof inventions/ Crazy inventions/ Pointless inventions
Students can guess which inventions were actually put on the market then read and check, guess the purposes of inventions from photos and check, and make up their own spoof inventions (perhaps as a bluff game with some crazy but real inventions as the others).
Students could decide on rules for the use of a dangerous invention, or decide how to treat the inventor of such a thing (e.g. whether to give them a Nobel Prize or not). They could also try to think of dangers of seemingly innocuous inventions.
The power of inventions
Students can look at real and imaginary examples of inventors having power due to exclusive control of a technology, e.g. by inventing a drug or a weapon. They can then extend that discussion into patent rights.
Arts and media/ Entertainment inventions
Students can argue the good and bad sides of inventions like TV and video games, or predict the future of TV.
Human appearance inventions
Students can predict consequences of future technologies, decide on rules for present or future inventions, or decide in which cases people will be able to get such things through the national health service.
Crime fighting and detection inventions
Many TV series and movies have good examples of these, James Bond probably being the best. Students can rank them, decide which to fund research to make them real, or decide on rules for their use. They could also match the invention to the character, film or year, or guess the function then watch or read and check.
Health and fitness inventions
Students could argue about the moral arguments and consequences of technologies that would allow us to keep fit and healthy without the need to do actual sport and exercise, e.g. scrapping school sports classes and instead strapping students up to health and fitness machines once a week. They could also discuss what to do about private companies coming up with increasingly expensive medical treatments.
Students could imagine a future world in which there is no housework that isn’t done by machines, or decide which things they wouldn’t want done automatically by their house (e.g. automatically buying healthier food, or automatically monitoring your weight).
Students could speculate on a world without manufacturing jobs, or a world with robot and computer controlled factories that can come up with their own products. They could also try to come up with controls to take away any possible bad effects.
Transport and travel inventions
Students can debate what to do about technologies like flying cars and self-driving cars, e.g. making all people use self-driving cars because of the increase in safety. They could also choose transport technologies for their own town.
War and fighting inventions
Students could decide on rules for technologies such as drones, and debate whether wars with no humans on the battlefield would be good or bad.
Students could rank technologies by how much they have improved working life or made it worse, come up with solutions to common work problems, or debate technology that helps companies monitor and control workers.
Students could come up with or choose inventions to take with them during a survival situation like a post-apocalypse world or a desert island, then see how those things could help with the challenges that the teacher gives out on cards or explains.
Agriculture/ Food and drink inventions
Students could decide on rules on GM foods and similar, decide on whether food additives are acceptable or not based on descriptions of their possible effects, or look at the advantages and disadvantages of one food technology and see what conclusion that leads them to.
Students could decide how to spend the government’s green technology budget, or debate leaving green technology entirely up to the private sector or not.
Advantages and disadvantages
Students could try to think of disadvantages of inventions that only seem to have advantages (or vice versa), take both sides of an argument and see who gives up first, or add up how many advantages and disadvantages that they can think of and see if the balance between them is the same as their original idea of if it is a good idea or not.
Students might be interested to learn just how many things have certain materials (e.g. zinc) or components (e.g. GPS) in them nowadays, e.g. by looking at “The world without rare metals”. It is also quite interesting how many competing companies, e.g. car companies and electronics companies, provide components for each other. They could roleplay deciding what to do if approached by a competitor company to use one of their components, or what to do if they are in the opposite situation. They could also try to invent things based on the limited number of components they are given, e.g. to escape a particular situation.
How inventions work
Students could guess how something works, match the descriptions to the invention, or play Bluff with similar descriptions.
Students could try to invent different shapes for present objects such as mobile phones, or invent an object in the shape of another such as a video camera that looks like a handbag.
Story of its invention
Students can match the stories to the inventions, or play Bluff (e.g. making up imaginary stories about how the Ancient Egyptians invented the zip).
Quite a lot of inventions, e.g. Post Its and many medicines, involve them not really becoming useful until someone finds an alternative use for them. Students can read the story up to just before the alternative use is found and guess the continuation (as long as they don’t already know from its present use), or guess what it was originally designed for.
What inventions replaced and/ or will be replaced by/ How inventions are be better than what went before
These naturally come up in Random Pelmanism above.
How inventions are/ were controlled
Students could match the controls to the inventions, or imagine the controls for the inventions etc, then read and check. Alternatively, they could play Bluff with real and made up controls. They can then discuss which are/ were sensible, and make up similar controls for recent or future inventions. They can also do roleplay debates.
Students could predict people’s initial reactions to inventions, match inventions and reactions etc, then read and check.
Predictions about future inventions
Lots of people are silly enough to make predictions about the future of technology, transport, etc. Students can guess what the predictions are, read and check and then discuss how accurate they are likely to be.
Which country they came from
Students can match a whole list of inventions to the country, or look at claims from different countries for who invented something. They can then discuss what makes/ made countries particularly good at producing inventions, and then how their country could be changed to produce more. Statistics on number of patents is useful for this.
The life stories of inventors are great material for lessons, perhaps explaining why this topic even gets into General English textbooks. Students can guess what invention(s) one inventor eventually came up with after reading the beginning of their life story, group together the inventions by who probably came up with them (from their vague knowledge of Edison, dates, similarities between the inventions, etc) and then read and check, or brainstorm the many difficulties the inventor had to go through before reaching their goal then read and check.
Students could also try to find similarities between the stories of inventors and then discuss how their country could produce more inventors.
Students can match up products and descriptions using passive tenses.
Many inventions can be described as happening while someone was doing something else (or even just while they were working in a particular company), making for good practice of Past Continuous. The most obvious thing to do is for students to match up sentence halves, then read and check.
Students try to imagine how life would have been different if something had never been invented, e.g. “If the plane had never been invented, there would be no EU”. They can then make a chain of consequences of that, e.g. “If there had been no EU, there would have been another European war” etc. After a fixed number of consequences, they can discuss which of those consequences is actually likely. They could also be asked to do positive and negative consequences chains with the same invention and discuss what the resulting sentences show us about how good or bad that thing has actually been.
A simpler version of above is students just predicting how life would be different now if an invention suddenly disappeared with sentences like “If we didn’t have recorded music,…” This can lead onto discussion on which of those things is on balance a good thing.
Students can guess how to operate something and read and check, describe how to operate something until their partner guesses what they are talking about, or match sentence halves.
Students can decide on rules, predict how likely things are to happen, or speculate on what must have happened.
Students could compare their own predictions to those of experts, change the certainty of predictions that they don’t agree with, or predict the consequences of recent or future inventions.
Students could guess how people did things like ironing before modern versions were invented, or play Bluff with similar stories.
Students could complain about an invention from history (e.g. about cars just after they have been invented), about the invention that another team came up (pretending that they have just bought it), or about an invention that they have just read about.
Students can negotiate research funding, the price of a future invention, how much time they have to develop something, the price for selling the patent for something, etc. This works best when they are talking about something that has already happened and so they can compare the result of their negotiation with what really happened.
Students can try and persuade:
- A patient to undergo an experimental medical procedure
- The government to approve a new invention, e.g. teleportation
- The government to ban an invention, e.g. mobile phones
- A company to give them money to develop another invention (maybe despite the failure of their previous attempts)
- The Invention of the Year award panel to give your invention or your choice the prize