Friday, March 14, 2014

Numbered Heads: Moving Forward

Numbered Heads is a game I learned really early on in my teaching career that I've done a lot of over the years.  It's a fun game and I think it definitely has some pros, but lately I've been trying to work around and I think I might have a solution.

How it Works
I did my student teaching with a French teacher who used the game Numbered Heads as a review activity.  Her classes would always play it the day before a quiz and they really seemed to like it.  

Basically, the game is a translation game that's pretty simple to run.  Students are divided into groups of 4-6.  Students divide out the numbers so that each group member has a different one (i.e. one student is number 1, another is 2, etc).  

Each student needs a piece of paper.  The teacher gives the students a sentence to translate.  Obviously there is usually a vocabulary or grammar structure that is being focused on (example: if we're learning about stem-changing verbs, there will be a stem-changing verb in each sentence).  

I usually have students work individually for about 30 seconds as they try to translate this sentence.  Then I let them work with their group to refine their answers.  But no matter what, each student needs to have a copy of the sentence on THEIR OWN piece of paper.

When time is up, I randomly call one of the numbers.  I like to have groups of six so that I can use a di to call the numbers.  The student from each group with that number runs to the board and writes their group's translation.  Each group has a team name that's on the board - this way groups always know where to write and there's no fighting for space.

After all the sentences are up, I go through and award points for accuracy.  I give up to 3 points for a completely (or MOSTLY) accurate sentence.  If there are verb, case, gender, word order, etc. errors, groups won't get as many points.  The more errors, the fewer points they earn.  

I also award a "bonus point" to the first team to get everything correct (so it's possible for 4 points to be awarded).

The Problem
My mentor teacher was very "old school" in her approach to teaching.  She was very effective, but newer trends like immersion weren't really something she employed.  So the idea of doing a strictly translation based game was actually a lot of fun to her.  For me, not so much.

Don't get me wrong - I'm the type of nerd who thinks translating is fun - but it never really felt like a "best practice."  We're not supposed to be teaching language like this anymore, right?  It's supposed to be immersion, we're not supposed to have English, we're not supposed to be trying to get kids to think of the language as "this word = this word" type of thing.  I've weeded out translation from my lessons and teaching in so many areas... but it still survives through this game - a game I like and that the students enjoy - and it drives me crazy.  

Granted, I also teach Latin and I think it's a great game for what students need to be able to do in Latin.  It's highly unlikely that they will be conversing in the language.  In most situations, they will be translating to or from Latin, and as they get further in their studies it will be more and more translation from Latin.  While the ideal is for students to be able to sight-read everything, this I think is an activity that moves them in the right direction.  

For French and German, it really doesn't make sense to me to use this game the way I learned it while student teaching.  I admit it - my students continue to play it, especially in Level 1, but it's something that bothers me.  

The Solution (?)
I think I've finally found a way to fix my issue with this game.  Today my German 2 students were reviewing for a quiz on Monday related to the Deutsche Bahn and rail-travel in general.  I had some Numbered Head sentences ready to go (Examples: "The train departs at 3:45" and "It's a one-way ticket on an express train.").  

We divided up into groups as usual, were about to start when I decided that today was it.  Today was the day I was going to fix what was wrong with the game.

I told my students that instead of giving them a sentence to translate, I would give them a situation.  This prompt would be somewhat general and as long as their sentence worked within this situation, it would count as correct.  I did warn them that the usual issues like grammar and spelling still counted, but that groups would actually end up with different sentences.  

Examples of situations:
- Ask if your train is delayed - be specific about the train
- Ask for a one-way ticket to a German city
- Tell a passenger that the train is arriving on time (be specific!)
- Tell a passenger the price of their ticket and ask how they are paying
- Tell a passenger their train number and track number
- Ask if your train (be specific!) makes any transfers

The first round was a little slow.  The students weren't sure what would and wouldn't work.  They were used to already having all the information, they didn't want to have to be creative and supply any details themselves.  But as they got a little farther, they definitely adapted and got better at giving me more details.  While the first sentence got me answers that were basically "Is my train on time?", by the end of the last prompt we got to I was getting responses like "The train is on time and will arrive in Frankfurt at 10:45."  

The students also got to see different approaches to the same "problem."  Some students used different tenses, some groups wanted more complex word order, some used more usual vocabulary.  There wasn't just one answer, there were a lot of ways to get a right answer which I think is more accurate to how language works.  There's no one way you HAVE to say or ask for things - it's about getting the idea across in a way that works for you.  

This version definitely makes me feel better about using this game.  While the prompts are in English (I don't want to provide vocabulary clues), it's not a direct translation.  I think with some work I could eliminate the need for English totally, but I'd have to do some planning ahead of time to come up with situation descriptions and images to help get the idea across.  

I'm not terribly sure if this would work with early Level 1 topics.  The vocabulary is very limited as it is that I don't know if having prompts would actually get me any variety.  It might be trickier, but it's definitely something I want to work on.  

- Frau Leonard


  1. I love this idea! Thanks so much for sharing. My level 2s are learning about health/fitness right now and I can see this fitting perfectly. I also teach German and I have really enjoyed reading a teaching blog focused on German. Vielen Dank! :)

    1. I hope this activity goes well for you - let me know if you think it works with these situational prompts!