Word Chunk Team Game

With kids predictably squirrelly this coming week, here is a game that, if you have a good word wall up, is fun and eats up minutes (which is more important than trying to force CI), but the description is kind of long:
Word Chunk Team Game (WCT):
It would be nice for teachers if communication via language could be done via single words only; their jobs would be much simpler. Unfortunately that is not the case. Languages require that words be grouped together in order for communication to occur.
So we definitely want to learn the art of grouping words together in chunks in our early year comprehension based instructional strategies. Doing this offers students a more robust version of language instead of mere word lists, which is what textbooks provide. Word chunking thus paves the way for more complex language in the future, eventually leading to stories and strong passing rates on exams like the AP.
In this activity, word chunking has been made into a game. It is used in exploratory classes and at the beginning of the year in regular classes, usually on Fridays as a reward for good efforts at listening (which is very rigorous), or any time a break in routine is needed.
The Word Chunk Team Activity makes use of the word walls. It builds a sense of play, builds group trust and group identities, and motivates the kids to listen for meaning.
Here is the process:
1. After teaching, gesturing, and working individually with the words on the Word Wall for some weeks, you put the kids into groups and ask them to come up with a silly group name, plus a gesture and/or sound to go with that name.
2. Then, referring to the Word Wall, make up bizarre little combinations (chunks) of words from the Word Wall, keeping those chunks really simple at first. For example, you look at the Word Wall and see the word “hand” and you also notice the word “yell”. Both words have already been presented in the Word Association activity prior to doing this activity. Putting the two words together, you say, “The hand yells!” in L2. It doesn’t have to make sense, and is better if it doesn’t, because it teaches the students to pay greater attention. So make the images bizarre.
3. Each group then tries to translate what they heard by consulting with each other, working together to come up with the correct translation.
4. You call on the first group to raise their hand. Once recognized, they must first do their group sign in totally synchronized fashion before answering. If they are successful, they get to answer the question. Then they give you the answer in English and, if correct, that group gets six attempts at a basket (in under one minute) or six attempts at hitting a circle on the board with a paper ball, or something like that. Basketball is best, because they all want to shoot for points and show off for their classmates.
5. Their group name and sign is a big part of this process. When I call on them they have to make their group sign in perfect synchronization between all group members. If they can’t do that, they don’t get the question. I know that sounds over the top, but if you see it in action you can see what this sign synchronization detail does for the game.
This activity does all sorts of things for class chemistry. It is fun, highly personalized, the time goes by quickly, there is lots of laughter, and there is a tremendous level of auditory focus on L2, with readily apparent auditory gains early on in the year, setting the stage for successful stories later in the year.
For example, the group that has decided that it wants to be known as the “Conquistadores”, when I say something like “the house is not red” (house and red having already been taught in class from the wall) each group member jumps up and, exactly at the same moment, claps and yells “Olé!” together. That is their group sign. All have to do it. If it isn’t perfect, the class bemoans them for their slackness, and other groups vie for the question by putting their hands in the air.
Eventually, a group answers two questions correctly, and so they earn a group trip to “the line” at the basketball hoop, to take three shots for every correct answer they have provided, or six shots. Of course, the kids take the scoring very seriously, as you have told them that it is for extra credit. (That is where we have arrived in education – some kids won’t even play a game unless it is for extra credit!)
Of course, I rarely put anything in the grade book to reflect points made during the game, because I don’t want to and because they normally forget that they even earned those points when class is over.
In the rare case that kids come up at the end of class or at the end of the grading period wanting their extra credit, I throw a few points into the book for their group members and move on with my day. I tell them that the onus of remembering how many points they have is on them and that they have to come to me with their extra credit requests. Most just walk out of the classroom at the end of the period and forget all about it.
Chunking words in this way sets up an early capacity to focus on meaning and not individual words, which process, as stated, must occur if acquisition is to occur.
You should see the level of involvement. The kids are simply aware of playing a game, but they are doing some serious, in fact rigorous auditory decoding of sound chunks in the first weeks of the year. This work is preparing them in excellent fashion for stories.
I once wrote a response to a question on this Word Chunk Activity from a colleague who asked about sourpusses – how to get them involved in the game. I include part of it here:
“Whenever the team has to synchronize their team sign, little Joyless Johnny, bless his heart, is put on the spot by the rest of the group to participate. Even if his mind is clearly not going to participate, he must do the sign, or face the wrath of the group. The synchronized sign keeps the sourpusses in the game.”
But, if there is a real sourpuss, or someone who can’t work well in a group, I just bring them to stand next to me to judge the synchronicity reactions of the teams. That student sits on a stool – one of the two stools in my classroom for actors in stories – and is given this job and with it a bit of power and he decides for me which group had their hand up first. This one job brings distant kids into the class process in marvelous ways.
There are three such jobs – one kid tells me which group had their hand up first, another tells me if the group did their sign in perfectly synchronized fashion, and the third keeps score on the board. Working with these three normally ill-behaved kids in this way breaks down walls between the teacher and the instructor and builds trust.
When joyless students have a job that I need them for, our relationships change. This is what I want. My goal as a teacher is to always find a way to bring every single student in the room into some kind of participatory role with me. I also authentically need these judges to see which group got their hand up first and if the synchronicity was there.
This asking of kids to judge the action also works for native speakers. I put the native speaker in front of the room with me and they pick out which group was first. They also help me by making up questions. They just look at the Word Wall and make up questions just like I do and they alternate with me in directing the action.
The native speakers really get into making up Word Chunk questions and being judges in choosing the first group to get their hand up and, really, doing everything the teacher is doing, which is what native speakers should be doing in classrooms that they shouldn’t, in the first place, even be in.
Even though English creeps into this game, I highly recommend it as a powerful tool for CI and for team building. It works best in seventh grade exploratory classes, whose (usually six to twelve week classes) are too short to get stories going, but eighth graders also like to play it every day and when I say no they see sometimes view it as a form of punishment!
When we are further into the year, I still allow my classes fifteen minutes or more of this game at the end of the week as a reward for good storytelling work. But if a really fast processing kid fails to work with her group and dominates so that she is the only one answering questions, we just don’t play.
By the way, this activity, along with dictation, also serves to keep the kids focused at the end of the year when many kids and teachers have checked out already.
Every once in a while, as a bail out move, when you arrive at one of those moments in teaching when you just don’t know what to do, you can create word chunks to reinforce vocabulary without actually getting into all the details of the Word Chunk Team game.
Just point the laser pointer at one of the columns of words on the Word Wall. First just go down the list with the kids chorally translating. Then make up a few outlandish chunks and have them translate. It’s just another bail out move possibility – others are discussed below.
Of course, instead of using the word wall, you can use vocabulary chunks from a recent story or reading, or anything really, as long as you are keeping all your questions in bounds to known vocabulary. But the kids do best when they can hear the question and see the word wall.

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