• Anita Demitroff

Popcorn! Boosting Group Dynamics and Creativity in the ELT Classroom

Dee dee dee dee…dee dee dee. Hum the start of "Popcorn," a 1972 hit for Amercian instrumental band, Hot Butter, and almost everyone over a certain age recognises the tune. It’s a “pop” classic (pardon the pun) and sometimes even children know the song; but what many may not realise is that there is a party game that goes with the music that can be used in the general language or CLIL classroom, even in post-Covid conditions.

The Popcorn game can also be used as a party or camp game, where there may be mixed age groups, so that older children guide their younger friends. In the classroom, this starts to work best from seven years old onwards because, as Cris Botana, from Lestonnac Valladolid (Spain) explains, children start to work better in group initiatives from that age onwards, as they are less egocentric.

So, how do you play the game?

How it works

Learners start by moving around and dancing freestyle whilst listening to the song. Under current sanitary restrictions, this may mean moving around their chairs. We stop the song at a random point and give the students a number which indicates how many can work together in a specific round: pairs, trios or a bigger group.

In pre-Covid times, this meant that the children or teens would form random groups and it was very important for the teachers to encourage mingling so that players got used to working in different groups. Obviously, if students cannot leave the orbit of their chairs, then they turn to face those who are nearest them in the movement-restricted classroom. This is a problem-solving activity as well: how can we play and maintain distancing? How can we control noise levels and still hear each other?

Once the number per team is established in a round and the groups have been formed, the teacher explains what they have to create in those groups, like a bicycle or washing machine. The team members discuss what each person does. Each performs an action and says which part of the machine he or she is representing. One will squat, stretch his or her arms and say “I’m the box.”

The second in the group will move one arm back and forth and say “I’m the door.” The third will spin around and say “I’m the clothes.” With Covid conditions, it is challenging but not impossible to play this game, even if the players are not physically touching.

To make the instructions clear, the teacher needs to provide one or two examples using a group. She or he also needs to make the language expectations clear from the start. As with many activities, the language can be quite simple. When the groups have to present what they have come up with, each player can say “I'm the …”. This is a good way to revise components, like those on different forms of transport or animal parts. Alternatively, the language can be scaled up to explain where the component is on the object or what it does.

There is no race against the clock. Ample time is given for everyone to finish and the groups present their arrangement. Then the next round begins: we move around with the music and stop when the teacher pauses the tune. The number of players is called and the next challenge is explained.

Going even further

Where this game comes into its own is in the older CLIL, i.e., fourth of Primary and up to Secondary and Adult education, classroom. It works particularly well for processes in science, for body functions, a circuit, natural cycles, or physical representations in geography and institutional frameworks. After a few rounds, the more creative spirits will start using the objects at hand as props. The more physical will, say, stand on a chair to show that a place on a map is in the north.

With older learners, this exercise provides food for thought. Are some people more inclined to be a leader? Who comes up with creative ideas? Who is a real team player? In pre-Covid days, we would see the same classmates willing to lie on the floor to finish a tableau.

Language use

Many language teachers in CLIL settings expect their students to speak only in English when they are playing this kind of group game or doing a creative exercise. As with any game, the more firmly it is in our repertoire, the easier it will be for us as teachers to weave in routine language. However, if, at the negotiation stage, more creative solutions are being mooted, more learners are participating or content is being clarified, then the L1s make sense. In other words; the use of the L1s at certain points in the activity often increases participation and improves results for the final presentation in the L2. The means justify the end.

The benefits

In summary, by playing Popcorn, learners re-present information in a different format, they practise working in teams, they boost their creativity and they get moving, even in the Covid-conscious classroom.

Popcorn, then, may be a more nourishing snack than you might have thought!

How do you get your learners to work in groups? Let us know.

By Ana Demitroff

Bio: Ana has been in the classroom longer than she cares to admit, but she still gets a kick from the experience and continues to learn from her colleagues and students at the You First Language Centre.