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10 CI Activities for when you just can't

February 1, 2016

Do you ever just need a day? You look at your lesson plans and think, “I…just…can’t”?

A few days ago, I had a day. I got some news that knocked me out emotionally, and since I was 39 1/2 weeks pregnant (now 40 weeks pregnant...come on girl!....)…I just needed a day. I’m not teaching, but I had my three boys and my niece and I just couldn't. Emotionally, mentally, physically...I didn't have the energy to put on the mom show.

Recently, one of my friends shared this link on my timeline. It’s a list of activities that moms can do with their kids in order to—my words—be a good mom even when we feel like poo. And you know what? Teachers need activities like that too. Activities that allow us to be good teachers even when we're having a bad day.

I have often spoken with teachers that are hesitant to jump into TPRS® because it seems exhausting. And, quite frankly, for many people it is. It is true that there are many different TPRS® personality types—walk into the classroom of Michele Whaley or Grant Boulanger or Bryce Hedstrom and you’ll feel like you’re meditating—but it seems that most teachers expend a lot of energy during storyasking. When your [mental, physical, emotional] health is poor, asking a story is completely unappealing. And certainly TPRS® is not the only way to provide quality comprehensible input to your students; it's just that it's the first one that most CI teachers learn--I would say--necessary to practice almost exclusively for a time in order to develop the skills that make all other CI methods successful. In order to know what we can substitute for TPRS® on our off days, let's first ask this question: What makes TPRS® a successful instructional method?

  • Comprehensible input
  • Personalization
  • Repetition
  • Accurate input

I'm sure that I could come up with more qualities if I thought about it longer, but I think that these four form a good base. As we look for alternatives to TPRS®, let's keep these four qualities in mind. The most difficult one to replicate is personalization, and I think that you will find that going too long without a day or two of TPRS® or pure PQA will lead to a class of disinterested students. So as you pass through seasons of exhaustion, illness, sorrow, etc., try to store up the little energy that you have for a weekly or bi-weekly day of very teacher-centric input (like TPRS®). Doing so will generate personalized content that you can then use to 'coast' until your energy bank is refilled.

So, without further ado...

Write, Draw, Pass

In order to guarantee accurate input, the best way to play Write, Draw, Pass is by having students copy a phrase or sentence from a text. In order to maximize personalization, however, it is best to have students write original sentences in the top frame. (You can check students’ sentences before game play begins in order to make sure that they are accurate, if that is a significant concern for you.) If your goal for the lesson is to provide repetitions of a specific target structure or set of target structures, you can require that students include one or more structures from a list when they write their statement. Otherwise, you can leave it wide open and let students write anything they want. Once the game is over, the real input begins! Sit yourself down at the front of the room with a document projector (get one if you don’t have one—it’s worth the investment!) and laugh along with your students as you reveal the evolution of each story. If you need a day or two more of low-energy-required lessons, click here to read about some extensions that you can do with Write, Draw, Pass.

Games with narration

Mafia or I’m going on a trip or Important Numbers - Each of these games requires you to narrate, so they aren’t good choices for days that your voice is done. They require little creativity on your part, though, so the mental energy that you need to expend is very low. You can be sitting down at the front of the room or in a circle with students, so as long as you have a good classroom management system in place, these are not physically taxing games. “I’m going on a trip” allows you to target specific structures, so you make it ‘gel’ with almost any unit, but Mafia and Important Numbers are better as filler activities to provide general comprehensible input.

Mad Libs

Essentially, a Mad Libs story is a TPRS® story script. Some aspects of the story are pre-determined, but details are determined by the students. For this reason, Mad Libs is a great alternative to TPRS®. Simply write a story frame (see my scripts here) and have students fill in the details. Then review the completed stories with your students—from a seated position :) You can type out the stories on a projector as you read them, which allows you to correct any errors before the rest of the class sees them, or you could use your handy dandy document camera.


You can’t do them every day, but goodness it is nice to have several options for websites that allow you to just have a day to yourself. I remember one day during my second pregnancy when my SI joint locked up and I could not walk/sit/stand/turn without experiencing excruciating pain. I wheeled out the laptop cart and set my students up on Grow Story Grow for the day. My three favorite CI website options are,, and


Stations are a great way to take the pressure off of you and to break up the monotony of standard class structure. They are especially wonderful if you have teach on the block! My school used to run a block schedule two days per week, and I often planned stations for that day. In my classes of 35 students, I liked to have at least five different stations. If you teach shorter class periods, one set of stations can easily cover two class periods!

Depending on your classroom management, you might be able to participate in one specific station while students manage themselves at the other stations, or you might have to leave yourself available to circulate through the room and monitor activity at all stations. Either way, you don’t have to do much talking or try to be creative and excited when really you just feel like sleeping.

Learn all the ins and outs of successful station-ing in this post!

Teach content

Find something interesting to teach about, and do it. Current event summaries and authentic resources like commercials, videos, infographs, and images make for excellent foundations for your lesson plans. It might take some time to plan how to make the content comprehensible to your students, but content-based lessons will rarely require much energy from you in class.


No matter how you play (BINGO with free write  or Sentence BINGO or Strip BINGO), BINGO is fun for your students and easy for you.

Jigsaw puzzle - These don’t take too long to put together — just write out 17 sentences and scramble them — and they will keep most of your students busy for an entire class period. Logic Puzzles and Wordoku puzzles are also good options, but they don’t usually take as long to complete.

Situational discussions

These activities take a significant amount of preparation, but they are great on days when you are not feeling your best. Basically, you describe a scenario to students or show them a picture and then have them respond to a question about the scenario or picture. One example is the “Became” slideshow that I used when teaching El Nuevo Houdini: students look at a picture and read a question prompt about the image, and then they respond to that question. To provide more input and further limit output, you can describe a situation and then provide students with two answer options (à la ‘Would you Rather?”). In my unit about Los castells de Tarragona, I included a situational discussion activity in which students read a scenario and then have to decide which of two or three responses is the ‘most kind’. In the Teacher’s Guide for Brandon Brown versus Yucatán, I included one in which students read about a surprising situation and then have to choose in which one of two possible ways they would most likely to respond to it. You can project each scenario/image for the class and lead the class in discussion, or you could print them out and post them around the room for students to circulate and consider before bringing everyone back together for class discussion.

Chain Reaction Interview

You can play the standard version of this game, but I especially love the interview twist that I observed from Cara O’Brien-Holen a few years ago. The stages of the activity will fill an entire class period, and little energy is required from the teacher. I have created Chain Reaction activities for class stories and Movie Talks, and I especially love using them for content (as I did when teaching about Carrie the Dancing Merengue Dog, the origins of the word Gringo, and Biblioburro, to name a few).

Still more options? Click here to read a list of tasks that you can assign students to complete with a reading.

What else? What CI activities would YOU add to this list?

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