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Mastering the Mingle by Hall Houston

Imagine you walk by a classroom and see this: students walking around the classroom, speaking to each other in pairs, then walking away, then forming new pairs, talking, then splitting up again… What on earth is this?

In case you have no idea, you’ve just witnessed a mingle, one of the best-known activities in ELT. The British Council – Teaching English website (in their very handy Teaching Knowledge Database) defines a mingle as “a short activity where learners walk around the classroom and talk to each other.” That’s it: movement plus interaction.

In this article, I’ll point out some of the strengths of a mingle as a language learning activity, explain the proper procedures for doing a successful mingle, describe some simple mingle activities you can use in class, and, as an extra bonus, suggest a few ways to give it a twist.

Here are a few reasons why the mingle has been such a popular activity in the ELT world:

It provides valuable speaking practice. Students are challenged to use the words and phrases they know to express themselves.

It lets students individualise their learning. Students choose who they want to talk to and (to some degree) what they want to say.

It allows students to stretch their legs. Students get tired of sitting down for most of the class period. Mingling allows them to get their bodies moving, giving them more energy for the rest of the lesson.

It helps students get closer. A mingle activity gives students numerous opportunities to interact with students they normally don’t get a chance to speak with. This can improve the group dynamics within a class.

It’s highly flexible. It can be used for many types of language practice, everything from learning names to giving out compliments to asking and answering questions.

Conducting a Successful Mingle

Before the mingle:

Make sure that you have everything you need before you start the activity. If your classroom contains a large number of tables and desks, move these to one side of the room, or even outside the classroom. If this is not feasible, consider moving to an empty room or a space outside. Plan how you will present the activity to your students. This might be particularly challenging if your students have never done one before. In this case, present these basic rules:

  • Stand up. No one sits down during a mingle
  • Walk around until you find someone to talk to
  • Speak English to do the activity
  • When you are finished, move and find another student
  • Speak in groups of 2 only
  • Move around freely. Don’t walk in line behind other students
  • Try to speak with students you don’t know
  • Talk to as many people as you can

With low-level classes, you may need to demonstrate with a student before you begin. In monolingual classes, you can provide the rules in the students’ first language.

During the mingle:

Join in the mingle yourself. This gives students a chance to get to know you, and provides them with another demonstration of the activity.

Stay alert. Look for signs that things are not going properly. Walk around and encourage students to talk to each other. If the mingle is becoming a muddle, get the students’ attention and explain again.

You can end a mingle when students’ enthusiasm starts to flag. Another option is to give them a strict time limit (8 minutes then everyone sits down). Alternatively, you can ask students to stop at a pre-determined number of interactions (talk to 7 people then stop).

After the mingle:

When the mingle is over, it’s best not to launch into another activity immediately. I recommend including a report phase and a feedback phase to give a sense of closure.

For the report phase, call on several students to tell the class something another student told him or her. You can make this more interactive by calling on one student and asking him or her to choose another student. The first student then asks the second one for something funny or interesting that he or she heard, and adds a few follow-up questions to get more information. Repeat several times.

For the feedback stage, tell the class how you think everything went, and what could have made it even better. Point out some problems you noticed, but avoid criticizing any student directly if you feel it could be embarrassing. Ask students what they thought of the mingle and if they’d like to do it again.

Mingle Activities

Find Someone Who

A classic mingle activity. It’s ideal for the first week of class. Students receive a handout with 10 sentences such as Find someone who likes jazz. Find someone who hasn’t been to Italy. A number of these handouts can be found on the Internet (just search for find someone who worksheets), but you might enjoy making your own, using vocabulary or grammar that students have been working with recently. Students wander around asking questions (Do you like jazz? Have you been to Italy?). When a student gets the correct response (Yes, I like jazz. No, I haven’t been to Italy.), he or she writes the name next to the sentence, and then starts working on the next item.

One tricky aspect of this activity is the transformation required to change the sentences into questions. It’s recommended that you work together with the class to change the first few sentences into questions, so that everyone has a clear idea of what is expected of them.

Two variations of find someone who:

Give students a worksheet with 25 “find someone who” statements in a 5×5 grid, one statement in each box. Before the mingle begins, explain these rules: each time they get the proper answer, they need to put an X in the box, along with the person’s name. If they get five in a row (horizontally, vertically, or diagonally), they must shout out BINGO! You can give a prize to the winner.

In his fantastic book, Drama and Improvisation (Oxford), Ken Wilson offers a memorable twist on Find Someone Who. His version dispenses with the handout. Instead, students write down an interesting fact about themselves on a slip of paper and give them to their teacher. Next, the teacher wanders around asking questions in order to find the authors, while students pay attention to the facts as they hear them. Finally, students report back on what they learned about their classmates.

Learning Names

Another mingle activity for the first week of class is learning names. Before starting the activity, you can drill common expressions such as “What’s your name”, “Nice to meet you.” “How do I spell that?” or “Could you say that again?” Also, you can demonstrate a proper handshake. You can quiz them on names after the mingle.

Personal Questions

Ask students to think of a question they want to ask some of their classmates. You can give them some question starters (Can you …? Do you like …? Have you ever …?)  if they can’t think of anything. Then, get them to mingle, asking and answering questions as they move. An option here is to get students to exchange questions with the other student each time, so that they’re constantly learning and using new questions in each interaction.

Compliments

Work together with your students to think of some things that a person could be complimented on (some examples: hair, clothes, personality, ideas, etc.) Generate a few ways to compliment someone in English (You have a beautiful smile! I like your shoes! You’re very thoughtful!). Do a mingle where students go around and compliment each other.

Guess the Answer

Ask each student to think of an answer to a personal question. The question should be a little hard to guess. During the mingle, a student says the answer (e.g. 8 or The Hunger Games) and challenges the other student to guess the question that goes with the answer. (e.g. What’s my shoe size? What’s my favorite book?) Each time they give the other student three opportunities to guess before revealing the question.

Role Play

Give students a simple role play situation, such as a cocktail party or two good friends who haven’t seen each other for many years. Choose a few students to tell you what they might say in this situation. Then they mingle, doing a brief role play each time.

Review

Students take a word or phrase from the coursebook or other teaching material that they would like to commit to memory. They practice saying it a few times to themselves, then mingle, sharing their words and phrases with others.

More Suggestions

The following are a few simple ways to add spice to a mingle activity. Try one of them the next time you do a mingle:

  • Play some upbeat music
  • Put students into two lines facing each other. They interact for a minute, then one line moves down one, and the student on the far end moves around to the other end of the line. This version is a more easily manageable form of the mingle, but it allows less freedom for students to choose conversational partners
  • In the report phase, put students in small groups to make posters that summarize some of the information from the mingle
  • Have half of the class move around, and the other half remain seated.
  • With monolingual classes, give them 1 minute to speak in their first language, and then insist that they switch to English afterward
  • Put students into two teams. You can set a goal (answer five questions or learn 10 names) and give a prize to the team who reaches the goal first
  • Establish two different tasks (for example, a mingle and a writing activity). Half the class does the mingle and the other half writes. After a few minutes, get them to switch roles

(For even more ideas, take a look at Alex Case’s brilliant article, “15 Variations on Find Someone Who and mingling games”, on the TEFL.NET website).

Whether you’re a new teacher or a teacher with many years of experience, a mingle is a great way to get students practicing English. While some teachers might see it as a frivolous waste of time, it can be put to good use giving students extended practice on items that are central to a course. Look over your teaching material and see if there are some functions or language points that could be covered this way. Otherwise, use some of the suggestions above to give students an opportunity to mingle and do some fluency practice.

Resources

BBC/British Council – Teaching Knowledge Database

Case, Alex. 15 Variations on Find Someone Who and mingling games. TEFL.net

Scrivener, Jim (2012) Classroom management techniques. Cambridge University Press.

Wilson, Ken. (2008). Drama and Improvisation. Oxford University Press.

Author’s Bio:
Hall Houston teaches at Kainan University in Taoyuan County, Taiwan. His articles have been published in periodicals such as It’s for Teachers, Modern English Teacher and English Teaching Professional. He has written two books about language teaching, The Creative Classroom and Provoking Thought. He is currently writing his next book, which should be available in 2013.

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