Teacher Training


First lesson ideas: Magic square

Magic square illustration1 710x691 First lesson ideas: Magic squareAs another academic year starts, most of your groups will probably be meeting for the first time, and as usual you’ll want to turn that gathering of strangers into a cohesive group of co-learners as quickly as possible.  The magic square is one way to do this—a get-to-know speaking activity that works equally well at any level (except zero beginners). Like many get-to-know’s, it uses simple personal prompts to stimulate interaction among students.

What you prepare:

  • Some pieces of blank paper (can be scrap, blank one side) cut into squares, as many as there are students in your group. Use squares, not rectangles.
  • Your own completed magic square (see illustration for an example, and instructions below).

What you do:

  1. Show the students the blank squares and tell them it’s a magic square. Don’t feel silly saying this to adults.
  2. Give each student a blank square, and tell them to write, in one corner, the name of someone who is important to them.  Check that all the students have done it, i.e. are ’on task’.
  3. Tell them the categories for the remaining three corners. In the example here, I’ve used an important place, an important date (I usually specify that it NOT be their birthdate), and an important object.  You can come up with other categories easily, according to what you think will be relevant/generative.
  4. Demonstrate the activity first by showing the students your magic square, and getting them to ask you about one of the corners.  Then do an open class demonstration between one of the students and the others.
  5. Tell students to get up and mingle, and talk to at least 3 other students, asking about the things in their magic square. You can limit this—e.g. ask about only one thing, and move on.
  6. Students mingle and chat.  As with any mingle activity, you may need to use a signal or nudge individual students to get them to move on.
  7. After some time (5-10 minutes?)—and certainly before energy wanes—get students to sit down again. Do feedback with them by asking them what they remember about each classmate.

A few comments:

  • You may want to collect their magic squares to use for follow-up activities in subsequent lessons, e.g. figure out whose square belongs to whom, write 3 questions for each square, write a story based on the 4 things, etc.
  • Yes, you can do the whole activity without a square, by just having Ss write the 4 pieces of information in their notebook. But it’s not the same. Use the magic square.
  • This activity can of course be done at any point in a course, not just in a first lesson.
  • You can use it to practice specific language—question formation, indirect questions, modals of deduction—by imposing prompts or restrictions on what students say. As with any mingle, you can use it to practice turn-taking skills, e.g. interrupting a conversation, taking leave of a conversation.
  • As mentioned above, it works well at any level. With very low levels, you need to consider the categories in relation to what you feel Ss can do, and possibly provide more structure for the interaction than you might otherwise. For example, for the ’important person’ corner you might provide the prompt ’Is he/she your partner/a family member/a friend/etc.?’

I hope you and your students have fun with this one.  We’d love to hear about YOUR favourite first day activity.  Register on the website (it really is easy) and let us know!

Steve Oakes


3 Comments on “First lesson ideas: Magic square”

  • Attila September 2nd, 2013 10:12 AM

    My favourite is a twist on the ‘tell us about the person sitting next to you’.

    First, you gotta write some questions on the board, like:

    1. How old is Attila?
    2. Is he married?
    3. What does he do in his free time?
    4. Does he play sports?
    5. Does he like stuffed cabbage?

    This can be set up as a pairwork or groupwork.

    I do it in such a way that I give them hints (I let them see my wedding ring, for instance), but when I feel like it I try to mislead them (by wearing the wedding ring on the wrong finger).

    After feedback I let them mingle (if it was pairwork) or stay in their groups (if I set it up as groupwork) to collect information about their groupmates. Feedback is open class or by hands-up (who likes stuffed cabbage? Hands up!)

    If you feel like it, it may as well be done the other way around, letting them speak about each other first, and the teacher after.

    Copyright goes to….Cambridge Discussions A-Z if I recall correctly.

  • Chris Holmes September 3rd, 2013 2:49 PM

    Thanks for this, Steve. I often use this activity myself, though with one or two differences. First, I get all of the sts sitting in a circle, each writes their name in the middle of their square. After establishing which direction is clockwise, I then get the sts to pass their squares (one space at a time) a given number of spaces (let’s say three). At this point, I ask each student to write the name of someone important to them (or any other question/category) in the top left-hand corner.

    The squares are then passed on (lets’s say 2 spaces this time) and the process is repeated for each corner of the paper (a different question/catgory each time). If you are monitoring carefully, you’ll ensure that the square eventually arrives back with the original student (whose name will be on it).

    Once the magic squares are returned to the original owners, students are asked to mingle and find the four different students who wrote on their squares. I always encourage students not to just show one another their squares and ask ’did you write any of these?’ – but to ask yes/no or ’wh’ questions instead.

    For an even shorter version of the activity- use triangles! Not only will this mean that there are only three corners to fill- better for smaller groups and for those short on time- but what’s also great to see is the students’ reactions when receiving a triangle of paper- that doesn’t happen often!

  • Scott September 9th, 2013 1:07 PM

    I used the version of the magic square demoed in the seminar (a place, person, food and activity from the summer) to begin some process writing with one of my business writing classes.

    After writing the four, I asked them to swap with their partners and try to come up with their ideas of what their partner did in the summer. I got them to flesh out the four points first, e.g. Langos – who did they eat it with; where did they eat it; was it homemade etc.

    I then set a time limit, and got them to write as much as they can. They compared their version of their partner’s summer with the true version, and then we began to redraft their stories. We’re going to work on them again, upgrading and rewriting them until it gets boring :)

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