So I was delivering a short training session for teachers about lesson planning a few of weeks ago. One of the things that came up was ‘fast finisher activities’. We didn’t have time to go into it in the session, but I think it’s possibly one of the most misleading terms in TESOL.
The idea – as far as I can tell – is that you have an extra piece of material for any bright sparks who finish their classwork before others. I assume it’s a concept that has come from mainstream education (primary in particular). It’s often cited as a way to reduce ‘off-task behaviour’ and further challenge stronger learners in mixed-ability classes. Pinterest is full of colourful, fun-looking ‘fast finisher activities’, like these ones I collected:
So what have I got against them? Well…
- It implies sourcing extra materials, and this often not practical or desirable.
- It creates more classroom management problems than it solves, as I’ll illustrate below.
- Prevention is better than cure, and ‘fast finishers activities’ are just a cure.
- It is very YL-centric, but teachers need to deal with this in adult classes, too.
- It is modelled on heads-down classwork, not communicative heads-up learning.
- Teens or adults may feel like you’re just fobbing them off. Are they wrong?
Here’s an example scenario:
Scenario 1: heads-down activity.
You’ve been looking at a grammar point and you set learners the task of writing 5 questions using that grammar to ask their classmates afterwards. A few pairs finish earlier than the others.
False solution. You give those fast finishers a photocopied grammar activity from a book. Now they’re working on something different to the rest of the class. Some other learners have caught up, so you give them the grammar activity, too. By now about half the class are doing the ‘fast finisher activity’. They have difficulty with one of the questions and are asking you about it, stopping you from monitoring those learners who are still writing their questions. You finally draw a cut-off point: some learners still haven’t finished their questions, some learners are half-way through the grammar activity and some learners have finished the grammar activity. You give the answers to the grammar activity and learners check their answers, but they have a questions about number 3. You look at your watch: only 5 minutes left for learners to ask their questions to each other and no time for feedback!
What could you have done instead?
- Set time-bound tasks. Instead of instructing learners to write 5 questions, ask learners to write as many questions as they can in 5 minutes and encourage a spirit of challenge and competition. This way, everyone will be working at their own pace, but will all be ready when 5 minutes are up.
- Save some for later. Set a goal like writing 3 questions – a goal that’s easily achievable for everyone in the class. Fast finishers can just write a couple more questions. This is especially useful when you have an exercise comprising of 10 or more questions from the coursebook – just set the first 6 and fast finishers can continue if need be. But everyone’s on task and doing the same thing.
- Negotiate and differentiate. Tell learners how much time they have and ask them how many questions they think they can write in that time (individually or as a class). When the time is up, rather than you being responsible for whether or not they achieved the outcome, they can take responsibility for it themselves.
- Sharing is caring. Learners could also check or peer correct their questions once they finished – just make sure they have whatever they need to do so at their disposal.
Scenario 2: heads-up activity.
Learners are talking in groups of 3 about what they used to do when they were young children. Two groups seem to have plenty to say on the subject, while the two others have finished and are twiddling their thumbs.
False solutions. If you get all groups to stop when the fast finishers stop, then you’re lowering your expectations. If you give fast finishers a word search to do, then you’re potentially rewarding them for not speaking for longer. If you sit down and chat with the group that has finished, then you won’t be able to monitor other groups. So what can you do?…
- Groupings. When you set up the activity, try to evenly spread the chattier and the quieter learners among the groups. Alternatively, put the chattier learners together in a pair and the quieter learners in groups. Either way, you are can prevent fast finishers.
- Peeling the onion? I think that’s what they call it… As soon as you notice that groups are working at vastly different paces, you ‘peel’ a learner off each group and send them to another group. You can do this as many times as necessary to keep reinvigorating the activity.
- Repeating and reporting. If there are two fast finisher groups, just pair them up together to repeat the task with a new partner – without disturbing the groups that haven’t finished yet. Or get them to report on their group’s discussion to a new partner. Repeating and reporting are two quintessentially TBL techniques that really help learners to up their game, improving fluency, accuracy and/or complexity.
- Setting expectations. You could tell learners that they must find out and remember 2 things about each group member and that you might call on them to report back to the class after the task. This might just make the difference and make sure all learners are putting the same effort into the task, preventing fast finishers. If some groups finish early, they can prepare notes to report to the class or rehearse their report.
- Extending. In this example, you could simply give fast finisher groups an extension of the original question, eg. What games did you use to play? What did your brother/sister/son/daughter use to do?
OK, the title of this post is probably a bit polemical. I’m sure that if you were doing project work over a series of lessons, it could pay off to have some ‘fast finisher activities’. In that case, I’d say there are some ongoing activities that are useful and aid learning: revising, revisiting, recycling & learner autonomy. For example:
- Making flashcards of recent vocabulary to add to a class vocab box or to quizlet.
- Leaving a set of previously studied flashcards on the floor for learners to play pelmanism or another game they know well.
- Write vocabulary down from the board in vocabulary books, draw pictures of the words on the board, etc.
- Start writing in their learning journal, if you use those.
Personally, I have experimented with fast finisher activities (the sort I described in the introduction) with all ages. I can honestly say that they have only ever complicated things and certainly didn’t result in any extra learning.
That’s my view, but I am always happy for my views to be challenged! So if you’re still a supporter of fast-finisher activities, please do comment or write a follow-up blog post!
Have they ever worked for you?