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The Funniest Activity I’ve Ever Done with My Bilingual Kids and Students

March 5, 2014

The Funniest Activity I’ve Ever Done with My Bilingual Kids and Students

This might sound like an exaggeration, but it’s honestly not: the activity I’ll share with you today often gets my bilingual kids and students laughing like mad chipmunks. And it hits the funny bone of a wide range of ages, too, from first graders to teens. (I’ve even done this activity when I was teaching at local universities, and these college students learning English as a second language—who were normally so shy and passive—would soon be seized by fits of laughter.)

First, though, I should back up and explain that my use of this activity—I call it “Silly Stories”—can be traced back to my own childhood and the time I spent giggling over a word game known as Mad Libs.

If you’re not familiar with Mad Libs, it’s a game where one player prompts another player (or several other players) for words to complete the blanks of an unfinished story. The text is then read aloud, and the results—often crazy and comical—are met with grins and laughter.

Dozens of Mad Libs books have been issued since the first one was published in the United States in 1958, selling a total of over 110 million copies. So it’s clearly a very successful word game, and I suspect it can be adapted for any target language, adding another powerful tool to your bag of tricks.

My own versions

Although I have six Mad Libs books at home, and do make use of the stories in them, I’ve actually had more success writing my own versions. (And I call them “Silly Stories” because “Mad Libs”—which is a playful twist on the expression “ad-lib”—doesn’t make clear sense to my kids and students.)

Because the unfinished stories found in Mad Libs are often geared for an older audience (teens and adults), many of them, with their more sophisticated content and language, aren’t really suitable for younger children. But since they aren’t hard to create, and the payoff in fun, effective language use is so huge, I’ve been making them ever since my days as a teacher at Hiroshima International School.

Stories to download

Here are three examples of my “Silly Stories”—you’re welcome to download them and use them any way you like. Actually, the original versions were crafted more specifically for my own use—mentioning the city of Hiroshima, etc.—because when you tailor the story to your audience, it can naturally have more impact. So, although these versions are somewhat “generic” for wider use, I encourage you to create “Silly Stories” that are targeted for your own kids, including the appropriate language level.

Just click to open these PDF files in a new window!

Silly Stories: My Family

Silly Stories: My Favorite Things

Silly Stories: Spring

Simple steps to laughter

Follow these simple steps, and you and your children will soon be laughing together in the target language!

1. The first couple of times you do this activity with your kids, it’s important to prepare them for the main types of words they’ll need to supply, especially nouns, adjectives, and verbs. Many children, of course, aren’t very familiar with these terms (or the equivalent terms in your language), so explaining them clearly, and listing examples together, will make the game itself go far more smoothly.

On a sheet of paper turned sideways, make a first column and put “noun” at the top. Give them a chance to guess at the meaning, then add this definition after the word: “a person, animal, place, or thing.” Below this, start making a list of nouns: offer a few to begin, then take turns adding a good range of words until you have around 20. At this point, too, you may want to mention that “plural” means “more than one.”

Now make a second column and write “adjective” at the top. Elicit ideas for the meaning, then add this definition: “a word that describes a noun.” Proceed to make a list of adjectives together, but be sure to emphasize livelier words like “stinky” and “grouchy.” Not only do you want to kindle the playful spirit of “Silly Stories,” these lists—particularly early on—will often serve as a handy “word bank” for your kids. And if the words here are dull, then the story itself will likely be less successful.

Finally, make a third column and put “verb” at the top—a verb is an “action word.” Make a list of verbs, and again, go for livelier words like “wiggle” and “scream.” These lists are also a good opportunity to expand vocabulary, so feel free to add words that may not be so familiar to your children.

2. With this “cheat sheet” at hand, it’s time to play “Silly Stories”! Take a story—keeping the paper hidden from your kids by writing on a clipboard or book—and ask for each word needed to complete the text. (With more than one child, just take turns.)

Though they can choose words from the lists you’ve just made, tell them to use their imagination freely to furnish new words, too. The main thing is encouraging those lively choices I mentioned, and trying to avoid censoring what they offer, to the extent possible. (My only “rules” for this activity are no “bad language”; other than that, they’re completely free to give any words they like, including “poop,” “stupid,” etc.)

3. Once you’ve filled in all the blanks, read the story aloud to your kids, starting with the title. Read slowly and clearly, and prepare to pause for giggles—hearing this joyful laughter is a huge highlight of the game. (My kids often ask me to read these stories several times to milk every giggle.)

4. After that, they may want to switch roles and complete a new story by asking you for words. If they’ve already begun writing in your target language (and even if they can’t spell very well yet), this is a great way to get them practicing! And once they fill out the story, they have to read it, too!

Enjoyable and effective

“Silly Stories” has long been one of my very favorite activities for enjoyable, effective exposure in a second language. It’s the sort of activity that children want to do, over and over again, because it frees their imagination so fully and produces such entertaining results. Not only does this experience enrich their language development in a range of ways, the pure fun of the activity fosters deeper affection—a more positive attitude—for the language itself.

Though I’ve only attempted this activity in English, I think it would be just as successful in other languages and I urge you to try it. The language you use may be different, but I bet you’ll generate the same squeals of laughter from your kids!

How about you? If you give this activity a try, come back and let us know what happens!

1 Ingeborg March 5, 2014 at 10:54 pm

Thank you Adam! We used to do this when I was a child, in Norwegian. We normally used to leave out blanks for adjectives, and I vividly remember that it was a favorite birthday party game during our primary school years! I had almost forgotten about them, but I’ll definitely start doing this with my own kids, in both languages. :) Apart from the language-learning, it is obviously also great for encouraging reading and writing in a fun way!

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2 Adam March 6, 2014 at 2:06 pm

You’re welcome, Ingeborg. I hope you and your kids have fun with it! :mrgreen:

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3 Navjot Grewal March 10, 2014 at 8:13 am

This is a great way of teaching a language to kids. I am an Indian woman living in the U.S. struggling to keep my daughter on track with our native language. Time and again I have to remind her to talk to me in our native language. She loves stories and I will definitely use your silly stories to make her learn our language in this way where she can have fun and also the independence to use the words she likes.

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4 Adam March 10, 2014 at 3:12 pm

I’m glad this idea can be useful to you, Navjot. Enjoy making some silly stories with your daughter!

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5 Kris March 10, 2014 at 3:28 pm

Oh my gosh! I just did this with my 6 year-old son who is stuck at home with the flu and he’s laughing so hard, he can barely talk! I think he will come up with more exciting words now that he knows what is happening. In my early days of teaching I remember trying out this activity, but had forgotten about it. Thank you for the awesome idea! It will surely provide some excellent use of words my sons often only hear in the books we read.

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6 Adam March 11, 2014 at 6:40 am

Kris, that’s great to hear. This sounds exactly like my son. I just love to hear him giggle!

As they say, laughter is the best medicine, and I hope a big dose of silly stories will help him recover quickly from the flu!

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7 Ana Lynn March 12, 2014 at 2:54 am

Awesome idea, I am pretty sure it will give new meaning to my Purple Princess stories (I’m running out of ideas for those!)

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8 Adam March 13, 2014 at 6:56 am

Ana Lynn, your Purple Princess may end up orange! :mrgreen:
Cheers to you and your family! (And best wishes for your good work at ourblendedmarriage.com!)

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9 Julia October 3, 2014 at 6:48 am

Adam, thanks for sharing! Will definitely try it this week-end!
We’ve been playing another kind of this game which is called “Rubbish” in Russian. I’m not yet familiar with all treasures on your website, so there’s probably a big chance that you know it already, but just in case:
1. A few players (2 is OK, but 3-5 is better), everyone takes a narrow piece of paper (usually we just cut a standard sheet of A4 paper in two longwise)
2. The leader announces the questions (one at a time) and everyone writes the answers, for example:
– Who?
– With whom?
– When?
– What were they doing?
– What happened?
– What was the end of the story?

When the first answer is written by everybody (in secret), the paper is then folded to hide what’s written (about 1-2 cm, sometimes twice) and handed over to the neighbour. And so on until the last answer. Then we unfold the papers and start reading out loud! Curiously, you often get something which is not only very funny, but also makes sense :)

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10 Adam October 3, 2014 at 7:55 am

Julia, you’re welcome! And thank you for this fun idea! I’ve done something like this with drawing (where everyone draws a head, then hides it by folding down their papers, followed by a body, etc.), but I look forward to trying to create a story this way with my kids and students.

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