Speaking and collaboration activities in a socially distanced primary classroom

Photo credit: Kelly Sikkema 

The year 2020 has brought with it new challenges in our primary classrooms regarding communicating well with masks on and working with partners while maintaining social distances. This blog will give you some ideas for how to overcome these challenges with your students and to keep on enjoying learning English together.

Communicating with masks on

A huge percent of our communication ability is down to body language, facial gestures and lip reading. When we wear a mask that covers half of our face, our students can have difficulty understanding us, as well as each other. At the beginning of the school year, you can show a poster of people expressing emotions through their eyes, eyebrows and hand gestures, and elicit from your students the emotion they are conveying. Then, play a game with your students where you ask them to recreate the emotion and their partner has to guess which one they are performing from the list. Keep the posters up in the classroom and encourage students to copy the gestures when working in class to help their partners to understand them. Also, making sure students face each other, rather than working side by side helps them to pick up on the meaning of gestures and facial expressions.

As the mouth is covered up, students may have a problem with voice projection and making themselves heard. This is further compounded with the problem shyer students have speaking up in general. You can help your students in a variety of ways. Teaching fixed phrases to help your students to ask for repetition, clarification and checking, helps them to sound clear and confident. For example ‘Could you say that again, please?’, ‘I didn’t quite catch that.’ ‘Can I just check you said…’. Of course, these are fairly complex phrases, but if you teach them as a whole, students will be able to repeat them with confidence. You can also simplify the language, for example ‘Repeat, please’, ‘I don’t understand’, ‘You said…’

Using props, such as making microphones, megaphones and speaking through cups and string like a telephone help students to speaker louder because they are concentrating on the prop and how fun it is, and not about being heard by others. Indeed, creating characters so that students are not ‘themselves’ with the potential for embarrassment encourages confidence and loudness. For example, completing a role play where the students are a character or have been given an emotion to act out whilst doing the task really helps.

Using visual clues to help students reach or maintain an intended noise level is very useful. Some teachers use a ‘barometer of noise’ on the board, where teachers indicate with an arrow or number the expected noise level for each task. If on a scale 0 represents silence all the way to 6 representing shouting, a teacher may put on the board the number 3 which is a gentle ‘talk with your partner’ voice. With masks on, the teacher can raise the volume number as required per task.

Pronunciation activities will also help our students to be as clear when communicating as possible. Helping students to pronounce final consonant sounds, slowing down a little when speaking and practice word and stress will help. Make it part of your teaching routine to practise pronunciation for short five or ten minute bursts each class. Use the pronunciation sections of your course books, and go back over them in future classes even after they have been completed. You can make word and sentence stress activities more fun by asking students to raise and lower their hands on stress, or stand up and sit down. You can also create pairs of similar sounding words and ask your students to vote for what they hear, for example cat – can to make those final consonants come through clearly.

Social Distancing

In classrooms where it is up to you and your students to remember to keep at a distance it can be challenging. Primary students respond very well to routines and visual clues. Mark on the wall or on the floor where students should stand. You can use hula hoops, sticky notes or card. When speaking to a partner, staying sat in chairs in the surest way to maintain distance, but in those stand up and move around moments, use those card markers, or place a table in between speaking partners, or encourage speaking by using microphones. Students can make their own microphones and keep them in their pencil cases, and interview each other at arm’s length, naturally maintaining distance. If you cannot make microphones, then ask students to use their imagination and use their pencils as a prop!

Classic Communication Activities

There are some classic communication activities to encourage working together and speaking that work really well in a socially distanced classroom.

Word Battleships

This is perfect to practice spelling. On a numbered grid, each student secretly writes their chosen words horizontally, vertically or diagonally. They also have another empty grid to mark their partner’s answers. Their partner has to guess which spaces have a letter in by choosing one grid number at a time. Their partner tells them the letter if there is one there. The first person to find all their partners words wins. This can be tweaked so that instead of numbers and letters along the sides, you can place pronunciation symbols and letters.

Drawing Dictation

One student draws a picture, for example, a room in their house. They must keep the room a secret, and instead, describe it with enough detail so that their partner can listen and draw a copy. Make sure to give them the useful language they will need before the task, such as prepositional phrases.


Students can play this classic game in small groups, or as a whole class, with key words they are learning. As the game works best when each student’s sheet is a secret, students will only be too happy to maintain social distancing rules. There is a really great website called flippity.net which will help you to make bingo cards to print – it also creates other fun activities for you to project onto the board, such as boardgames, quizzes, and matching games, by using Google sheet information. It’s a great resource to use in class to have fun without touching any object that might get passed on to another student, such as board game counters and dice.

Information Swap

This is any activity where students have a piece of information that the others need in order to complete their task and they must share it with others by telling what they know. This can be in the form of Find someone who, jigsaw tasks and gap fills.

Backs to the board

Two or three students with distance stand in front of the board. They must not look at the board. The teacher shows a picture or writes a vocabulary word or phrase and the rest of the class must either explain the word without saying what the word is, or mime the word to them.

Pass the parcel

This traditional activity involves a physical object that students pass around a circle to music. When the music stops, the student holding the object has to answer a question. Instead, students can ‘pass the sound’ by clapping and when the teacher gives a signal to stop, whoever clapped last is the nominated person. This can also be done vocally, with each student providing a silly noise or physically with an action, e.g. touching your shoulders.

How to encourage role plays and drama in class

A lot of our course books include a lovely story and encourage the children to act it out. We do not want to lose the fun, creative side that is brought out in our students so we can now adapt drama activities to keep at a safe distance.

  • The statue game

A student comes to the front of the class and strikes a pose of one of the characters. The students must guess which character they are portraying by saying the correct line of dialogue that the character is speaking. Encourage the student acting to move or feel like the character, and encourage the student speaking the line to do so in the character’s voice.

  • Next line game

A student comes to the front of the class and acts out one line of dialogue. The rest of the class must act out and respond with the next line of dialogue.

  • Act it out

Ask students to form groups based on how many characters there are in the story. Encourage them to sit on chairs to start and to maintain social distance. Using their books, the students read aloud their dialogue, noticing when it is their turn to speak, and how to pronounce their words. Once students have done this around four times, ask them to put a gesture to each of their lines and repeat a few more time. Then, ask them to put their books open and on the floor, so they can still read their lines if they are stuck. By using gestures the students are more likely to remember their lines and in what order. Students can stand up for this section, but they must remain near their chairs. Finally, when it is time to perform in front of the class, assign students a space to stand. While they cannot move around and interact like they once did, they will still be able to convey their character’s feelings and emotions, and be a bit silly and have fun at the same time.

Managing Group Work

We can still collaborate and help each other in a socially distanced classroom by thinking about these aspects

  • Analysing the task

While you are planning your lesson, look carefully at the group task and ask yourself these questions – What must be done together? What can students do by themselves? How can they ask for help or feedback from their group? What must the teacher to do to organise this?

What must be done together – usually it is generating ideas, giving advice and help, working on the final look of a project and presenting it to the class. Students can help each other by

  • each having a mini whiteboard and visually show their thoughts to the group with distance.
  • each student checks another student’s work for spelling, content and design. They write feedback on a sticky note and leave it on the student’s desk.
  • using an online collaboration tool, such as Google Docs, iBrainstorm, Popplet and Padlet where brainstorming, collaboration and feedback happens all at once.
  • If students are making a poster, students work on an individual piece themselves on their own paper or card and then one group member collects all the papers, stands in front of the others and the group instructs how each piece should fit together on a poster.
  • When it is time to present, students take it in turns to stand up and present. Have a maximum of two students per group up at once to present, rather than the whole group crowding around the project waiting to present.

Most course book activities and classic games can still be achieved in a socially distanced classroom, and when you add an activity into the class routine, the children will become used to what is being asked of them and work hard to achieve it.


If you’d like to find out more on the topic, watch the corresponding webinar at the Pearson Academy on the Teacher Training Hub.

Drama activity taken from Pearson’s fast-paced, six-level primary course, Team Up!

Want to read more ideas about dealing with masks and social distancing in class? Read Harry Waters’ blog post, The Masked Classroom 



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