By Margaret "Peg" Orleans - China
Some games that students with very little vocabulary may be able to play and enjoy:
1. A Visit to Grandma
Students sit in circles of four to six. The first one starts with a pattern sentence like, "I'm going to visit my grandmother. In my bag I will take" and names an item (no matter how ridiculous--no need for it actually to fit in a suitcase) that begins with the letter A. The second student repeats what the first has said, adding an item that begins with the letter B, and so on around the circle and through the alphabet. (Lots of chance to practice pronunciation and listening, but students have some control since they are choosing words they understand.)
2. Dictionary Before and After
Working in pairs, one student chooses any English word she knows. The partner attempts to identify it by guessing words. After each guess, the student who has chosen the word responds with before (meaning "My word comes before your word in the dictionary) or after. One demonstration before the whole class in which you guess a student's work is usually enough for everyone
to catch on.
3. Be Write Back
Students form equally-numbered teams of about seven to ten people apiece. They line up Indian file and the last person on each team is given a slip of paper on which is written a four- or five-letter word. At the start signal, these students silently trace the word on the back of the student in front of them with their forefingers. Those students can request a repetition, if necessary. When they understand (or think they understand) what the word is, they trace it on the back of the person in front of them, and so on, until the first students race to write the word on the blackboard. (Nice change of pace for tactile learners.)
4. Tillie Williams
Maybe they won't have enough vocabulary to be able to join in when they catch on, but even the youngest of my students like this game. When I have to fill in at the last minute for a junior high teacher, I generally play this game. I begin by describing a fictitious friend named Tillie Williams, who has very strong likes and dislikes. I tell students when they understand Tillie, they should join in. Often half the class will be in on the trick, while the other half will still be baffled, but everyone can be playing actively. For example, Tillie likes swimming pools but hates lakes. She likes yellow but not orange. She'll eat apples, but not bananas. She plays tennis, but not badminton. You should frequenly repeat a refrain like, "Her name is Tillie Williams. She may be a little odd, but she's not very strange." (The trick, of course, is that she likes only things with double letters.) The clues offered above were all generated by students, once they had caught on. I try to save those with easy words for students, but Japanese has the advantage of thousands of loan words from English, so that I can use fairly high-level words that I know students will understand. You may not have that advantage with Chinese students.
Anyway, I hope some of these are useful activities for giving students a chance to speak up and feel some success with English.