Processing activities are a powerful tool for fostering long-term retention and easing the transition toward productive usage. The possibilities for fun and engaging processing are nearly endless, but there are a few things to ask before you dive into an activity:

  • Will language by comprehensible? What element of the activity (visuals, movement, etc.) will reinforce meaning?
  • Is it a novel context, a way of using familiar language that’s different from initial instruction?
  • How much exposure does it really offer? Is the vocabulary too narrow to be interesting or too broad to provide sufficient repetition?
  • Is it within students’ abilities? Processing can be a challenge, but the challenge should decrease rapidly as students get comfortable with the activity. Too much challenge defeats the purpose. With that in mind, what kind of prior or lead-in activity will make an overly-challenging one more manageable?

The activities below have been well received by my students and have produced good results for me. This is just the tip of the iceberg, however! These activities work for all sorts of vocabulary topics, but some themes like food and family lend themselves to more specific processing activities.


This is a great processing activity for the early stages of learning. Start with a set of 12 or so large, clear images. You can use photos, clipart or hand-drawn stick figures. You can use them in a variety of ways:

  • Hold up two at a time. Students point to the one you describe.
  • Ask for 4-5 volunteers. Each gets a card. When you describe a picture, the person with the picture raises it. Bring up a new round of students, and get faster each round.
  • Ask students if they want to try calling out the descriptions.
  • Ask circle questions about the images.
  • Increase the challenge by describing the pictures in different ways, but stay within bounds of familiar language: “The girl has red hair. / She is a red-haired girl.”
  • Reuse your images for listening assessments, the flyswatter game, and so on.


Use existing flashcards or other images; you can also draw stick figures on the board for this. Call up two volunteers and give each a flyswatters. Their goal is to hit the picture that you describe. See Flashcards above for extension ideas.

At Your Service

Here’s another way to use visual flashcards. Tape them around the room, and then prepare a set of prompt cards for each image. Next, prepare a set of “helper” cards, enough for half your class. Give prompts to half the class and helper cards to the other half. Students will prompts will find and pair up with helpers, who will take them around the room to a vocabulary image. Afterwards, students swap cards and find new partners.

  • In a restaurant… The helper card says “What would you like?” Prompts are foods and drinks. Helpers are servers who take diners to the food they want.
  • Around town… The helper card says “Taxi”. Prompts are places around town. Helpers are taxi drivers who take tourists where they want to go in town.
  • At a clothing store… The helper card says “At your service”. Prompts are clothing items or sizes. Helpers are salespeople who take clients to the clothing they need.


I like this activity because it can be used not only for vocabulary focus but also to highlight key structures. Take five or so envelopes on the wall. Place a small picture in each envelope. On the board, worksheet or presentation, you’ll have a written description of each picture, but with a catch: each description has one wrong word. Students work in teams as a spy agency to check out each scene and get the facts straight. They’ll send one agent at a time to a scene, and the agent will report back in the target language.

Caveat: Make sure that there’s only one wrong word in the description, at least in lower-level classes. Otherwise students will be confused about the possible correction and may overstep the bounds of their grammar knowledge. It’s best to avoid morphological changes for this same reason (don’t make the variation a matter of gender, number, tense, etc.). The activity itself will reinforce syntax and morphology if you keep students focused on a concrete change like a noun or action verb.

Relay Race

Divide students into teams. Teams can be up to five or six for this fast-paced activity. You’ll also need a large amount of board space or big sheets of butcher paper. In a relay race format, one team member will race to write up a word in L2 and then bring the marker back to the next team member who will illustrate that word on the board. (Overall, one turn equals writing, drawing or correcting a mistake.) The team with the most correctly labeled pictures at the end of time wins.

Running Dictation

Write a short story, about five sentences in length. Type up the sentences as a numbered list and put several copies of the list outside your door. Then divide students into teams. Students take turns going to the list to try to remember a sentence from it, which they’ll report back to the team. (I have all students write down reports to keep them engaged.) After giving students enough time to get all five sentences, post a correction on an overhead so students can check their work.

Red Rover

This is a conversation-based activity. Put half the students standing on one side of the room and the other half on the other side of the room. In order to get back to their seats, students must have a successful mini-conversation with someone on the other side of the room. You can structure the conversations to focus on a particular topic or structure.