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What did they do? (A game to practice the past)

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This is a fun way to get students to produce sentences in the past. It also gives them an opportunity to show off their knowledge of famous people.


Compile a list of famous people that your students are likely to be familiar with. I like to include a good mix of both men and women, from different cultures, time periods and areas of fame (the arts, world events, literature, sciences, cinema, sports…). If you’re teaching abroad, it’s also fun to include local figures from your students’ own culture. The longer the list, the better. You’ll need at least 20 different names for a good game.


Divide the class into teams, as many as is convenient. After determining which team will go first, ask the first team to give you a number. Find the name that corresponds to that number on your list of famous people and announce that name to the team. It is their job to make a complete sentence to answer the question “What did he/she do?”


For an answer to be acceptable it must express what the person did to make him/her famous. (Ex: if the person is Shakespeare, “He wrote Hamlet” is an acceptable answer, but “He lived in England” or “His name was William” is not, because only the first made him famous.) Answers must also be in the past, and be correct in both grammar and content. I like to make the verb “to be” off limits in this game. This encourages the students to use a wider variety of verbs. (For Mohammed Ali, for example, I’d rather have them say “He fought many matches” or “He won a championship” than simply “He was a boxer.”)


If the team gives a correct answer in less than 30 seconds, they win 2 points. If they answer in less than a minute, they win 1 point. If they give an incorrect answer, they lose a point. If they pass, they neither win nor lose a point. In the case of an incorrect answer, the next team in line has an opportunity to “steal”. If they can give a correct answer when the previous team could not, they win a point. If the second team fails to steal, the opportunity goes to the following team.

You can keep a simple tally of each team’s points, but sometimes it gets clumsy adding and erasing points all the time. Here’s what I do: Draw a big grid on the board that includes one horizontal row for each team, with each row divided into 10 columns. Write “Start” over the column farthest left, and “Finish” over the farthest right. As the teams win points, place an X in their row, starting at the “Start” line and gradually moving right towards the “Finish.” The first team that lands in the “Finish” square first wins. This format really brings the progress of the game to life and helps students visualize where they are in comparison with the others.

Sample Name List:

Here’s an example of a list I use with my middle school EFL learners in Central America. (Any names you don’t recognize are probably local Honduran celebrities.)

1. Christopher Columbus
2. Che Guevara
3. Winona Ryder
4. Napoleon
5. J.K. Rowlings
6. Mike Tyson
7. Charles de Gaulle
8. Queen Elizabeth
9. Michael Jackson
10. Michaelangelo
11. Gabriel Garcia Marquez
12. Julia Roberts
13. Louis Pasteur
14. Tony Blair
15. Francisco Morazan
16. Harry Potter
17. The Virgin Mary
18. Peter Pan
19. Don Quijote
20. Albert Einstein
21. Lempira
22. Princess Diana
23. Adolph Hitler
24. Saddam Hussein
25. Ruben Dario
26. Anne Frank
27. Confucious
28. Charles Dickens
29. Michael Jordan
30. Mozart
31. Fidel Castro
32. Walt Disney
33. John Lennon
34. Bill Gates
35. Abraham Lincoln
36. Martin Luther King, Jr.
37. Buddha
38. Marie Antoinette
39. Frida Kahlo
40. Julius Ceasar
41. The Prophet Mohammed
42. Leonardo DaVinci
43. Gustave Eiffel
44. Avril Lavigne
45. Harry Chapin
46. J.R.R. Tolkien
47. Joseph Stalin
48. Joan of Arc
49. Jesus Christ
50. Cleopatra
51. Amelia Earhart
52. Rogoberta Menchu
53. Mao Tse Tung
54. Ghandi
55. Rafael Pineda Ponce
56. Eminem
57. Serena Williams
58. Cinderella
59. Jennifer Lopez
60. Jeanette Kawas

If you give this game a try and have any comments or modifications, please let me know!

Judith C. Shaffer
Lycée Franco-Hondurien
Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Central America
[email protected]

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