Receptive Exposure Activities

After you’ve presented a new structure or function, and maybe done some repetition drilling on your model sentences, what then? Teachers often move straight on to productive practice activities, but maybe it’s too soon. The students have only seen a very small number of examples of the new language and may not yet be feeling fully confident of their ability to use it. Weaker students, in particular, may benefit from more exposure to the language before going on to other forms of practice.

At this stage of the lesson I therefore like to introduce one or more receptive exposure activities. Receptive practice activities are activities which give the students the chance to encounter more examples of the new language, and to demonstrate their comprehension of it – but without having to use it productively. Here’s one example, for the present perfect used to describe events starting in the past and continuing up to the present :

Look at the sentences, then answer the questions below them.

a. I've lived in New York for three years.
Where does he live now ? a) In New York b) We don't know

b. I studied English for two years.
Does she study English now ? a) Yes b) No

c. I've worked for ICN for twelve years.
Where does she work now ? a) For ICN b) We don't know

d. I worked for Honeycomb Computers for two months.
Where does she work now ? a) For Honeycomb b) We don't know

e. I've had a headache for three days.
Does she have a headache now ? a) Yes b) No

This might be followed by a sentence matching activity :

Match the questions (a-e) with the replies (1.5) below.

a. How long have you had your car ?
b. Is it true that you’ve bought a new house?
c. Have you known Terry for very long ?
d. How's your new job going ?
e. Did you have a good holiday ?

1. Oh, yes. Since we were children.
2. Oh, it's too soon to say. I've only been there for three days.
3. About four years now. I'd like to get a new one.
4. Wonderful. I've wanted to go to Africa since I was a child.
5. No. Where did you hear that ?

What I have here called receptive exposure is perhaps the key concept behind the method Total Physical Response. Developed by James Asher, TPR is based on the idea that students, just like children learning their first language, need time to hear, understand and assimilate the new language before they are ready to produce it. TPR is fairly well known as being a method where students have to respond to commands. Teachers therefore often use it to teach the imperative (Stand up! Go to the door!), maybe incorporating a lexical area like colours (Touch something yellow) and frequently see it as a method suited mainly to children's classes, or at most adult beginners. However, the method actually incorporates a lot more techniques than this, and can be used to teach just about any structure, however advanced, and a wide range of lexis. One example of its use in teaching the present continuous is described in this article by Judie Haynes.

It can also be used, especially with adults, as a receptive exposure activity in which the target structure is incorporated into an if clause and then the command is tagged on. Students listen and respond by carrying out the command if it’s relevant for them. Still staying with the present perfect as an example, here are the type of sentences I might use:

If you’ve lived in (name of students’ town) for more than six years, stand up.
If you’ve worked for (name of students’ company) for more than ten years, go to the door.
If you’ve had more than three cups of coffee since ten o’clock this morning, touch your nose.
If you’ve studied English for more than three years, sit on the desk.

and so on. A few examples for other structures might be :

Present continuous : If you’re wearing green socks, put your hand on your head.
Past simple : If you went to the supermarket yesterday, put your book on the floor.And even the third conditional : If you would have studied a different language if you’d had the choice, turn round. The possibilities are endless.

Of course, in using this activity you are not “teaching TPR” , in the same way that if you eat a bowl of rice with your dinner you are not automatically eating a Japanese meal. But I believe that we can take ideas from other methodologies and adapt them to our own teaching style without losing their effectiveness. (1)

There are many other activity types that you can use at the receptive exposure stage, and if you think about it you may find that you are already using some of them , for example Picture Bingo. This can be adapted to a variety of structures and functions – the example in the photo (2) was designed to give students exposure to the simple past. The students have a Bingo board showing pictures of people performing different actions, and some counters to cover them. The teacher has a bag containing all the pictures and chooses them at random, saying for instance Sallie cleaned the windows yesterday. John climbed a tree yesterday. As in ordinary Bingo, the first person to cover all their pictures wins.

This type of activity is often used as revision or consolidation, or as a “reward” at the end of the lesson. But it also complies with all the requirements of a receptive practice activity – students hear the target language repeatedly, and have to show that they understand it by acting upon it – and can be used at least as usefully, if not more, at this stage of the lesson.


1. You can hear Sue discussing TPR at more length, as well as two other alternative methodologies (CLL and Suggestopaedia) in a podcast on eslteachertalk

2. The Bingo cards in the photo were developed using a game template and flashcards from ESLhq

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