by Aggie Chapman

Mindmaps, aka spidergrams are a classic activity, mostly used as an icebreaker. They’re undemanding – the level of preparation is next to zero, they can be used as an interactive presentation or simply drawn on the board, and what’s even better, they can be adapted for different levels.

There’s also a number of language points that can be practised with them, both vocabulary and grammar. Here are a few examples, in all of them students prepare the mind-maps.


1. Food

The prompts can include the food you love/hate/like, can cook, eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner, on your birthday etc. Students can ask questions, for example: “Do you eat apples every day?”, or “I think you love ice-cream” etc. They can also create sentences based on the prompts, such as “You hate tomatoes” or “You never eat eggs for breakfast” and similar.

2. Clothes

The students can put in the clothes they wear to school, at home, to a party, when they play sport etc. Or they can combine the name of the item and colour. The language they use will vary according to their level, but even the lower levels could produce sentences or questions such as “You have green trainers.” / “You play football in shorts.”, “You wear a dress to a party”, “You need trainers for running.”,  etc.

3. Family members

Students write the names of different family members in their spidergram, you may want to give them a minimum or maximum number (my Italian students often needed the maximum number, otherwise they’d run out of space to put all the aunts, uncles, and cousins! 😉). Their partners can see the different names and ask: “Is Francesca your grandmother?” etc.

4. Time and daily routine

Students can write time + an activity (e.g. 7.00 + eat breakfast), or only time / routine. The task for the partner is to create a sentence or question based on the prompt. For example: 5 p.m. + watch TV “At 5 p.m. you watch TV”, or “Do you watch TV at 5 p.m.?” etc. If the prompt is only the time, or only the activity they should try to guess the other part – what the action or time is. For instance: 12.00  “Do you eat lunch at 12.00?” or “I think you have lunch at 12.00”.   Or vice-versa: start school “Do you start school at 8.30?”, or “You start school at 8.00”. 

5. Household chores

Students write a few household jobs around their spidergram. Their partner can create sentences such as “You have to / don’t have to clean your room” or “Your dad usually cooks dinner”, etc. They can also make questions, like “Do you take the rubbish out?”, or “Does your brother walk the dog?”, “Do your parents buy food?” etc. The higher the students’ level, the more creative they can get with the sentences and incorporate adverbs of frequency, modal verbs or practice conjugation by asking about different household members. Lower level students can still produce quite a few simple sentences or questions.


1. Prepositions of place

This can be done in a few ways. The students may write the names of objects and a clue about its location as a prompt (e.g. “book/ shelf”, “pen/desk”) I deliberately usually tell them not to write the articles for it gives the partner some freedom to choose to use the article or the possessive adjective etc. The partners then produce questions such as “Is your book on the shelf?”, or they can make sentences “A pen is on the desk”. To add a bit more variety the students who make the sentences can also be asked to say if it’s true or false, for instance: “Your bed is near the door – I think it’s true.” they can score a point for each correct answer.

2. Past/future tenses and structures

Students write a few verbs and the partners can ask them to make questions, or sentences. They can decide whether the sentence is true or false by making it positive or negative and get a point for each one they guess.  For example, “go to the cinema” is one of my prompts. We are practising past tense and partner makes a sentence “You didn’t go to the cinema last week” – they get a point if I really didn’t go to the cinema, or no point if I did. 

The same can be done to practise future tenses or structures like going to / be about to etc. Students who have more language at their disposal can extend their prompt by time expressions, place names, adjectives, etc.

3. Modal verbs

Ideal to practise modal verbs for permission, obligation, and prohibition. Students can write the names of different places and a verb or an expression connected with it, such as “library + talk on the phone”, “shop + pay”, “school + use your phone” etc. The goal is for students to produce sentences such as “You must pay in a shop.”, “You shouldn’t / can’t talk in a library” etc.

4. Verb conjugation

Students write names of different people they know (can include family, class members, teachers etc.) and a verb next to each – Mrs. Chapman + teach, “Mrs. Chapman teaches Italian.”, Tom & Charlie +live “Tom and Charlie live in Chester”, etc.

5. Imperatives

The easiest option is to include a verb or expression+ the person for which the partner is meant to create the imperative, something like: open the window + you singular, “Open the window”.  Higher level students can be challenged by being given only a verb or a part of the expression + person: “door + you plural”, or “write + formal you singular”, etc. I tend to remind the students to make their imperatives polite and add “please” at the end of the sentence. It’s also worth reminding the students that it’s not possible to use the imperative form for all persons. 😊

To make sure that your students have enough language to do the exercise by doing a quick vocabulary revision or brainstorming beforehand. You can also do the first round as a group activity – put your mind-map on the board and ask students make the sentences or questions about the prompts. That’s a great opportunity to see if they really get what they’re supposed to do and highlight any tricky areas or correct mistakes.

When you start using mind-maps, try to keep the activity as simple as possible. First time, I’d set the same rule for all class – all students prepare the same prompts and produce either questions or affirmative sentences. Once they know what they game is about, especially with higher levels, you can give them some freedom – they can decide if they form affirmative sentence or questions, modify their prompts.

It’s also possible to extend the speaking practice based on the mind-maps by telling students to ask follow-up questions – demonstrate one or two examples to give them an idea of what it may look like, first.

One of the caveats of using this type of activity is asking students to draw pictures or symbols. Although this is possible for some language points, what usually happens is, it takes incomparably longer than simply writing a word or expression, students are not happy with their pictures, or the partner cannot tell what the picture shows all of which is rather counter-productive and really demotivating. Having tried it a few times, I prefer sticking to written prompts and add spelling practice in this way.

Another potentially tricky area is setting up – some students may need more time to prepare their mind-maps than other, but this is easily fixed by setting a time limit for the preparation. With lower level, less confident students you may opt for a groupwork set up, in which students prepare their spider-grams in pairs, and then swap them and do the speaking practice with another pair.

As I said, there is quite a lot of potential in this simple activity, and I’m sure you’ll have loads of ways of adjusting them to your teaching style. I’d love to hear about your take on the mind-maps, if you use them – let me know what you do and how it works!

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