A Quest for Excitement
Some ideas for teaching English with Nova's Quest textbooks
September 16, 2002
by Trevor Harmon
On December 7, 2001, I began my first day teaching English lessons at
a Nova school. I was never really
nervous, but I certainly was stressed. The pace of eight lessons a day, with
just ten-minute breaks between, was a lot to handle at first. I found myself
coming to work an hour early just to plan the lessons for that day. Never
having taught English before, I was determined to look like I knew what I
It got easier, of course. After about two months, I had taught so many
lessons that I could almost always choose one I had done before and
knew well. Plus, I had been making lesson plan outlines in little notebooks
to help me remember how to teach each lesson the next time around. By the
time I left Nova nine months later, I had become so familiar with the textbooks
that I never needed to plan a lesson at all. I could sleep in and spend those
ten-minute breaks chatting with my buddies in the break room.
Not every Nova teacher worries as much as I did about lesson planning,
but for those who do, I want to share a few ideas. Teachers with a few months of experience have probably already figured out most of these
tips for themselves, but for Nova newbies, I think this stuff could be really
useful during those first few weeks. I sure wish I had known these ideas
before I started teaching.
The Top Tips
- Learn from your coworkers. More important than any manual or
training session is the collective knowledge of your fellow teachers. Every
time I got stuck planning a lesson, I asked another teacher and often got
back ideas I never would have thought of. My advice: Always ask your coworkers
for new ideas, even if you think you already know how to handle your lessons.
- Alternate material is a lifesaver. Most teachers would agree
that the official Nova Quest textbooks are far from ideal. More than a
few lessons could be taught better with other material. That's one of the
reasons Nova stocks additional textbooks such as Side by Side and Vocab Builder.
Some of the lessons in these books are simply more coherent and effective.
But alternate materials aren't just for the students. They can save your
sanity by providing a little variety in your day. After all, who hasn't gotten
sick of doing that "My daddy can..." lesson a zillion times? (I know a guy
who's been working at Nova for over three years and can quote entire
passages from Quest.) Alternate materials can also make your life
easier when you're about to teach a group of students that has done every
Quest lesson three times. (Yes, this does happen.) And by the way, about
that alleged rule concerning Regular B, or "RB", students...people say you're
not allowed to use alternate material on them. Personally, I think that would
be doing them a disservice. I always ignored the rule, and I think my students
are better off because I based my lesson plans on their needs, not Nova's
- Word by Word cards are your friend. Every Nova branch has, or
is supposed to have, a set of Word by Word cards. These laminated, colorful
cards are divided into sets (jobs, seasons, emotions, etc.) and each card
has a picture that matches a word in the set. Though they were probably designed
to be flashcards, they make great tools for games and other applications.
For example, the setting of lesson 15, level 6, is a job interview, and as an
application, I do a role play where one student is the recruiter and the other
is applying for the job. That's a pretty conventional setup for a Nova lesson,
but there's one thing missing: What's the job? I put the cards face down
in the middle of the table and make the students base their role play on
whatever card turns up on top. This is good for the students because it prevents
them from using simple job vocabulary. More importantly, it's good for me
because I don't have to worry about time. If I only have a few minutes left,
then we just do a couple of cards and say good-bye, and if there's a lot of
time, then we just keep going until the bell rings. Time management can be
a problem that plagues even the most experienced teacher, but the Word by
Word cards go a long way in curing it. I can't recommend them enough.
- Newspaper articles are overrated. A couple of the teachers in
my branch loved doing newspaper articles. They'd take a recent English-language
newspaper, find an article that they like, and spend the lesson discussing it with
their students. Perhaps those teachers had some kind of magic up their sleeve
that could make it work, but I always thought newspaper articles made for
bad lessons. Usually they have such tough vocabulary that you'll spend a
lot of time explaining words. And even if the vocab isn't an issue, you'll
probably do a lot of talking to explain background information, slang, and
idiomatic phrases. It's just not a good idea if student talk time is your
goal. The only time I would ever do a newspaper article is if I'm teaching
a level 3 class and everyone has already done everything else.
- Everyday conversation lessons are underrated. I remember one
of my co-workers saying, "I never do those everyday conversation lessons.
I'd feel sorry for my students because the conversations are so boring."
A lot of teachers must feel the same way because I've noticed that the everyday
lessons (you know, the ones with four photographs and dialogue on the side)
are usually the last ones open on students' mark-off sheets. In my humble
opinion, many of those lessons aren't any worse than the others; they just
take more time to plan. If you spend just a little extra work developing
a decent warm-up and application, they can actually be valuable lessons.
After all, these are "everyday conversations", with phrases and vocab our
students could use out in the real world. Just make sure your role play ideas
are natural, and everything will come together. And the best part? Because
few teachers like to do these lessons, they'll be wide open for you.
I was never good at icebreakers. Maybe it's because I'm not good at smalltalk.
But somehow I stumbled upon a few icebreaker games that worked well every
time. I don't take complete credit for the following inventions; I built them
out of ideas I got from other teachers and materials.
- Truth-or-lie (levels 7A and up) - In
this game, the students take turns and try to earn points by calling bluffs.
One student says something about his or her personal life such as, "I'm married."
The other students guess whether the student is truthful by saying "true"
or "false". If they're correct, they get a point. After five minutes, the
student with the most points is the winner.
- Numbers guessing game (levels 7B to 6) - Each student writes
numbers on a piece of paper, where each number has some personal meaning
to them. For example, I might write "27", "30", and "5": I'm 27 years old,
it takes me 30 minutes to get to Nova, and there are five people in my family.
(Those are standard icebreaker statements.) All students show their papers
to everyone else, and together they try to guess what the numbers are by
asking each other questions (i.e. "How long does it take you to come to Nova?").
Numbers are crossed off when students ask the right questions. This game
is kind of tough to explain, so you might demonstrate it after explaining
it. Also, you should limit the numbers to two per person with three or more
- Tic-tac-toe (levels 7C to 7A) - Make a standard tic-tac-toe
grid and write question words in each box: who, what, where, etc. (Incidentally,
"which" doesn't really work in this game.) Students play tic-tac-toe, but
before they mark a square, they have to ask the other student a question
starting with the word in the square. Of course, this game works with two
Whenever I planned a lesson, I would write down an outline for it in one
of my little yellow notebooks. Too pedantic? Maybe. All I know is that it
saved me a lot of time and trouble in the long run and, I think, made me
a better teacher.
Most of what I wrote in the notebooks wouldn't help other Nova teachers.
That's because the outlines for my lessons consisted largely of my personal
preferences, such as which practice drills from the Quest teacher's pages
worked best, or which questions to ask for the Q&A part of the lesson.
But there are a few ideas, especially for applications, that other teachers
might find useful. I've listed them below. Again, I don't take credit for all of these ideas. Some were inspired by ideas in Nova textbooks.
- Lesson 5
- Play the traditional game of 20 questions (you know, animal/vegetable/mineral).
But make the category animals only. You'd be surprised how well 7C students
can play this game.
- Look at the objects pictured in the lesson, and bring as many of
them as you can find to the lesson. (For example, you can easily find a coffee
mug in the teacher's room.) If you can't find enough, bring other objects
that you think a 7C should know or learn. Then, play a game where the student
closes his eyes, you hand over an object, and he must identify it by touch
alone. Works great for one-on-one lessons with kids.
- Lesson 6
- Have students draw a floor plan (like the one shown in the book)
of their own house or apartment and get them to ask each other questions
about the plan (i.e. "Is there a clock in the bedroom?", "How many chairs
are in the living room?") You could use Word by Word book, pages 14-17 as
- Lesson 7
- Pretend you are a famous person. Other students ask questions related
to the lesson ("What's your address?", "What's your job?", etc.) until they
figure out who you are. Play the game in turns.
- Lesson 9
- Have students draw a family tree with at least three levels (i.e.
grandfather, father, son) and get them to ask questions about it, such as
"Who's Keiko?"..."She's Noriko's mother." Draw your own family tree to demonstrate
- Put a bunch of similar objects in the middle of the table. For instance,
everyone could each put a watch, a key chain, and a pen on the table. Then
take turns asking, "Whose pen is this?"..."It's Kenji's pen." etc.
- Lesson 10
- Word by Word book, pages 50-51, makes a good activity for "Is there
any ice cream in your refrigerator?", "How much is there?", etc.
- Lesson 12
- As a warm-up, have students brainstorm things that mothers, bosses,
and teachers say.
- This is my all-time favorite lesson because of the applications you
can do. Here's an idea: One student is a director, the others are actors.
The director simply directs the actors, as in the lesson text. It's best to
make yourself the director first and later give them a setting such as a
baseball game, a restaurant, etc.
- Play "Simon Says". You know, "Simon says, 'Touch your nose.' Simon
says, 'Stand up.'" Players must do everything preceded with "Simon says" and
nothing otherwise. I always got a kick out of being Simon and going really
- Bring the Word by Word cards for everyday activities. Students take
turns giving the commands on the cards; other students must pantomime the
action. (Make sure the students hide their cards so that the ones receiving
the commands can't cheat.)
- Lesson 19
- Advertisements in English-language newspapers for retail stores are
good props for role plays here.
- Lesson 21
- Play charades. Each student pantomimes some kind of everyday activity,
and the others have to guess by saying, "He's eating!", etc. (This game can
be adapted for any of the present progressive lessons.)
- Lesson 23
- Bring a few CDs from the teachers' room and use them as props for
a shopping role play.
- Lesson 25
- Your branch should have a game called "Preposition Bingo", which is
just like regular Bingo but has depictions of prepositions instead of numbers.
Try to find it; it goes well with this lesson.
- Lesson 31
- Your branch should have lots of play money (perhaps in the kids' room)
to use for the third and fourth scenes.
- Lesson 41
- Role play: One student is the husband; the other is the wife. The husband
was seeing his girlfriend last night, and the wife doesn't know about it,
but she smells some suspicious perfume when he comes home one evening
- Lesson 42
- Act out scenes similar to the book's, but instead of an astronaut,
use these characters: Antarctic explorer, Sahara Desert traveler, Mount Fuji
- Lesson 59
- Bring toy telephones from the kids' room for the role plays.
- Act out a scene where a foreigner asks how to use a Japanese pay-phone
to dial his country.
- Bring a copy of the country codes page in the phone book; use it
for a role play.
- Lesson 61
- Make copies of the moonwalk pictures; cut them into individual pieces;
ask students to work together and reassemble them. (You may need to help
them at first.)
- Play a game that goes like this:
"What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to sign my name."
"What are you doing?"
"I'm signing my name." (student actually signs his name)
"What have you done?"
"I've signed my name."
You can use everyday activity Word by Word cards to help students get ideas.
- Lesson 62
- Point out the difference between "I've been to..." and "I went
to...". In the former, you never give a specific time, while in the latter,
you almost always give a time.
- Speculate where the students in the previous class have gone.
- Leave the class and ask students to speculate where the teacher
has gone. (You don't have to actually leave; just go to the next cubicle
and let students imagine.)
- Guess where everyone has been today.
- Lesson 63
- Good warm-up: Talk about the things you hate to clean, such as shoji
(Japanese-style sliding doors).
- Here's a fun game for three people: One student turns to another
and says, "Brush your teeth." That student pantomimes brushing his teeth,
then a different student repeats, "Brush your teeth." The second student
complains, "I've already brushed them!" Repeat the game, but this time start
with a new student. Use everyday activity Word by Word cards for more commands.
- Lesson 68
- Compare each other (i.e. "His hair is longer than mine.")
- Lesson 69
- Play a guess-the-job game. One student thinks of a job and says at
least three things that a person with this job must do; the others must guess.
(i.e. "He has to wear a uniform. He has to practice every day. He has to
work on Sunday."..."Is he a football player?") Use Word by Word job cards
for job ideas.
- Get students to talk about things they had to do as children but
don't have to do anymore.
- Lesson 71
- Warm-up idea: Talk about things you're afraid of. What are boxers
- Some Nova branches have a "Yuppies Game". It's a list of random pictures
of luxury items, and each student is given a handful of them. One student
starts like this: "My car is faster than your bicycle" and lays down a picture
of a car. Another student says, "My fur coat is warmer than your car" and
lays down a picture of a fur coat. The game continues until no cards are left.
- Lesson 74
This lesson is perhaps the all-time least-favorite Quest lesson among Nova
teachers, perhaps because the textbook does such a poor job of explaining
it. (The "Look At This" section at the bottom must be somebody's idea of
a joke!) Here are some role play ideas that might make the lesson easier.
- Role play a scene in a child's bedroom. The child thinks there is
something under his bed, but the mother (and/or father) can't see anything.
"There's something under my bed!"..."I don't see anything."...etc.
- Role play a scene at a restaurant. The customer sees a fly in his
soup, but the waiter can't see anything.
"There's something in my soup!"..."I don't see anything."...etc.
- Lesson 76
- Act out the scene that would take place immediately after the last
- Lesson 77
- Describe the group (i.e. "One of us is wearing a tie.")
- Lesson 5
- Make an imaginary timeline for yourself containing the major events
of your life over the next twenty years. Ask each other, "Where will you
be five years from now?", "Will you have a house ten years from now?", and
- Imagine you fall asleep and don't wake up for 100 years. Describe
what there will be in the future.
- Lesson 6
- Each student imagines their ideal marriage partner, then asks the
others about their choices. (i.e. "Will he be handsome? Will she be rich?")
- Lesson 17
- Discuss the things people will be able to do 100 years from now.
- Lesson 21
- This one's always fun: Role play the scene that would happen when
Al comes back to work the following day, and the boss confronts him. (If
there are three people, the third person could be a friend who lies to cover
- Lesson 22
- At the beginning of the lesson, make sure everyone has gotten to
know each other. Later, play a game where students ask each other questions
like, "You have a car, don't you?" For each positive answer, the questioner
gets a point.
- Lesson 27
- Challenge students to come up with expressions like, "as mean as
the devil", "as fat as a pig", "as smart as Einstein", and so on.
- Lesson 34
- Talk about the things you used to do as a child but don't anymore.
- Compare everyday life today with life fifty years ago. What has improved?
What has gotten worse?
- Lesson 51
- Here's a fun one, but it absolutely requires three students. It's
a role play where one student is a famous person (let the students pick which
one). One of the students wants to talk to the "famous" student but is too
embarrassed to say anything. So, the student gets a friend (the third student)
to ask the questions, like this:
A: "Ask him if he's going to be in any new movies this year."
B: "Are you going to be in any new movies this year?"
C: (ad lib) "Oh, yes, I'm in a new action film with Tom Cruise."
- Lesson 52
- This is one of all-time favorite lessons. First, try this as a warm-up:
Talk about the great mysteries of the world. You might want to describe Bigfoot
as an example to get them started. If they get stuck, give them more topics
to discuss, such as the Bermuda Triangle, the Loch Ness Monster, Atlantis,
crop circles, and so on. You can then segue nicely into the mystery of UFOs.
- Later, as an application, try this game: Ask each other impossible
questions. Encourage students to make them ridiculous, like this:
"How tall is George Bush?"
"I have no idea how tall he is."
"Is it raining in Hawaii right now?"
"I'm not sure if it's raining in Hawaii right now."
- Lesson 63
- Page 65 in the Word by Word book has a nice gallery of toys.
- Lesson 69
- "Kansai Time Out", "Japan Times", and other English-language publications
have real classified ads to use for role-plays. (Classified ads are uncommon
in Japanese newspapers, and often the students don't even know what they
- Lesson 72
- Prepare a time capsule for 100 years in the future. What would you
put in it?
- Lesson 16
- For young students: What do your parents let/make you do? For students
with children: What do you let/make you children do?
- Lesson 25
- Imagine we all just heard a loud noise. (Choose something unusual,
like a bang or an explosion.) Discuss what it could/might/may/etc. have been.
O-tsukare Sama Deshita!
I hope you've found this page useful. If you have any of your own ideas that
you'd like to see here, send me an email
and I'll add them.
For more thoughts about the Nova experience, see my Japan page.
Disclaimer: The opinions on this page are mine and do not
necessarily represent those of Nova Corporation.