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March 2005

English For Int'l Communication

Kansans Fight for Family Literacy

9-11 Continues Wreaking Havoc

The Ultimate Communicative Activity

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The NCAA Tournaments
Building Communicative Activities Around Basketball

I am generally considered a "heavy" thinker and it has been my tendency to bring to the ESL/EFL classroom topics and activities centered around "deep," serious, and often controversial issues. My contributions have included "Logical Conversation Activities," "Flashcard Debates," and "Classical Argument Essay Templates."

But there are often ESL classroom settings, whether in the United States or overseas, in which students and the teacher would benefit from a trope or project that does not require an effort at philosophical inquiry or sociopolitical conflict. I would be the last person to say there is not plenty of work to be done in these areas and that it is urgent work in today's global context.

It is considered a sign of sophistication and education in modern academic settings to live oblivious to the parallel universe of sports events. That can make it difficult for an ESL/EFL teacher to take note of, recognize the potential in, and generate several weeks of language-rich, context-rich activities and discussions around the annual college basketball tournaments that are referred to in the United States as "March Madness."

I say "tournaments," because the enthusiasm generated by the NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Championship Tournament certainly rivals the excitement traditionally surrounding the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship Tournament. This year, the women's regional finals will be played in Chattanooga, Tennessee; Tempe, Arizona; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Kansas City, Missouri. The men's regional finals will be in Chicago, Illinois; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Syracuse, New York; and Austin, Texas.

The semifinals and championship game in the women's NCAA will be played on April 3rd and April 5th, respectively, in Indianapolis, Indiana (home of the NCAA). These games in the men's NCAA are to be played on April 2nd and April 4th, in St. Louis, Missouri.

You and your students can view the full tournament brackets for both NCAA Division I tournaments at:


One of the most important aspects of these three-week tournaments is that neither the teacher nor the students knows which team is going to prevail. That makes activities built around the NCAA post-season tournament supremely communicative.

Any time this first week, before Thursday, an astute ESL/EFL teacher will point his or her students to the tournament brackets, and encourage each student to pick several favorite teams to track or root for throughout the competition. Rationales for picking a team can range from "liking the way their campus looks on the Web," to "respecting their RPI," and any number of ideas in between these two extremes.

This is a great way for your students to become familiar with several U.S. universities which they may not have known about otherwise. There are all kinds of information about universities at their online sites: faculty (where did they study, what have they published, etc...); student life (how do they live, what do they do for fun); facilities (quality of library holdings); and, of course, their sports programs. Also of interest may be programs directed to international students themselves at each school.

Each of the three weeks of the NCAA men's and women's tournaments, a class activity could start from scratch again, giving each student another chance to "pick the winners," and in many cases likely offering them further insights into comparisons between different schools that go far beyond basketball itself. Of course, at some point during the three weeks there ought to be some attention given to the game itself. Again, there is a wealth of information about basketball online, and you may be surprised at how interested your students will be if you encourage them to do some research in this area.

I know that one thing I can't resist during NCAA tournament action is participating in online bulletin boards. My favorite place over the last few years has been at the New York Times online site. As a teacher, you will want to point your students in the direction of bulletin boards that are monitored or edited, so that they are not exposed to rough or offensive language which could diminish their enjoyment of "March Madness."

We get so set in our ways, sometimes as teachers or learners. And we take our art, our profession seriously--as we should. But imagine a three-week-long context, really a story line which unfolds over the duration of these unique athletic events. Some friendly arguing, bragging, lamenting, regarding the outcomes may develop in your classroom with just a little bit of structured guidance on your part, helping students with basic basketball and competitive vocabulary (including insights on how the same phrases are used in other topic areas, especially business and politics).

I hope you and your students enjoy the tournaments this year. How wonderful to be able to build an intensity of language-rich experience surrounding a game! Please do not let this year's opportunity slip away.

Article by Robb Scott

2005 ESL MiniConference Online