Paper Airplane Translation

This awesome, simple, zero-prep activity came to me via Martina Bex, from Jason Fritze originally, and was recommended by Victoria B.C. teacher Martha McKay. It was fun, physical and a great way to get through another reading of the story.

(Edits are at the bottom of this page)

If you have tried it, or changed anything, I would love to hear  about it. This is a post-story activity.  I.e., you have already asked a story, and your students have read the story (or a similar version of it), and they understand it. This is not for introducing new vocab. The story should be say 25-30 sentences so the kids have to actually read more than they write.

You have to use a story for this, as the whole thing depends on reading, predicting meaning, confirming meaning etc (order is essential).

  1. Divide students into teams of two.  They make a “portmanteau name” for their group.  E.g. if their names are Simrowdy and El Chapo, they become SimChapo or El Sim.
  2. Put half the teams on one side of the room, and half on the other.  There should be a no-go zone in the middle.
  3. Each group needs one printed copy of the story, one sheet of paper, and one pen or     pencil.
  4. Each team picks one sentence from anywhere in the story.
  5. Each team translates that sentence into English, writes it onto the sheet of paper, and then writes their portmanteau name.
  6. Each team then makes their sheet into a simple paper airplane, and throws it across the no-go zone to the other side.
  7. Each team picks up one airplane, unfolds it, and reads the sentence written there.
  8. They figure out what it means.  Then, they have to find it in the target language in the story.
  9. Each team then picks another sentence that comes  within 1-3 sentences after the one they have just read, translates into English, writes it down, signs their group name, and throws across the no-go zone.
  10. If an airplane doesn’t make it across the no-go zone, the throwers have to retrieve it by picking it up…but they cannot use their hands, heh heh, and then they throw it again.
  11. If the sentence they read is at the end of the story, they can make their next sentence the beginning.

The objective is to read and translate as much as possible.

I assessed (reading category) very simply.  I collected the airplanes after about 25 min.  There were 13 teams = 13 airplanes.  I got the kids to unfold the airplanes, we laid them out in a row, and I told each team to count the number of sentences they had written, and come and  tell me.  The differences between the speedy kids and the slower ones was not very great. E.g. Manta had 11 and Anbas had 9.  I probably won’t assess next time.

I don’t think you actually need to mark this if the kids are engaged (but I tell them I am going to because a few need the er-hem “focusing power” of the grade).  The kids liked it.  I figure this takes 20-30 min.

Some variation/additional ideas from other teachers: 

  • write directions on board in target language
  • put one person (start with teacher) in the middle of the room, all kids throw their airplane at the person, they they scramble to pick up a plane not theirs (Alina Filipescu’s idea)
  • make them do one simple line drawing to go with each sentence (e.g. a stick man holding a stick dog– quick & easy)


What I would do differently next time.

  1. I would make each pair of kids throw to the same set of kids.  E.g. Marya and Minali will be exchanging airplanes only with Hassan and Jaskarn. This will keep people more focused.
  2. If the plane lands in the no-go zone, it has to be retrieved without using hands or feet.  heh heh
  3. Make sure that the same sentence is not written twice on each airplane.
  4. I would use TL vocab:  make, throw, pick up, write, airplane.


      1. I had them throw to the same pair each time and team with most translations got candy. I also told them they couldn’t use hands or feet to retrieve them if they landed in the middle….I took some hilarious pics. They really liked it and it was a great way to spice up an additional translation of our story.

  1. How fun!! I am thinking there should be a way to add sequencing into this game, or maybe that was implied and I missed it? When they write down the received sentence back into L2 on their clean sheet of paper, they could cross it off the story copy with a highlighter and use check marks on the story copy to mark the sentences they are sending back across, to keep track. As they collect sentences, they sequence them until they put the whole story together. It might be easier for me to check their work since the results would be in order instead of deciphering if each sentence is 1-3 from the previous, no? Or am I confusing things? I am going to try it tomorrow.

    1. It is sequenced. They receive a sentence, find it in TL in the copy of the story they have, and then they write down a translation of a sentence that comes 1-3 sentences later. If they are near end of story they can rotate back to start.

  2. I want to try this, but I have a couple questions. When students rotate back to the start, the sentences then will no longer be in order, right? But isn’t that a good thing? If everything is in order, doesn’t that make it too easy to find the TL sentence? The goal isn’t necessarily to have the entire story written out in English in order, is it?

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