Halloween has become an increasingly popular festival in the Western world marking the transition from Autumn to Winter. It is associated with witches, ghosts and all things spooky. Some people love this festival and the opportunities it gives to dress up, have fun and eat lots of sweet things. Others dislike it because of its darker connotations and the popularisation of ‘trick or treating’ which some see as legalised extortion!
For TEFL, ESOL and other teachers of English, it is too big an opportunity to miss. Around the school and the town, there will be a host of activities leading up to the celebrations on 31 October. In this article, we look at possible English Language based activities to add to the festivities.
Let’s start with a short text about the history of Halloween. You could use this as a reading comprehension text for learners at B1 level and above. We have also provided a PDF copy at the end of this article.
Halloween, as it is celebrated today, has its origins in several ancient traditions and customs from different cultures, primarily those of Celtic and Christian origin.
The Pagan Festival of Samhain
The roots of Halloween can be traced back to the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced "sow-in"), which marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. Samhain was celebrated on the night of October 31st, as it was believed that on this night, the boundary between the living and the dead was blurred, allowing spirits and supernatural entities to roam freely. People lit bonfires and wore costumes to ward off these malevolent spirits. Today modern pagans believe and celebrate in similar ways.
When the Roman Empire conquered Celtic lands, some of their traditions merged with Samhain. One such example is the Roman festival of Feralia, which honoured the dead, and Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. Pomona's symbol, the apple, is thought to have contributed to the tradition of apple-bobbing, a popular Halloween game in Britain.
In the 7th century, the Christian Church established All Saints' Day, also known as All Hallows' Day, on November 1st. The night before, October 31st, became known as All Hallows' Eve, eventually shortened to Halloween. All Saints' Day was a time to honour saints and martyrs, and it incorporated some elements of Samhain, including the idea of remembering those who had died.
‘Souling’ - The Origin Of Trick or Treat
Over time, Halloween evolved in Europe with various customs, such as "souling" (begging for soul cakes) and "guising" (disguising oneself in costumes), becoming part of the celebration around ‘All Souls Day’ on 2 October. On this day, poor individuals, often children, would go from door to door and offer to pray for the souls of the dead in exchange for "soul cakes" or other small gifts. Soul cakes were a type of pastry, and the practice was a way to remember and pray for the souls of the deceased. These traditions, which also involved going door-to-door, singing songs, and receiving food or money, eventually evolved into the modern tradition of ‘trick or treating’.
Halloween In America
In the 19th century, Irish and Scottish immigrants brought Halloween traditions to North America. In the United States, these customs combined with Native American and other immigrant traditions, led to the modern version of Halloween we know today. Trick-or-treating became a popular activity for children, in which they dressed up in costumes and called on neighbouring homes to ask for sweets or candy. Halloween parties with costumes, games, and spooky decorations became more common.
Modern Popular Culture
In the 20th century, Halloween became increasingly commercialized, with the sale of costumes, decorations, and sweets. It also became a popular theme in movies, television shows, and literature, further shaping the modern image of Halloween.
Today, Halloween is celebrated in various ways around the world, with a focus on costumes, decorations, parties, haunted houses, and trick-or-treating. It retains elements of its ancient origins, blending traditions from Celtic, Roman, Christian, and European cultures into a unique and widely enjoyed holiday.
The History of Halloween Activities
Simple Reading Comprehension
Copy and distribute the text to all members of the class. Make a separate sheet of questions based on the ability level of the learners and/or the focus you want to emphasise. These could be written on the board or a separate paper. Ask students to write down their answers, paying attention to grammar (especially tenses).
Write a list of questions and key vocabulary on the board. Get students to guess and predict the type of answers expected. Read the text aloud, slowly, paragraph by paragraph and get students to write down answers as you go along. Finally, read the whole text again at normal speed so that students can check their answers. Collect in their written answer sheets or illicit answers orally, giving extra marks for full sentences and correct use of English.
Group Discussions and Quiz
Cut the text up into sections. Divide the class into groups of roughly equal numbers. Give each group at least one copy of one section of the text. Within the group, students should discuss their section of the text and ask the teacher questions about anything they don’t fully understand. Then collect in the text and redistribute the students into new groups. In each new group, there should be at least one student from all the previous groups. Each student then explains the text they read to the members of their new group. After about five minutes hold a class quiz based on the whole text. Students raise their hands to answer orally. Points are given for correct answers and, in order to encourage more thoughtful answers, points can be deducted for incorrect answers.
Running Dictation/Text Race
Divide the students into small groups or pairs. One member of the group or pair will be the writer who stays at their desk. The other member(s) of the group are runners. Place the text (perhaps blown up on A3 sized paper) on your desk or stick several copies in various locations around the room. The runners take it in turns to run to the text, memorise what they can and relay that information orally to the writer. The group who finishes writing the text (correctly) first, wins. For more able students, cut up the text into smaller sections pinned up out of order around the room. The winning group will not only have to finish the text first but also reassemble it in the correct order. In either version, you could follow the activity up with a class quiz with the students using their completed texts to find the answers. (You can also ask spelling questions to check for accuracy in the completed texts).
Other Halloween Activities
Halloween Projects (Various Levels)
Divide students into groups. Give each group a card with a Halloween related theme and some key vocabulary. (For example; Samhain, Witches, Pagan, Christian; or, Food; Pumpkins, Apples, Jack-O-Lantans). They must then research the history and origins of the festival focusing on the vocabulary given. They could use phones, computers, books or libraries depending on what is available in your teaching venue. When they have completed their research they should produce a poster, magazine or PowerPoint on their subject and present that orally to the class later in the week or term. They should finish their presentations with a short quiz to test their classmates. This activity can be adapted to any level and will practice all four language skills; reading, writing, speaking and listening.
Fashion Show: Designing and Describing Costumes A1+
This activity is particularly good for younger students but can be adapted for older and more advanced students as well. Get your students to design and draw Halloween inspired fancy dress costumes. You could inspire them with some weird and wonderful pictures taken from the internet or magazines. If you have the time and materials, you could ask your students to actually make the costumes. When the pictures or actual costumes are complete, hold a virtual ‘fashion show’ with a commentary in which the students have to describe their work using the correct English. This is a good way to practice and revise basic grammar and vocabulary. (The Green Haired Witch is wearing a black robe, Green Leggings and Red Shoes. Her face is very pale, and she is carrying a large book of spells…).
Word games (All levels)
We have provided some Halloween themed word games which you can find at the end of this article. Alternatively, you could get your students to make Wordsearch puzzles for each other using vocabulary associated with Halloween.
For an end of lesson filler, ask your students how many new words they can make from the word, HALLOWEEN? (You could also use other words associated with the festival). You can use websites like WordWord spelling bee solver to check your student's answers.
Brainstorming/Board-Race. In groups students think of as many words they can that can be associated with Halloween, for example; October, ghosts, night, haunted house, lanterns, black cats… The groups line up by sections of the board, the person nearest the board takes the chalk and writes the first word they can think of then hands the chalk to the next person before going to the back of the line. After a time limit, count how many words each group has got. Give double points if any group gets a word that nobody else has. If your classroom doesn’t have a suitable board, the students could do the same activity on paper.
Books, Films and Literature (A1-B2)
There are many ways in which the themes of Halloween are referenced in books, films and literature. With older students, level B1 and above, you could begin by asking them in groups to find, list and quote as many references to Halloween in books and films as possible using the internet. Then compare lists and discuss the differences and similarities between the stories they have highlighted. This could lead to further reading and essays or presentations on famous works of Halloween fiction or biographies of authors famed for horror such as Mary Shelly and Stephen King. Alternatively, you could create gap-fill or comprehension texts about famous writers or directors of horror using materials available online.
For younger students print out a simple scary tale or poem and replace key verbs with blank spaces. Tell the story orally with as much expression as possible, and have the class fill in the blanks as they listen. Very young students may enjoy decorating the text with pictures related to the story or poem.
For students at A2/B1 level, find a short Halloween Poem or story and cut it up into several sections. Divide the class into groups so that each group has one section of the story to read. The groups each read and discuss their part of the text. The paper texts are then taken away. Students mingle in their groups telling their part of the stories to members of other groups. Finally, the whole class have to reassemble to tell the story orally in the correct order.
At any level, you could get your students to write and illustrate their own Halloween themed stories, comics or magazines. These activities can easily be extended into dialogues, role-plays or drama work.
As a festival, Halloween may not be to everybody’s taste. With older or more advanced groups you could discuss some of the more controversial aspects of the holiday; the pros and cons of trick or treating, safeguarding concerns and religious issues. However, for all teachers of English, Halloween is a valuable impulse to get your students using English in creative ways.