Unstoppable: Boost Morale and Spark Determination with These 6 ESL Activities for Adults

Donald Trump and Tyra Banks both have something your adult ESL students need.

Know what it is?


Not only will it get them speaking up and participating in class, which in turn speeds up and enhances their learning, but confidence can also dramatically improve your students’ lives outside of English class.

It’s truly a win-win-win. The rejuvenated classroom atmosphere will make your job easier (and more enjoyable), your students’ English will progress faster, plus they’ll reap benefits in other areas of their lives as well.

So to boost your students’ confidence, we have six simple ESL activities for your adult learners.

How Confidence Can Help Adult Learners Improve Their English

  • Boosts morale and motivation in class. If your students have confidence in their abilities and potential, then it encourages them to push themselves more.
  • Opens opportunities outside the classroom. Adult ESL learners can find that having more confidence in one area can spread across to others. For example, with improved English confidence, your students might feel they are more confident in their skills at work. This could lead to more responsibilities and promotions, as well as increased trust from their clients.
  • Creates willingness to take risks. When students are more confident, they will be more likely to take risks. This could mean that you will be able to incorporate more difficult vocabulary in a reading lesson, or ask students to write more for assignments, for example.
  • Strengthens trust between you and students. Students who feel like they can handle the material you use in class will understand that you are challenging them to be their best. Students who are not confident will simply feel like you are giving them too much work, and might even refuse to do it.

How to Incorporate These ESL Activities for Adults

Keep the following tips in mind while using these confidence-building activities:

  • Try one at a time. It’s not a good idea to overwhelm your students with too much, particularly if you have lots of students who aren’t naturally confident. Doing one type of activity at a time helps to ease them into more challenging activities. You will be surprised at how much you can push your students once you see their confidence increase.
  • Incorporate them into daily activities. You don’t have to turn these activities into full-blown lessons (though you definitely can). Something as simple as 5 minutes before the start of a lesson will really help.
  • Allow time for reflection. Give students time to discuss or write down in a learning log how they did/felt after each activity. You can even have students film or record themselves so they can see the progression they’ve made. Sometimes we all get so caught up in work and seeing how much farther we have to progress, that we don’t stop to look at what improvements have been accomplished. This can also help you get feedback for future activities.

6 Empowering ESL Activities for Adults

Use any of the below activities in any order you want:

1. Reading Aloud for Fluency

This activity can help students appear more confident, and in turn feel more confident. Think of the phrase, “Fake it until you make it.”

Basically, all you have to do is select a piece of text, which students will practice reading out loud until they can read it fluently. The goal is to work towards reading the text in front of an audience. You can choose whether or not the students should memorize the text.

Short pieces like poems work best here, as there is a natural rhythm to them, and students tend to memorize them easier. The website Poetry Out Loud and Classic Poetry Aloud are great for finding such poems.

For students who are not confident at all, try to start with reading material they are already familiar with. It can be text you’ve introduced a while ago, or you can let them choose something from outside of class. When giving students a choice though, make sure you approve the text before they start working on it. You don’t want the text to be too difficult, or else you’ll miss the point of the activity.

Don’t forget to have the students focus on body language as well as how they speak. If they don’t know how to appear confident, start with a small lesson about body language. Give them a checklist so they can use it as a reference. For example:

  • Are you standing tall?
  • Are you looking at the audience?
  • Are you speaking loudly enough?
  • Are you enunciating your words?
  • How is the tone of your voice?
  • Are you smiling?

Once your students understand how to speak and focus on body language, have them read the text in front of a mirror. When they feel they are ready, have them read it in front of you, then work up to reading with a partner.

You can track their progress in class by filming their speeches so students can see the progression. Let them know that no one else will see what you filmed.

An activity like this should last no longer than a month, or else students might get bored of it. Think of it as a small activity to integrate into the beginning or during their independent work times. At the end of the month, students can present their poems/texts to the class.

2. Mimicking Public Figures

Watching videos of public figures can help students see good examples of how to appear confident. Public figures can include news anchors, politicians or even famous celebrities.

Start off by doing a class activity where the students analyze why the public figure they are watching is so confident. You could use a checklist like in the previous activity, and have students look for each element while they’re watching, or leave it open-ended.

While the students are discussing, write their answers on the board. You can watch a few short videos at a time for your student to see if there any commonalities. John F. Kennedy, Steve Jobs and William Faulkner are great examples of speakers to observe in your class.

Once you’ve identified qualities of confident speakers, students can then begin mimicking. Start off with a short video or give the students a choice between several. Students should simply mimic what they see on the video—including body language and tone. It’s easiest to copy the speaking if there’s a transcript or subtitles available, so a short fragment from a TED Talk, captioned YouTube video or an exciting video from FluentU will be best.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

With this, they will also be able to follow up with inbuilt quizzes and even interactive flashcards meaning your students can explore the speech or topic on a fundamental level.

Have your students move on to longer videos when they are ready. Depending on your class, you can have them show you what they’ve done and conference with you about how it has helped them before moving on to longer videos.

3. Sharing Struggles with a Trusted Person

Allowing time for students to share struggles with you and their classmates is helpful because it makes them feel they are not alone. Many times, students can get upset thinking that they are the only one who is struggling with learning English. If they know others are struggling too, students will feel more relaxed during class and won’t be as afraid to make mistakes in front of others.

Having students share their struggles with you is great for building rapport and trust between teacher and student. The more they trust you, the more feedback you can get about your lessons. Students might also come up to you and ask for help, which in turn help them get extra practice.

Don’t introduce this activity until you’ve known the students for at least a month. You want them to be familiar with the class and you before asking them to reveal their feelings. Any sooner and it may backfire on you.

To begin, tell a story about something you’ve struggled with (it doesn’t have to be academic, as long as it’s a skill you were trying to learn) where sharing your woes helped you push on. Give them time—a week or so—to think about what they’ve been struggling with and to record it somewhere. After a week, tell your students that you will start conferences with them and in groups. Make sure they don’t feel pressured to share all their struggles in the beginning, even something small will help them.

If you want the student to conference with you one-on-one, have students do some sort of independent work while you do so. If you want them to share their struggles with partners or groups, schedule in time before the start of your lesson. If your students are really shy, they could share what they’ve written down instead of telling someone.

Don’t fall into the trap of allowing students to complain or compare themselves with other students. If they do this, it will only make them feel worse about themselves. If you see this happening in groups or during your conferences, redirect the conversation to focus on just the student who is sharing.

4. Practicing Real-life Scenarios in the Classroom

Practicing real-life scenarios is a great way for students to feel better when faced with difference types of English outside the classroom. Often students don’t feel confident because they don’t know what to say or how to respond when someone is speaking to them in English.

If you already do role plays in your English class, just make sure you practice a variety of practical scenarios. For example, if many of your adults have to conduct business meetings in English, that would be an excellent scenario to recreate.

To find out what would best meet the needs of yours students, have everyone come up with common reasons why they use English outside of the classroom. Using the feedback, make a list of scenarios for the class.

Then give students time to practice role playing a situation with you or with each other. Keep this activity short (no more than 15 minutes), but make it a daily one.

5. Reflecting on Successful Past English Classes

Sometimes students are so focused on what they have to achieve that they forget how far they’ve come already. Asking your students to reflect on past English classes forces them to see where they used to be and where they are now.

In fact, many of your students will probably be very surprised at how much they have progressed. This serves as a confidence booster, and also as motivation to continue pushing themselves.

Some ideas for how to have your students reflect include writing in a journal, keeping a learning log, collecting works in a portfolio and periodically filming them thinking or reading out loud.

Set aside some time to conference with students regularly about their progress—every two weeks or monthly. Make sure you keep your own conference notes so you can also see how the student has progressed.

6. Reading Stories of Progress

When your students are feeling discouraged, it’s a great confidence-booster to see how other people have also struggled yet improved and grown. Make sure not to label these “success stories” though, as you don’t want to give students the false view that their English (or anything!) is either a failure or success.

The most important take-away is that learning is a journey where you’re constantly developing and progressing. Mistakes and weaknesses are not “failures,” but natural and necessary. Reading stories of others’ struggles and progress helps students to see that it will take time—they just need to persevere and put in continual effort.

If possible, invite some of your past students to share their stories with your current class. If this is not possible, look for written articles or stories that you could base a lesson on—such as stories of famous celebrities whose first language isn’t English.

For example, Arnold Schwarzenegger immigrated to the United States and commonly shared how hard he worked on his pronunciation when he was trying to break into Hollywood. Penelope Cruz didn’t begin learning English until age 20, and in several interviews, she mentions common English mistakes she made when first arriving in the USA. This website has numerous other stories of celebrities who have learned other languages.


Building confidence has so many advantages for your class—and more importantly for your students’ lives! Try any one of the activities above to start building your students’ confidence today.

Enter your e-mail address to get your free PDF!

We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe