Your pupils are getting restless.
Your younger students switch on their phones while you explain the present simple yet another time.
Some adult learners who want to learn English without studying grammar are thinking about quitting.
I know the pain. I am a teacher, too.
Introducing ESL activities, possibly the best solution to turn your classes upside-down and engage your students and help them to have fun and want to learn more.
It sounds too good to be true, but it really is. ESL activities are where it’s at, and this guide will explore everything you need to know to get started!
What Are ESL Activities?
ESL (English as a Second Language) activities are activities that have been specifically designed to help learners of English as a second language improve their language skills.
ESL activities come in many forms, from speaking practice and grammar bingos to writing competitions and vocabulary games.
You will find tons of ideas contained within the many links of this guide, and you will soon realize all ESL activities have many common features:
- They were created specifically for ESL learners. ESL activities might be different from traditional grammar or vocabulary exercises, but that is the point. They have been designed for a specific type of learner with a goal in mind: boosting their English language skills.
- They are an invaluable resource for teachers. The majority of ESL activities come in the form of lesson plans and include guidelines and detailed instructions for teachers. The only thing you will have to worry about is how to tell your students the class is over!
- They allow learners to improve their skills in a different environment. ESL activities are not “standard.” Your pupils and adult learners will get the chance to learn English in a totally different way. Many of these activities will make them think outside the box, move, sing, compete, etc. They will forget that they are in a classroom learning a language.
- They help put the theory into practice. Having standard classes is obviously necessary. You cannot have fun all the time. By using ESL activities, your learners will be able to apply their knowledge and all the vocabulary and grammar rules you have taught them in an engaging and fun way.
- They help improve student-student and student-teacher interaction. Many of these activities will make your students work in pairs or groups. Sometimes, some of them will have to leave their shy selves behind and act silly. Other times, you will tell them personal stories or anecdotes. ESL activities will allow your students to get to know each other better and understand their teacher is also a person—maybe even a cool one!
With this impressive cover letter, it should not come as a surprise that more and more ESL teachers use these kinds of activities to bump their classes up.
But you might still be wondering how exactly they can make your classes better.
We will cover just that in the next section.
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The Benefits of Using ESL Activities in Your Lessons
Using ESL activities sounds fun, and it really is!
But I want you to really understand all the good stuff they can bring into your lessons, so let’s get real and cut to the chase: What exactly are the benefits of ESL activities and how can they make your lessons awesome?
They let you use different teaching methods
Keeping things varied is not only good for your students, but also for your mental health. By using different kinds of teaching methods, you will allow your learners to have fun. Plus, it is always nice to surprise them with different approaches to learning English.
There are many teaching methods and ways of teaching lessons. Four favorites of mine are:
- TPR activities. Total Physical Response activities require your students to think fast and act as quickly as possible. They will definitely feel a rush while doing them.
- Role-playing. If done properly, role-playing can be a great tool to boost your students’ communication skills.
- Information gap activities. This is another awesome way to make your learners speak. They will need to communicate the missing information clearly and successfully if they want to complete a certain task.
- Cloze activities. Cloze activities do not have to be the typical boring fill-in-the-blank exercise. There are many ways to introduce this type of ESL activity so that both you and your students enjoy it.
These four types of activities are superb, especially for classrooms in which learners tend to get bored easily or with topics that might be dry or difficult.
However, I have recently discovered my favorite teaching method is using short videos and letting my learners interact with them.
If you want to give this innovative and creative teaching method a go, you should definitely try FluentU.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
FluentU has hundreds of authentic English videos you can use as the basis of your ESL activities in your classes. Think of this program as an umbrella method that will allow you to use different teaching methods and a wide array of activities in a couple of clicks.
Every video has been sorted according to its level, so you can use FluentU with beginner kids on their first day of class or with advanced adults who want to boost their listening comprehension skills. Just choose the appropriate level and let the program do the rest.
You will see right away that each video has been carefully designed to maximize your students’ learning. Every video includes a set of contextual subtitles that will allow them to see the meaning of any word in the context where they appear. By hovering the mouse over the word, they will see what each word means without having to ask you or checking a dictionary.
Each word also comes in the form of an interactive flashcard. FluentU’s superb flashcards include grammar info, definitions, native pronunciation, sample sentences and even a list of other videos where the word is used.
Students can add the words they do not know into a personalized vocabulary list that can be accessed any time they have the need to. You can use these lists to create ESL activities for them to practice their new vocabulary.
Additionally, each FluentU video comes with exercises and quizzes, including interactive fill-in-the-blank activities. This will save you precious time that you can use to create other types of activities for your learners.
Using FluentU is an exciting way to introduce ESL activities in your lessons. You can sign up for FluentU for schools if you want to use it in the classroom. Or, if you want to try the program first, you can sign up for a free trial for the individual program and see how it works for yourself.
They can get students moving
You and I know that some learners, especially the youngest ones, have more energy than the sun.
I am a huge fan of using physical activities during my classes because they allow my pupils to learn while they spend a little bit of their endless energy.
ESL physical activities can be fun for everyone involved, and they have a lot of benefits:
- ESL physical activities will allow your students to learn more. Having fun while learning is guaranteed to be a success. Your pupils will associate certain words and expressions with the physical activity they do, helping them remember everything faster and better.
- EAL (English as an Additional Language) and ESL dynamic activities will help your learners use English after the class. Students do not normally like to talk about school after the bell has rung, but by introducing physical activities into your classroom, they will be thinking about all the fun they had long after the class is over.
They will inevitably start talking to each other, bragging about how each of them was better, how “I remember the word international but you didn’t…” This healthy competition will make them use what you teach them outside of the classroom.
- ESL activities are the perfect pre-class warm-up. They will get your learners moving while you introduce the main topic of the lesson. This will make them even more engaged and focused since they will understand they are going to have fun during that day’s class.
They can get students working together
Working in pairs or groups is super beneficial for your learners and, let’s face it, gives us a break because we let our learners work on their own for a little while.
Introducing pair and group ESL activities into your classroom can be a good way to help shyer learners get comfortable and interact with their classmates. It also has other advantages, such as:
- They can be used to practice any language skill. These activities tend to be used for speaking practice, but you can use them to boost all your learners’ major language skills.
- They allow students to bond. ESL pair activities will help learners who isolate themselves or are individualistic open up to their classmates. They will benefit from this interaction and be more eager to participate in class in the future because they will feel more comfortable.
- They let you see the class dynamic. I love observing my pupils when they are working in pairs or groups. You can see who is engaged in the activity, who wants to go home and who is hoping the activity will be done by another person. I analyze their behavior and take notes so that I can pair them better in the future.
For example, I love pairing people who do not want to do the activity; they understand very quickly that they have to make an effort if the task is to be done, so they start working right away. You will be amazed at how creative they can be when they engage their brain!
They can be multisensory
Multisensory learning activities should have a pivotal role in ESL and EFL classes.
Engaging senses other than sight and hearing does not only make your classes more interesting, but it also helps your students learn better and faster.
Imagine how much easier it would be to teach them food vocabulary if you arranged a cooking class, or what fun they would have if, instead of giving them a list of animals, you took them to a petting zoo!
The can be multidisciplinary
Many ESL teachers think that their mission is to enter the class, regurgitate their knowledge and leave the class.
And indeed, our main mission as teachers is to transfer our knowledge into our students’ brains, but that does not mean we have to do it in a boring, routine way.
There are multiple disciplines and subject areas we can bring to our classrooms to help our students learn more.
Here are some ideas:
- Introduce ESL art activities at least once a month. Your learners, especially the youngest ones, will be delighted when you tell them they are going to have an ESL craft lesson (you can omit the ESL part for them). They will not even notice they are learning English!
- Create an ESL drama club. There are so many drama-themed activities you can use to help students practice their speaking and reading skills! Let their inner actors come out.
- Use drawing activities. Many kids do not like learning lists of words because they find them boring. Introduce drawing into the class and let them free their creative minds while they learn new vocabulary.
They keep things moving smoothly
I teach English because that is my passion, but some days not even my uncontrolled love for languages can inspire some learners want to do anything.
The key is to introduce motivational activities and help them love the lesson as much as you love teaching it.
By introducing interesting activities into your classroom, you will keep your learners engaged even during their worst days. Sometimes we have to reinvent ourselves and think outside the box when it comes to our ESL classroom activities, but that also helps us get creative and avoid making our lessons a bore-fest.
Try to keep your classes from coming to a full stop, even when you are having a bad day. If you feel the class slowing down, just use a filler activity that can be prepared in two minutes and wake yourself up. (And have fun! Never forget to have fun with your students).
They help students understand why they are learning
One of the main tasks we have as teachers is to make sure our students are learning and, in order to do that, we evaluate and assess them.
What not many teachers know is that it is possible to engage students in their own self-evaluation to make them more aware of what they are learning and, most importantly, why they are learning English.
There are many different types of self-assessment activities you can include in your lessons from time to time to encourage your students reflect on their own learning journey. These activities will not replace your own assessment work, but it will give you and your students a great insight into how things are going, what needs to be improved and what needs changing.
They help foreign students integrate into the group
If you have ever been abroad, you know how difficult and shocking it can be when you get bombarded by a new culture you were not ready for.
The same can happen in an ESL classroom to a learner who has just moved to an English-speaking country and does not know the language.
What is the solution when this happens in your class? Use ESL culture-shock activities to make your new student feel welcomed!
Do not go too over-the-top, though. Remember: New students are still not integrated into the group and can feel shyness, anxiety or stress. Use these activities in a way that will make them feel comfortable while integrating them into their new class environment.
How to Use Activities for ESL Students of All Levels
After going through all the benefits ESL activities can bring to your class, you might be tempted to think that they are something for kids or students who are just beginning their adventure with the English language.
But that is not the case at all!
ESL activities can be adapted to fit practically any age or level. We just have to be a little bit creative and move the bar up or down depending on who we are teaching.
ESL activities come in many shapes and sizes. Let’s take a look at their versatility.
ESL activities for kids
Teaching kids can be challenging if you do not have previous experience or the class is difficult to control.
I normally distinguish three levels or groups of kids: kindergarten kids, primary school kids and teenagers.
- Teaching English for kindergarten can be a delicious experience if you love children and know how to handle them in a group setting. The good news is that there are plenty of ESL activities you can use to teach them while keeping things in order.
- ESL activities for primary school children are possibly the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the words “ESL activities.” Lucky for you, this is the best group to use creativity and sensorial ESL activities with. There are literally hundreds of resources dedicated to this age group, so take advantage of them.
- English ESL activities for teenagers are definitely the most difficult to find. We know how difficult teenagers can be, with their moods, broken hearts and “I don’t wanna” days, so having a set of activities specifically designed for them will always come in handy.
ESL activities for adults
One of the many challenges of ESL teachers is to integrate different kinds of activities into their classes.
ESL activities for adults might be difficult to find. Let’s face it, who would ask a 40-year-old man to draw? The answer is me!
Hear me out.
A couple of times every year, normally around Christmas and before summer, I ask my adult students if they want to feel like kids for an hour and let me teach them as I teach kiddos. They always give me their biggest smiles and obviously say yes!
It is super fun (for them and for me) to see them struggle while they try to draw the vocabulary of that day, which obviously remains unchanged. Imagine them trying to draw words like logistically, entrepreneurship or mid-summer sales. Believe me when I say these are the two classes they enjoy the most during the whole year.
Of course, this kind of activity is not possible to do every week of the year. Generally, with adults, I find that teaching them English for specific purposes is often the way to go. You can teach English for IT, English for hotels, English for restaurants, English for mass media, etc.
You can also allow your students to also pick their favorite topics to make the lessons especially useful for them.
ESL activities or beginners
We normally think of beginners as little kids who do not know a word of English, but you might also have to teach that 50-year-old lady who wants to move to the US and does not even know how to say good morning.
When choosing activities for beginners, always bear in mind their age as the most important factor.
There are thousands upon thousands of ESL activities available, so quantity is not an issue. Focusing on quality and the fact that the activities are adapted for your learners will make your classes successful.
You can introduce the language to them with natural English and a sense of immersion that will engage them without being overwhelming. FluentU is possibly the best option here, since it can be completely personalized for each student regarding their level and needs.
ESL activities for intermediate students
Intermediate learners are possibly the easiest ones to teach. They have already gone through the initial stages where they know nothing and they struggle to understand new concepts, but they are still not advanced enough for you to cry over the lack of really good material and resources.
In my personal experience with intermediate students, I have found pair and group ESL activities to be the most helpful.
I always try to make my intermediate learners use at least two of the four major language skills at the same time. Activities such as fill-in-the-blank where one person from the pair has to read the information while the other completes the worksheet work wonders.
Other activities they normally enjoy include role-playing and mini-presentations on their favorite topics with a twist (for example, they cannot use the verb to be at all, or the first word in every sentence has to start with the letter S).
ESL activities for advanced learners
I feel that working with advanced learners can be super rewarding if everything goes as planned, but finding ESL activities for them can be a real pain.
Advanced ESL activities are not very easy to find, so you will probably have to brainstorm with your students or colleagues and come up with a few options that will allow your learners to reach fluency without neglecting the fun side of things.
I find that discussion activities work best with more advanced students. If you get a little bit creative, you will not only help them boost their English, but also you will all have fun and learn a lot about each other.
Some of my favorite advanced discussion topics include stereotypes, procrastination, stress, time management and sense manipulation in stores.
How to Use ESL Activities to Teach English Skills
Depending on what we want to accomplish during a specific session, we will focus our attention on one of the four major language skills (listening, speaking, writing and reading) or one of the three additional language components (pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar).
Fortunately, there are ESL activities for all seven of them, and this section will show you what is available and how to use it so you can help your students make the most out of your classes.
ESL listening activities
Listening is a language skill for which there are many ESL resources available, yet it tends to be one of the less practiced.
Improving listening skills is crucial for students of any age and level. For this reason, it is very easy to find something that is completely adapted for a specific group of learners:
- Use ESL song activities for all levels.
- Prepare physical activities and exercises that require more than one sense when coming up with listening activities for kids.
- ESL listening activities for beginners should allow them to get engaged and excited.
- Introduce active listening in the listening activities for intermediate learners.
- Think unconventionally when it comes to listening activities for advanced students.
- Get creative and introduce listening activities for adults that they will not expect.
ESL speaking activities
When you think of a language class, you probably have three things in mind: grammar, vocabulary and speaking.
Indeed, speaking activities for ESL learners are possibly the most commonly used across languages, English being no exception.
As teachers, we should make sure that our students practice speaking often, but we should also try to adapt the activities to their age and level so that they are really able to learn as much as possible.
There are three groups you should be especially careful with:
- Kids are normally complete beginners unless they have been raised in a bilingual environment. This makes it difficult to ask too much from them from the very beginning. Finding good ESL speaking activities for kids can be challenging for teachers but, fortunately, there are a lot of tricks and ideas out there we can use to make them talk from day one.
- Advanced students can often get frustrated when practicing their speaking skills because they feel they are not improving fast enough or they are just wasting time by repeating the same old, boring activities time and time again. When choosing speaking activities for advanced ESL learners, you need to make sure you are challenging them. This will keep them focused on the task.
- Getting adults to talk can be… hard. If they say they do not want to, you cannot send them to the principal’s office or call their parents. That is why it is so important to choose the right speaking activities for adult ESL learners.
Keep in mind as well that being an adult does not necessarily mean someone will be an advanced student. Because of this, you will be surprised at how much fun adults can have when participating in activities that are normally used with children, like a running dictation or a game of “Taboo.”
ESL pronunciation activities
It is necessary to pay attention to our learners’ pronunciation and intonation from class one.
We want to avoid situations where they learn a completely wrong pronunciation and then they are unable to unlearn it.
I always find it extremely helpful to start by teaching the letter sounds to any beginner group regardless of their age. This will give them an idea of what the sounds in English are, and they will be less shocked when they learn that bought is pronounced [bot], for example.
Intonation activities should also be included in your classes as soon as possible. It does not make sense to wait until a learner has reached a B2 level to correct the way they speak.
An awesome way to practice intonation is by using short English videos to familiarize your students with the overall sound of the language. If you decide to give this a go, do not hesitate to use FluentU and its collection of thousands of English videos divided by level.
I personally love using FluentU’s English YouTube channel with my learners. The videos are fun and full of useful content, and they give me the opportunity to show my students how the different varieties of English sound. Encourage your learners to subscribe to the channel and watch its videos at home. You can then use that as a base to start a conversation class and see what they have learned.
ESL writing activities
Writing is a skill that is often overlooked by teachers and dreaded by students.
The best way to add ESL writing practice to your class is to do it in a way that does not stress them. They should have fun while practicing this difficult and helpful language skill, so introducing interactive and creative exercises like descriptive writing activities is a must.
Another great idea I like to use with my beginner and intermediate learners is creating a school newspaper. Each of them gets to choose a topic and write an article about it. They love feeling like journalists!
ESL reading activities
If you ask me, reading is the most important language aspect after grammar.
Reading helps improve every other language component, and I personally think it should be used more in our classes.
I always try to add ESL reading comprehension activities and exercises at least once every five sessions, and I have realized that students look forward to these classes because they enjoy reading with a purpose, as opposed to reading a whole book because a teacher has told them so.
During my teaching years, I have noticed that adults have the biggest problem when it comes to reading. Many of them have been thrown into a language swimming-pool without learning how to swim first. For this reason, if you see they are struggling to read, start with the basics and introduce some activities for teaching the alphabet to adults. I am sure they will be thankful.
ESL vocabulary activities
We all know vocabulary is at the basis of any language, and without learning new words, our students would not be able to start communicating.
However, we also know that learning vocabulary can easily become a boring task, and it is our mission to find creative ways to teach them new words in ways that will help them remember what they learn.
One great technique you can use is to introduce thematic vocabulary activities and make a whole session with them. Imagine you want to teach students how to tell the time in English. You could either draw a clock yourself, give them the new vocab and call it a day, or allow them to draw clocks and get creative, add daily routines to the mix and learn the vocabulary while they have fun. Which option do you think will be more appealing to them?
Another excellent option you have is to make the lesson multisensory. If you want to teach your students food and cooking vocabulary, use food-related ESL activities that will allow them to get their hands dirty. You can even get them cooking for real and have an ESL cooking lesson they will never forget.
ESL grammar activities
Since grammar is the glue that holds every other component together, it should take a central position in teaching English.
However, many students run away when they hear the word “grammar,” and we need to find ways to make it approachable and harmless for them.
This is where ESL grammar activities become invaluable.
English learners can enjoy your grammar lessons again, and here you have some ways to do it:
- Teach students the English modal verbs in a practical and engaging way.
- Introduce phrasal verbs during speaking classes.
- Let them be teachers for a day and make them explain easy grammar concepts to the class.
- Use ESL preposition activities combined with physical activities.
How to Use Fun ESL Activities to Motivate Students
The last stop in our ESL activities journey has to do with motivation and what you can do to keep it high among your students.
There is no clear-cut solution for this issue because each student is different and group dynamics sounds like quantum physics to me, but there are a few final tips I personally use that I would like to share with you.
Make it personal
Always allow your learners to be engaged. They have to think this is about them, not the English language.
Make it fun
Try ways of teaching students that no one has ever used with them. Teach them slang, take them to a museum, make them cook in pairs where one does the cooking and the other reads the recipe in English… Be creative and have fun, yourself!
Make it technological
Use the internet to your advantage and, if possible, allow your students to learn interactively from time to time.
- Teach them ESL with videos, for which FluentU English is possibly the best tool out there.
- Use English lab activities so they can practice all the four major language skills.
- Ask them to watch YouTube videos at home (subscribing to FluentU’s English YouTube channel could be helpful here).
- Use “Pokémon” ESL activities to activate their active learning.
The possibilities are really endless nowadays.
Make it seasonal
English learners love seasonal activities because they get to have a break from normal classes.
If you are ever in need of some amazing ESL seasonal activities, here is a little bit of inspiration:
- Valentine’s Day ESL activities can be used to teach students love-related words and other Valentine’s Day vocabulary.
- St. Patrick’s Day ESL activities can be perfect to teach learners some cultural vocabulary.
- Presidents’ Day ESL activities will be awesome to teach them about American history.
- Mardi Gras ESL activities are superb to get your class moving (literally).
- Halloween ESL activities are one of my students’ favorite. Having a Halloween English lesson will get them ready for trick-or-treating—at any age!
- Thanksgiving ESL activities will be the best excuse to teach them about popular American holidays as well as useful everyday vocabulary.
- ESL Holiday culture lessons can be used to teach them Christmas vocabulary and introduce some Christmas ESL activities.
- Earth Day ESL activities will be perfect to teach them about the environment and all the vocabulary related to it.
- I use Easter ESL activities to make the class physical and multisensory (painting Easter eggs, preparing an Easter egg hunt, cooking Easter recipes, etc.).
- Autumn ESL activities are awesome to talk about the seasons, the months of the year and the weather.
- Summer Camp ESL activities will come in handy for those language-camp kids that need to exhaust their batteries before going to bed.
There you have it. ESL activities in all their glory.
Using ESL activities in your classroom is a power move that will be beneficial to you and your students.
We as teachers have a clear mission: We aim to teach learners English. However, this does not mean that they have to be bored while doing it.
Introducing ESL activities into your classes will allow you to keep things fun and interesting while everybody keeps on learning, no matter their age or level.
Give ESL activities a go and reap their benefits with a smile on your face. An English smile, of course.
Here is one final message to both you and your students: Stay curious and happy learning!
Francisco J. Vare loves teaching and writing about grammar. He is a proud language nerd, and you will normally find him learning a new language, teaching students or just reading in a foreign language. He has been writing for FluentU for many years and has recently become one of their Staff Writers.
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