Looking for a way to enrich your ESL students’ learning experience?
Look no further than history!
Bringing culture into the classroom is a great way to get your students interested in learning, and American history is one of the richest sources of English-language culture.
There is no dearth of material online, and what’s more, it is a really fascinating subject for expanding ESL past grammar rules and vocab lists.
While you can absolutely address American history topics with beginners, you can get a lot further with intermediate and advanced learners by going more in-depth.
That is why we have created some convenient intermediate and advanced lessons, based around great and engaging online resources, that you can use to teach US history to your students.
Yankee Doodle Went to School! 4 Rich American History Topics for Intermediate and Advanced ESL Classes
1. The Revolutionary War
The Revolutionary War is a very interesting topic to teach in ESL classes because you can present both the British and American perspectives—in this way, you get to look at the war from both (English-speaking) sides!
For an intermediate class, it is very fun to schedule an in-class debate about the war, a sort of verbal recreation of the fight for American independence. To do so, you will of course need to give your students some materials.
Start things off by presenting an introduction to the American Revolution in class. You will want to keep this fairly short. To do so, you could start with a video—here are a few that are easy to understand for intermediate learners:
- This “Schoolhouse Rock!” video about the American Revolution begins with the arrival of the Pilgrims and then launches into the motivations for the Revolution, with allusions to “taxation without representation,” the Boston Tea Party and democratic elections.
- This longer (15-minute) educational video charts the motivations for the Revolution from 1763 to the war. It is a little drier but presents far more facts.
- This “Brief History of America’s Independence” offers all of the facts with accompanying illustrations, starting with the French and Indian War. This one also offers a much clearer view of the reasoning behind the British decisions leading up to the Revolution, which will be helpful in the debate.
- This rock version of the American Revolution is pretty catchy!
Once you have presented the American Revolution and the key facts leading up to it, (here is a refresher in case you are a bit rusty), separate the class into two groups, one Loyalist and one Patriot. Then have them debate, each side presenting their arguments, rebuttal and conclusion.
Be sure to give them resources from both sides. There is lots of information available on the American side; here are just a few choices:
- AwesomeStories highlights of the American Revolution
- History Channel resources on the American Revolution
- The National Park Service resources on the American Revolution
British resources might be harder to come by, but they will be crucial for Loyalists. Here are a couple good ones:
Be sure to let your students know who has won the debate and how you made your decision!
You can start your advanced lesson in the same way—with a video presentation and discussion—but then things are going to take a different turn!
Instead of you, the teacher, presenting the Revolutionary War, each student is going to be allotted five minutes to make a presentation on a different aspect of the war. Either give them one class period and one night of homework to prepare, or give them a week of homework. The benefit of giving them a class period is that you are available to help them prepare for the presentation.
Here are a few subjects that you can assign, but you should also encourage students to pick their own topics. Just be sure to have students present as chronologically as possible—no need to make things confusing!
- “No taxation without representation”
- The Boston Massacre
- Paul Revere’s ride
- The Boston Tea Party
- The First Continental Congress
- The Second Continental Congress
- The Declaration of Independence
- The Treaty of Paris
- George Washington
- George III
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2. The Civil War
When looking at the Civil War, there are a lot of different elements to explore. It is important to realize that you won’t be able to touch on everything, so just try your best to present the different events as clearly as possible.
For your intermediate students, your study of the Civil War will be based on a class timeline project. For this, separate your class into pairs or small groups, and assign each pair or small group a year, beginning in 1860 and ending in 1865. The group assigned 1860 will need to talk about the motivations for the war before it broke out.
Next, ask each group of students to come up with five individual events that contributed to the war that occurred during the year that they were assigned. To do this, students will need to have access to research materials, either online or at your school’s library, if you have access to one.
Allow students to work together, making sure to help where needed. The next day, unroll a long sheet of white paper to make the timeline. Have each group come up, one by one, and add their events to the timeline, explaining which events they chose and why. At the end, you will have a unique timeline that shows what was happening in the U.S. during this period of history.
You can finish your timeline project with a video:
- This BrainPOP video is quick and to-the-point.
- This Crash Course history course is very interesting and engaging.
For advanced students, a discussion of the Civil War affords a great opportunity to write a reaction essay. In order to do this, present your advanced students with an article on the topic, and ask them to formulate a thesis based on the article and defend it. You can assign 500 words for this assignment.
Here are a few choices for the reading assignment, though you can of course choose your own:
- “150 Years of Misunderstanding the Civil War” (The Atlantic)
- “How Newspapers Reported the Civil War” (Smithsonian.com)
- “Seven Civil War Stories Your Teacher Never Told You” (CNN) (allow students to pick one to analyze)
If your students are not terribly familiar with the Civil War, you can also begin with one of the videos suggested in the intermediate lesson.
3. Ellis Island and American Immigration
America continues to be a melting pot today, but there was perhaps no time more crucial in the construction of this multicultural society than the mass immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that came through Ellis Island.
Perhaps the best way to explore Ellis Island is not through numbers and figures, but rather through the stories of individuals who came through the island. This will be the focus of these lessons.
For your intermediate students, begin with a video. Here are just a few choices that allow you to explore the ambiance of the time:
- This Ellis Island scene from “The Godfather Part II”
- A modern look at Ellis Island from “Hitch”
- A historical look at Ellis Island from VOA
- A video about Chinese immigrants in the US (not specifically related to Ellis Island)
Next, you will do a reading comprehension lesson. Here are a few worksheets that you can use for this portion of the lesson:
- History of Ellis Island — This worksheet is key for early intermediate learners to get a grasp on Ellis Island as a whole. It doesn’t delve very far into personal experiences, but it does provide a good overview.
- Antonio, an Italian Immigrant — This worksheet is ideal for using as a follow-up to the scene from “The Godfather”; it charts the experience of one immigrant’s experience through Ellis Island.
- Chinese Immigrants and the California Gold Rush — As with the above worksheet, this sheet is ideal for using as a follow-up to the video about Chinese immigration in the US. Depending on the native tongue of your class, one of these may be more appropriate or pertinent than the other.
- The Immigrant Experience: Arrival — This is a more general-purpose immigrant experience worksheet, but it is better for more advanced-intermediate classes. It is a longer reading, so be sure to leave adequate time for students to work, or consider assigning some of it for homework.
- Ellis Island: The Name Change Myth — This worksheet is all about a myth that is commonly told about Ellis Island, whereby names were often changed when new immigrants arrived. This is something that you will see in the clip from “The Godfather,” but it occurs very quickly, so be sure to draw your students’ attention to it in the video and discuss it a bit before assigning this worksheet.
- If Your Name Was Changed in Ellis Island — This worksheet is a great take-home option following the above worksheet. It allows students to step into the shoes of the immigrants coming through Ellis Island.
Be sure to open the floor for discussion at the end of class!
Your advanced lessons can begin with one of the videos as well. Then, you can use a roleplay game to allow students to imagine what it would have been like to be an immigrant coming through Ellis Island.
The resource linked above allows students to step into the shoes of a new immigrant in America, answering many of the questions that immigrants were expected to answer. It also encourages students to talk about hopes and fears, so be sure to review related vocabulary before the activity. You can also make up your own version of this roleplay game by creating your own information cards and asking students to pick them out of a hat.
You will need to assign students partners so that they can interview one another—one student will be the interviewer and the other will be the interviewee; students can then switch. It may be interesting, depending on the maturity of your class, to allow the interviewer to accept or deny the interviewee entry into the country: He or she must give a reason for the decision!
If you believe that your students are mature enough and interested enough in the subject matter, you could also encourage them to create their own characters; be sure to ask them to include:
- Where they are from
- If they are traveling alone or with family
- If someone is picking them up in the US
- What their job was in their home country
- If they were ill on the voyage or not
Finally, you will ask students to complete a fiction writing exercise, where they imagine that they are an immigrant coming through Ellis Island. Encourage them to describe what they see, hear, feel and smell. Are they nervous? Excited? Scared? Sad?
Let students share their writing by reading aloud at the end of class, time permitting.
4. Pearl Harbor and World War II
Intermediate and Advanced Lesson
When discussing World War II in America, talk usually begins with the official entry of the US forces into the war with Pearl Harbor. One way to understand the magnitude of this event is through analysis of video.
The following lesson is flexible in terms of level, so both intermediate and advanced classes can approach it in the same way. First, you will need to present a video to your class—choose your own or pick from the following:
- Attack scene from the film “Pearl Harbor”
- “5 Things You Don’t Know: Pearl Harbor”
- The only color film of the attack on Pearl Harbor
Once your students have watched the video, have them analyze it aloud as a group. Prepare some comprehension questions, as you would with reading comprehension, to help your students address the issues that they see portrayed.
For example, you might ask students:
- Who attacked whom in the video?
- Where is Pearl Harbor?
- Who was in Pearl Harbor during the attack?
Avoid “why” questions for general comprehension questions, as they tend to be overly complex.
After this introduction, you will attempt to situate Pearl Harbor within the greater tapestry of World War II. The way that you do this should depend on where your students are from, as their own knowledge of World War II should form the basis of your analysis.
Use a world map to show when and how different events took place and where alliances were formed. Ask your students to situate the Pearl Harbor event within World War II and explain its causes and effects. This in-class discussion can be followed with a written exercise, if you feel this is necessary or would be helpful.
Historical events make excellent themes for ESL classes.
As you can see, you have an abundance of resources at your disposal!
Teaching American history will allow your students to become more invested, not only in the language, but in the culture that surrounds it.
And One More Thing…
Looking for fun resources for teaching your students conversational English? Then you’re going to love FluentU! FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into language learning experiences.
There are many different types of videos, as you can see here:
FluentU makes it easy to watch and understand native English videos with interactive captions. Tap or click on any word to see what it means, learn how to use it, hear it pronounced and more.
For example, if you tap on the word “brought,” then you see this:
You can learn any video’s vocabulary with FluentU’s fun quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The videos are organized by genre and level, so it’s super easy to find the ones that work for you. FluentU also keeps track of your learning, then suggests videos and examples perfect for you.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach English with real-world videos.