Every teacher has been there.
It’s your first day teaching in a classroom, and when you ask for guidance someone tells you very vaguely to “just teach them.”
“What does that even mean?” you ask yourself as you start to panic. It’s like they just want them to start speaking English, but how?
Then there’s the second scenario that most teachers have endured. A few weeks—or perhaps months or years—have gone by, you’re getting the hang of this ESL teaching gig but then what was once working so well stops working. What was once fresh is now stale. What was once a factory of ideas you had in your mind has closed down.
“Oh no! What do I do now?” you ask yourself as you’re already panicking. “I have a full week of classes starting on Monday!”
If you’re new to teaching ESL classrooms, these may sound like some of those scary “it could happen to you” stories that you hear about with teenagers who take recreational drugs. But don’t fear, because (1) it isn’t all that painful and (2) I’m here for you.
I was once in both situations, totally dry on ideas, but I found a way out of them. That’s why I’m here today to give you a leg up by sharing my own personal classroom ideas.
Today I’ll present a bunch of great ideas that you can use to ensure a dynamic classroom environment, a consistent flow of ideas and a sense of security for you and your students. You’ll rest assured knowing that the worst case scenario you think may happen won’t ever be as bad as you thought.
Everyone starts off as a beginner and nobody in the teaching game never needed help. Everyone needs a hand sooner or later. True story.
Some of these ideas are activities that are adaptable in all aspects of teaching, while others are practices that could be used to supplement other activities. Feel free to make these the main events of your classes, fill in the odd spaces in your lessons with them or keep them on the back burner for a what-do-I-do-now emergency.
7 Bright Ideas to Freshen Up Any ESL Classroom
One quick note before we get started! After the discussion of each classroom idea, I’ve laid out some FAQs about trying it out with your students.
And one more great idea: Make class more engaging for your students by bringing in a learning program like FluentU.
If you’re looking for creative ways to teach English, then you’ll love using FluentU in your classroom! FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, cartoons, documentaries and more—and turns them into personalized language-learning lessons for you and your students.
It’s got a huge collection of authentic English videos that people in the English-speaking world actually watch regularly. There are tons of great choices there when you’re looking for songs for in-class activities.
You’ll find music videos, musical numbers from cinema and theater, kids’ singalongs, commercial jingles and much, much more.
On FluentU, all the videos are sorted by skill level and are carefully annotated for students.
Words come with example sentences and definitions. Students will be able to add them to their own vocabulary lists, and even see how the words are used in other videos.
For example, if a student taps on the word “brought,” they’ll see this:
Plus, these great videos are all accompanied by interactive features and active learning tools for students, like multimedia flashcards and fun games like “fill in the blank.”
It’s perfect for in-class activities, group projects and solo homework assignments. Not to mention, it’s guaranteed to get your students excited about language learning.
1. Play the Basketball Review Game
Thanks to the ever-growing popularity of basketball, the simple game of throwing a ball into a hoop can be turned into a fun, educational review game for all ages and all skill levels. Kids love it, girls and boys alike, especially when teams are involved and the score gets close. I shall explain.
1. Create a ball out of rolled up newspaper or buy a cheap one.
2. Get a basket, or use the trash can if it’s big enough.
3. Divide the class into at least two teams (or more, depending on the class size).
4. Ask review questions from the book (or ones you’ve made up on your own) to a student on each team. Regardless, the students must speak and answer correctly.
5. Once the student has answered correctly, they’re then able to shoot. They can go for two points (standing near the basket) or three points (slightly farther away). If they make it, they get points. If not, then move on to the next team/student.
This is a very simple yet effective game because everybody gets a turn and everybody speaks. Be sure to enforce some rules of your own, too. For example, if students try to speak when another student is answering a question, they get points off or don’t get to shoot. This game can be used for review, as it does a great job of getting students speaking and putting their knowledge into action.
You could even make them speak to each other and then shoot. Since you always want to end on a high note, I also recommend this game if you have some time left and want to end the class with a fun review session.
Q: My kids are too old/young to be playing basketball. What else could I do?
A: To this I say, try it out for a bit! If organizations pay professional players millions of dollars to engage in this playground sport, then age shouldn’t be an issue. If students are too young and getting too silly or frustrated, then I’d suggest making a bigger basket or not keeping score. The magic of basketball is that throwing a ball into a basket is versatile and it takes the environment from strictly educational to being more playful.
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2. Popcorn Reading
This works best with long passages, but any reading material will do! A longer passage mainly serves to keep the activity running longer and get all the students involved.
As the class reads something together, one student reads a sentence or two and then says “Popcorn, (student’s name)!” and then that student reads. For example, If I were a student, I would read a sentence or two and then say “Popcorn, Joe!” and then Joe starts reading. Then he finishes his section of text and picks the next student.
Students can choose how long they read, or you can make limits based on time or the amount of text to be read.
You may notice that some boys will only popcorn other boys and some girls will only popcorn other girls, so you could make a rule to alternate between genders if this is the case.
Q: The reading portions are short, perhaps too short for popcorn reading. What else can I do?
A: Since some readings aren’t all that long, one thing I like to do is to continue popcorn reading repeatedly until every student has read the entire text out loud. This way everyone gets a turn practicing reading and the text stays in the students’ minds longer.
3. Group and Partner Work
This is good for two reasons:
1. The students work with each other and classes get more exciting.
2. This makes your life easier since it’s all student-to-student interactions which kids find more exciting than teacher-to-student interactions.
However, the one downside is that you have to be on surveillance for the students slacking off, speaking their native language or fooling around. Some examples of partner and group activities are questionnaires (where they each have some questions that they could ask each other), interviews, worksheets (more on that later), creative writing or even role-plays. The best thing is to have them reenact their role-play in front of the class afterwards. It’s quality entertainment for all!
Q: Group and partner activities start to become chaotic. What can I do to manage it?
A: With this I suggest being the librarian watchman. What this means is that you walk around constantly, making sure the noise level stays at a dull roar, all the while you’re watching out for people being lazy or social. That’s a small price to pay for having the students work on their own. This will allow you to be present with each group when they have thoughts or questions to share with you. I’d also suggest making sure students aren’t leaving their seats—nip this behavior in the bud so it doesn’t keep happening.
4. Writing on the Chalkboard
Even when you were a child, you enjoyed writing on the board in class. Kids these days still do too! Older students will get warm feelings of classroom nostalgia when they grab a piece of chalk.
Who knows why? Perhaps they like to show off their handwriting skills or perhaps it beats writing at their desk on paper. Regardless, having students write on the board very often is good because it encourages them to be more proactive in class and, once they get good at it, you can have them do the writing for you.
“Who wants to write that on the board?” is the big hand-raiser in class. They can write their answers to exercises, dictate texts from books or even be your teaching assistant and help you by taking notes on the board. There are even games you could use with writing on the board like races and write-and-say the answer. All of these options are quite fun and not only make your life easier but help students enjoy the class too!
Q: Some students really struggle with board writing while some love and dominate it. How can I make it equal for everyone?
A: It may take some time for you to differentiate who excels at writing and who falls behind, but once you find this out you can assign chalkboard tasks to these students accordingly. For example, if you know one student doesn’t perform very well in front of the class, choose some simpler stuff for him to write down on the board. You can give the more challenging board writing to the more advanced students—and nobody has to know what you’re up to. The worst thing you could do is make a student write something beyond his skill level/comfort zone with all eyes on him. He’s pretty much going to be up there for a while and feel bad the entire time.
5. Worksheet Stash
There will come a time where your idea supply will start getting low. Maybe you lost track of how much material you had for future lessons or perhaps you used up everything but now the supply is dry. That’s why it’s always a good idea, no matter how new or experienced a teacher you are, to have a stash.
I’m talking about a worksheet stash, of course.
You can find many ESL worksheets from fellow teachers at your school or even all over the Internet. In case of a drought, a good amount of worksheets to have is perhaps 10 per class level. When there’s an instance where you need something to do or you feel stuck or the book is finished, you have a nice backup.
Q: I need worksheets since my school doesn’t have very many. Where can I get some online for free?
A: Some go-to sites for worksheets are can be found here! You can also find some great lesson plan templates here, which can be a guiding force in lesson planning.
In fact, if you just type “ESL worksheets” into your search engine, you’re bound to find a grand selection of worksheets for all sorts of classrooms. Look around for about 20 or so minutes and you’ll have a stash in no time.
We all know how bad it is to overdo things, but planning is one of those things you can never overdo. When you’re starting out teaching, overplanning can make the difference between feeling jittery and tense and feeling fine.
It’s known that every minute spent planning saves 10 minutes in execution, so with that in mind it would behoove any teacher to spend around 20 minutes doing some overplanning here and there.
I remember my main issue when I first started teaching was realizing that activities didn’t last nearly as long as I had planned them out to be. Thus, this resulted in a situation of “What do I do with all this free time/awkward silence?” That’s a situation that you’ll more than likely avoid if you overplan. Plus, you can use that overplanned/unused material to for another day’s lesson plan!
It’s brilliantly simple to do. The best overplanning technique is to plan double, putting together twice what you need for any given class. Try to come up with some follow-up debates, discussion questions and activities that simply extend the length of whatever the main event is. The return is well worth it, and you’ll have the satisfying feeling of never being unprepared.
Q: I’m new to this overplanning thing (or even planning in general). How do I know that I’m planning enough?
A: I learned this the hard way, but it worked.
Most people who think they’re planning plenty tend to underplan. Then when they overplan, they’re just planning the right amount for one class and no more.
I learned this one time when I had a special 2-hour class that I thought I’d planned enough for, and lo and behold I went through all of my planned material in about half the allotted time and was left winging it. Next time I overplanned, and still just barely made it in time for the end of the class.
So, the secret to overplanning (especially if you’re new) is to over overplan. It’s going to seem like absolute madness the first time—you’ll be left thinking that you couldn’t possibly fit all the material you’ve laid out into one neat session, and you’ll usually be right. But this way you’re truly planned for whatever situation could possibly arise. So the secret is simple: If you’re just starting out, over overplan. Then you’ll get a real idea of your planning techniques.
This usually works best with younger folks—the younger the better!
So, if you’ve got younger students and want to both create a simple reward system that creates a more ambitious environment and have the kids like you more for the low, low price of around 70 cents a class, then stickers are the way to go!
I first tried this out when teaching small groups of kids and it worked wonders. Kids would try harder and stay better behaved strictly for the adhesive piece of paper with the pink star or cartoon monkey on it. I found this to be a breakthrough and started incorporating it in all of my classes to measure results and in all of them I noticed that the ambiance got better since students (of all ages, even adults) seemed to enjoy receiving a reward and became increasingly motivated.
People in general also happen to love receiving recognition for their work, especially if it’s tangible, rather than drawing a smile or flower on a paper. Depending on where you are teaching, stickers should be pretty inexpensive and you can even get them in bulk in some places. I have found this to be a brilliant investment that has calmed kids down, brought out the potential in others and even created some healthy competition amongst students.
My system is that if they do the homework, they get a sticker. Winners of games also get stickers, but students who don’t do their homework don’t get one. It’s a simple incentive system that really acts as an end goal for students.
You’ll notice that some stickers are bigger than others, so kids who do incomplete or shoddy work can get a small sticker, for trying. I highly recommend giving your students stickers if you’re starting out because let’s be real, every student loves the teacher that gives them stickers. It’s like being the aunt or uncle that always gives nice gifts!
Q: I’m burning a hole through my wallet buying stickers, they’re hard to find. What else do you suggest?
A: You don’t need stickers or to be artistically gifted to place a cute, artistic little reward on your students papers. When I was in Japan, their version of stickers was to draw a big sunflower that signified work well done. Students loved this, and I loved drawing them! Draw a happy monkey face—or anything else that’s cheerful or celebratory—on your students’ best work to let them know they’ve done well.
Another good incentive besides stickers is stamps. Just grab a simple stamp collection and some ink and you’re good for a while. If the stamps are visually attractive or cute, kids will love them. Kids even like to use the stamp themselves on their papers, and you may certainly let them do so once they’ve completed a task with a stamp-worthy level of effort!
If you’re new to teaching or just looking for a nice refresher, I hope you feel some inspiration looking through these ideas.
Some of them will come in handy, especially when things get hectic and everything starts happening all at once.
Everyone needs a hand at one time or another, and these ideas can make those times so much more manageable!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach English with real-world videos.