5 Computer-friendly Ways to Upgrade Your ESL Classroom

Do you ever feel like your classroom is more like one from “The Flintstones” than “The Jetsons”?

Are you ready to leave the Stone Age?

For many of us who are teaching today, we learned how to teach in the days before the information age was in full swing.

And that means that sometimes, we are trying to reinvent the wheel when it comes to using technology in the classroom.

Technology is a huge asset when you use it right, and there is no technology more common or easier to use in class than the computer.

Furthermore, these days, “computers” don’t just have to mean desktop computers. You can make great use of whatever may already be available to you and your students, whether smartphones, laptops or tablets.

If you are looking for some smart ways to use a computer to help your ESL students learn, read on for some ideas you can implement today.

Get Smart with Your Phone: Leveraging the Tech You Have

As you look at the ideas below, keep in mind that if you like these ideas for using computers in the classroom but don’t have one or more at your disposal, you don’t need to give up.

Remember that many if not most ESL students may have smartphones with them every day in class, and many of those phones are just as good as computers for the activities discussed below. Just keep in mind whether your school offers free Wi-Fi, and that whatever activities you do will probably require data usage if your students connect to your school’s network.

Transform Your ESL Classroom with 5 Computer-based Ideas

1. Listen Up

One big challenge for ESL teachers, in my personal opinion, is exposing students to different types of spoken English. Yes, they may hear other internationals speaking in the classroom, but I only speak American English and with only one accent. And while I would like to be able to do impressions of celebrities from around the world to challenge their listening skills, I don’t think that will ever be possible.

I can, however, use my computer to expose my ESL students to speakers of British English, Americans with a Southern accent and English speakers of Australia.

Access Netflix (if you have an account) and YouTube over your computer to play professional and amateur videos of documentaries, interviews, instructional videos and, of course, movies.

You might try BandanaMan, who teaches speakers how to use a Southern accent, Amy Walker, who has a video covering the different American regional accents in just six minutes, or Anglophenia, which shows one woman who does 17 different British accents in just five minutes.

If these videos aren’t quite what you are looking for, just do a search for “X” accent and you should have plenty come up on screen. Then play them for your students and see how much they understand of what the speakers say. For a real challenge, write up a transcript of the video and turn it into a cloze activity by replacing key words with blanks.

You can also subscribe to an English-language podcast or two. You can get a free download of iTunes and have podcasts download to your computer as they are published. Then let students work with them at their own pace, taking notes as they listen and writing a summary of what they heard.

2. Enlist Computers as Writing Assistants

Have you thought about all the ways using a computer for writing practice can help your students? Not only will it give them typing practice, something almost every student needs these days, but it can also help with spelling, proofreading and even vocabulary development when they use thesaurus functions.

Not only that, but writing on a computer or any kind of electronic device is more like the type of writing students will encounter when they leave your classroom than writing on paper is. I think it’s safe to say that in today’s world more people write on a computer than any other way, so there are lots of activities you can do with writing on your classroom computer.

Take a look at the templates that come with your word processing program for some ideas. You might decide to have students put together letters, brochures, newsletters or scrapbooks, not to mention essays and letters. But don’t limit yourself to what’s there.

Spelling Classroom, for example, is a program that includes word lists, games, writing modules and even novel study guides for your students. You can use its customizable platform to assign activities and track progress for a variety of student levels. Read more about it here.

If you haven’t already, consider starting a classroom blog. Plenty of sites offer free blog hosting, such as LiveJournal, Edublogs (the blog site for educators) and Blogger. Having a class blog offers many advantages to ESL students and teachers. It gives you an opportunity to connect with people around the world. This is particularly good if you are teaching English in a predominantly non-English-speaking community. Your students have a chance to read and respond to the comments that readers around the world might make.

It also builds a sense of community among your students. They must work together to create one cohesive, quality product—your blog. If you have a classroom of internationals, such a product can help build friendships and understanding between people of different cultures.

In the age of texting, your students may not have much occasion to practice writing with postcards or letters, but a blog is a very real-life reason for writing. Your students will be motivated to put what they are learning about the English language to use in order to practice for this type of writing.

There are as many ways to create a classroom blog as there are teachers in the world, but here are some suggestions to get you started.

  • Write the first blog post yourself to explain the purpose of your blog to your readers.
  • Put students in pairs so two people are responsible for each blog post.
  • Take some class time to brainstorm possible blog topics and initially meet with partners, but then assign the actual writing for outside of class.
  • Encourage students to write about their personal experiences learning English or interesting things about their lives back home.
  • Plan to post one blog post each week or each month, depending on how long your students will need to write one post.
  • Have students turn in their post to you before publishing on your blog so you can give them feedback and make the article the best possible.

3. Make Human Connections

It is true that your computer may be the biggest, most expensive piece of machinery in your classroom, but have you thought about all the ways a computer can help your ESL students connect with the outside world? People from all walks of life make connections though the internet today. The other side of the world is just a keystroke away, and you can use this to the advantage of your ESL students.

If you are teaching overseas or in a non-English-speaking community, you can still get conversation partners for your students. Just do it through the computer. Connect with a teacher you know from back home and let your students help each other.

Your students can start up a correspondence with pen pals who will write to them in English by simply setting up a free email account with Google or Yahoo. Walk your students through setting up their account if they don’t already have one. Send a list of their email addresses to a teacher friend of yours whose students speak English, and match students up with each other. Then let your students take the reins when it comes to writing back and forth. Again, look to teachers you already know or reach out over social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) for a friend or a friend of a friend to find classes looking for pen pals overseas.

You might even try setting up a free account with a site such as PenPal World, which will allow you to connect with people all over the globe. Connect with an individual and let your students take turns writing letters to that person, or find a teacher who is looking for a class of students from your country. One advantage to corresponding through an account like this is that you can preview everything that comes to your students, allowing you to make sure nothing unwanted comes into your classroom.

Another way to connect with the outside world is by harnessing the educational and cultural resources of the internet. While trips outside the classroom may be unfeasible or unaffordable, you can take your ESL students on virtual field trips any day of the week. Take a trip to a virtual 4H farm, visit a famous museum and learn about its collections or find another field trip that suits what your students are studying or where their interests lie, all while teaching them English!

4. Put the Book Aside

If you are a reader, you know there is just something about holding a book in your hands—the texture of the pages, the smell of the ink. But not every teacher has the financial resources to fill his or her classroom with books for students to use. I have good news if you find yourself in that position. Computers are a great resource to use in place of books.

One simple use for computers is accessing electronic books. Project Gutenberg has hundreds of titles for free, classic works that are no longer protected by copyright laws.

The internet is also a great source for research material if you don’t have a library in class. You can read texts and journals online as well as read from more websites than you would ever actually need or be able to put to use.

Another fun and not so ordinary way to do reading online is to challenge your students to a web quest (aka a scavenger hunt). Have students work independently or with a partner, each group with their own computer. Check out for some free web quests that your students can work through.

Each quest will present students with a goal that they will achieve by looking at the information on different webpages. For example, this web quest on the world of “The Outsiders” will ask students to look up bands, TV shows, presidents and household items used in the ’60s in addition to others and walk them through putting all their information in a Word document.

You will have to look at each quest to determine if it is right for your students, but generally you can use those for elementary students with beginning and intermediate ESL students and those for middle school and high schoolers for advanced ESL students.

5. Skype in the Classroom

Skype, today’s choice in video chatting, is a great way to put your classroom computer to smart use. With it, your students can connect with people from all over the world and for very specific purposes.

Invite a guest speaker to class via Skype. You can invite people you know, but don’t be afraid to contact businesses or schools for speakers, either.

For example, you might ask a college admissions officer to chat with students who might be applying to their program after their English studies. If your students have traveled overseas and are learning English as part of their jobs back home, see if someone in an American branch of their office would be willing to chat with your class via Skype. Many authors are willing to Skype with classrooms, particularly if you have used their book in class. Volunteer organizations that want to share the good work they are doing are good invitees, too.

Do you struggle to help students catch up after they miss class due to illness? Encourage them to Skype in and they will never have to feel bad about keeping their germs at home.

If you are looking for some other ways to put Skype to use in class, check out Microsoft’s Skype in the Classroom for ideas on how to interview experts, collaborate with other educators and have lessons over Skype. You can volunteer to be a resource for other teachers, too.


In addition to the ideas and activities above, keep in mind that plenty of websites offer ESL activities and games that students can play as they learn independently. Students can work at their own pace, self-correct and challenge themselves with material you haven’t covered in class yet. Start by looking at ESL Games and then go on from there.

I always like to make my class fun when I can, and I’m sure you do, too.

The computer is a great way to bring a little levity into class, and it’s a gold mine of resources!

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