Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future.
Do you ever feel like I do? Like there are too few hours in the day (or night)?
Like there isn’t enough time to do everything you want or need to do?
I know my life often feels that way. And my classroom time is no different. There are always days in which time flies by and I end up having too much or too little time in class.
On those days, I am thankful that I have several no-prep, easy activities I can pull out on a moment’s notice.
These activities aren’t time wasters by any means. They are useful language activities that I am ready to use any time I have unplanned time to fill.
I think every ESL teacher should have activities like these in their back pockets, so here are a few to add to your stash.
7 ESL Exercises to Light Up Any Busy Teaching Day
1. Ball Toss Question
This exercise is perfect for times you want to practice asking questions. Since the students come up with the questions themselves, you can use it to review any grammatical structure or set of vocabulary you’ve taught recently. And you don’t need anything other than a piece of paper to play! Plus, even though a ball is involved, you won’t have any classroom accidents that threaten equipment or students’ lives.
To play, take your piece of paper and crumple it up into a ball. Have your students stand in a circle. The person holding the ball asks a question and then tosses the ball to a classmate. That student answers the question and then asks another question before tossing the ball to another person in the circle. Continue playing until everyone has answered at least one question.
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2. True/False Showdown
While this activity can fill time during any class period, it’s a favorite of mine when I’m introducing a new topic to my class. It can work with any subject matter, can run over several days to fill a few minutes, gets students using target vocabulary and is a good way to see what students already know about the new topic.
To play, divide your class into two teams. One person from each team comes to the front of the room. Give the students a topic. The topic can be very general or very specific. I like to choose a topic that is a part of the larger lesson I intend to present (such as pandas before doing a unit on the zoo). Students then take turns making true statements about the topic.
When someone can no longer think of a true statement, he or she tells a lie. If player A thinks player B is lying, then player A says, “That’s a lie!” If B was lying, player A scores a point for their team. If player B was telling the truth, then player B scores a point for their team.
If any player doesn’t catch their opponent’s lie, the liar scores a point. At the end of the playing time, the team with the most points wins.
3. Paper Airplane Bracket
If you are working on modal verbs or the conditional tense with your ESL class, this easy and super-fun activity is for you. You can play inside or outside without the fear of damaging anything in your classroom. Your students will compete with each other to see who has the farthest flying paper airplane.
To play, every student in class makes a paper airplane. As they are making their planes, you should set up a bracket on your board (if you are going to play inside) or on a clipboard (if you are going to play outside). If you are unsure how to set up a bracket, you can find instructions here.
Before flying any of the planes, tell students who they will be flying against. The members of your class should make predictions about how the planes will fly and who will win using modals or conditional sentences.
Then fly the planes. The planes that fly the farthest move on in the tournament while the losers are eliminated. Before flying the next round, students again make predictions. Continue on this way until only one player remains–the winner!
4. Would You Rather
Here is a classic classroom game that you can make as serious or as simple as you like. Students will rely on their listening skills to answer a question, but they won’t have to speak to answer.
Get your students to stand in the middle of your room, and then ask them a question that begins with “Would you rather…” (If you don’t want to come up with your own questions, you can purchase this book full of ready-to-go questions.) When you give students their choices, point to either side of your room, designating one side for the first answer and the other side for the second answer.
Students then move to the side of the classroom that represents their answer. If you like, follow up by asking one or two students from each side of the room to say why they chose the answer that they chose. Depending on how many questions you ask and how long you have to play, every student may get a chance to give a verbal answer, but everyone will get to answer every question by moving their feet to the correct side of the room.
I love that this activity gets my students moving. It’s a great way to wake them up on sluggish mornings, and you can play as long or as short as you like. Plus I always enjoy getting to know some interesting facts about my students—like whether they prefer peanut butter or jelly.
5. Tic-tac-told You So
Everybody loves playing Tic-Tac-Toe at some point in their life, right? But the game loses its appeal when every game ends in a tie. So unless you are going to play 3D tic-tac-toe, this is the version to play with your ESL students. It takes a little more brainpower to win, since there’s no guarantee each player will get to place an X or an O every turn.
Put students in pairs and have them set up a standard game. Then tell them to open their books to an exercise you want them to complete. On their turn, each player must answer a question from the book correctly before he or she can put a mark on the game board.
If a student answers incorrectly, they do not get to play that turn. Players will find this game more of a challenge since they have to earn their right to play an X or an O, and it will make them take the book’s exercise a little more seriously if they don’t want to lose the game.
6. Story Dice
This game is great for reviewing material, getting students more interested in the exercises you plan to do in class, and makes their answers matter. You can have students do the exercise either orally or in writing. Either way they will need to tap into their creative reserves.
Start by getting a set of Rory’s Story Cubes or making your own story dice or story stones. On a player’s turn, the player rolls all of the dice or draws five stones from the bag. Each one will have a simple picture drawn on it.
The player must then make up a story using each of the pictures that they rolled (in any order).
The stories will undoubtedly be silly, but that’s part of the fun. If you like, you could also have groups of students work together to come up with their stories or put on a skit instead.
7. The Longest Sentence
Getting ESL students to create longer, more descriptive sentences can sometimes be a tough goal to accomplish. In this activity, it’s plain and simple fun.
Write a simple sentence on your board such as:
The boy saw the cat.
Ask your students “Who?” and add their answer to the sentence. For example, your sentence might look like this:
The boy who works at the coffee shop saw the cat.
Follow up by asking your students what, where, when, why and how. After each question, add a phrase to the sentence. Eventually, you will end up with a detailed sentence such as this:
The boy who works at the coffee shop saw the orange tabby cat near the dumpster when he was taking out the garbage.
If you’re looking for a way to practice dependent clauses or complex sentences, this activity is perfect. If you like, have students write their own simple sentences on index cards, collect them, shuffle them and redistribute to your class. Then have each person write a more detailed version of the sentence on the card they received.
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These activities are great for more than filling time or doing at the last minute. I also plan for these activities on certain days, too. Days when I know my students will need a break from intensive information sessions or when they need to practice the skills that these activities cover.
The best activities for ESL classes don’t have to be complicated or take a ton of time to prepare. I’m sure, once you try these activities, you will agree.
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