Do some of your students fly through your lessons, while others struggle to grasp the very basics?
Even the best learners miss the mark from time to time, especially when they can’t relate to the material being taught.
When it comes to learning a language, everything’s relative. Incorporating students’ real-world knowledge and experiences into your lessons makes the learning process significantly easier.
And one way to do that is by talking about family.
Read further to see how you can give your students a well-rounded lesson by adding something everyone can relate to—their families.
5 Exciting Activities for Your Next ESL Family Lesson Plan
It doesn’t matter whether you’re teaching ESL for adults or playing educational games with kindergarten students, family is something that everyone values across cultures.
Regardless of your students’ proficiency levels, teaching family relationships is an effective strategy that allows you to elicit some crucial vocabulary, practice making conversations and sneak in some important grammar points without confusing your students.
If you’re tired of the same fill-in-the-blank exercises for teaching family, use these activities to really engage with your students.
1. Build a Family Tree
In every ESL family lesson plan, the family tree should be your first port of call.
The perfect ESL visual aid, family trees aren’t only useful for eliciting vocabulary about family members, they can also be turned into excellent conversation exercises for helping students learn to speak naturally.
Introduce this activity by drawing your family tree on the board, clearly indicating where you are in relation to other family members.
Don’t write any names, just start with male and female stick figures.
Then, ask students to guess which family members are listed in the diagram by looking at their relation to you. Students should be able to give you basic answers, like mother, father, brother and sister.
From there, expand the diagram further, making it more complex by adding things like daughter, son, aunt and uncle, until you cover all of the basic family vocabulary.
For a real challenge, try removing all the words from the board, leaving the diagram completely blank except for one stick figure labeled “me.” Then, test your students’ knowledge by pointing to any person on the family tree, asking, “Who is this?” They should be able to answer with “That’s your ___.” Be sure to fill in the family vocabulary words on the board as they answer.
Once you’ve got the vocabulary down, ask your students to draw their own family trees, and then use them to ask their partners similar questions.
Even in a class full of complete beginners, the family tree activity works like a charm—that’s why it’s my go-to family exercise.
You can even use the family tree to teach possessive adjectives.
Simply ask these basic questions as you work through the activity:
- What’s your _____’s name?
- How old is he/she?
- What’s his/her job?
Then, refer to your family tree on the board, circle one person, for example your mother, and write “Name?” This is an easy way to elicit the class to come up with questions like“What’s your mother’s name?” without doing too much talking. Do the same with exercises, but this time getting them to talk about age and profession.
Once you’ve elicited those three questions, have the class ask you questions about your family, using possessive adjectives like my, his and her. Write the students’ responses on the board as they answer.
When students are comfortable asking and answering these questions correctly, they’re ready to work together. Put the students in pairs and have them do the same activity, this time asking questions about their partner’s family tree.
2. Teach Famous Families
After you’re done with basic family trees, it’s time to step things up a notch.
Choose a famous family that all of your students should be familiar with. It could be a fictional family from a TV show, a celebrity family like the Kardashians or even the British Royal Family. Just make sure that the family is a big one with lots of different family members.
Personally, I always use “The Simpsons.”
For this activity, you need to find a diagram of your chosen family’s family tree online, print it and hand it out as a worksheet. Create some comprehension questions to go with it, so your students can fill in the correct family vocabulary.
If you’re using “The Simpsons,” your questions could look something like this:
- Bart is Homer’s _____
- Homer is Marge’s _____
- Bart and Lisa are Homer’s _____
When you get to words like niece, nephew, cousin and siblings, things start to get a little more challenging.
If your students are sailing through this, you can even start to tackle the more difficult topics of divorce, death and remarriage, adding a stepmother and stepfather to the diagram.
Teaching students how to talk about family doesn’t have to follow the same cookie-cutter textbook routine. Add FluentU to your lessons to make them interactive and exciting.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
3. Use Family to Teach “Do” and “Be” Questions
Along with possessive adjectives, do and be questions are some of the most commonly misused grammar for ESL students. Fortunately, you can use family lessons to help your students master these types of questions.
Spend some time going over the difference between the two types of questions, giving specific examples in relation to families. Some questions you could use include:
- Where does your sister live?
- What do your parents do?
- Do you have brothers and sisters? How old are they?
- Are you married?
After that, see if your students can come up with their own questions. Let them write some examples, then check their grammar afterward.
Once finished, have your students interview their classmates about their family members. And make sure to help any students struggling to ask and answer questions correctly.
4. Get Students to Describe Their Family Members
You can delve into some more detailed ways to talk about family members by discussing their looks and personalities. There are a lot of words to cover here, so start by brainstorming some vocabulary words together to get your students thinking about descriptive adjectives too.
You can do this by splitting the whiteboard down the middle, with appearance on one side and personality on the other. Give your students some markers, step aside and have them fill in as many words as they can. If they struggle for ideas here, start them off by filling in some basic words, such as tall, short, friendly and funny, and then hand it over to the class.
Once finished, have your students make sentences about their family using the descriptive adjectives on the board. “My mother is short,” “My brother is shy,” and “My sister has long hair” are all great examples. From there, have students make questions corresponding questions for those sentences, like:“What does your mother look like?” and “What is your brother like?”
After your students understand the grammar and sentence structure, let them practice using it by dividing students into pairs or small groups and getting them to ask questions about their partners’ families.
5. Play the Celebrity “Guess Who” Game
This is one of my favorite ESL grammar games. It’s simple, applicable to all levels and is a great way to summarize everything students have learned from the previous activities. Here’s how to do it.
Cut out some small squares of paper and hand one out to every student in the class. Ask them to write down the name of a famous person, and then hold onto their square of paper without revealing the name to anyone else. If you want to play, feel free to write a name for yourself as well.
Tell your students they’re not allowed to ask the name of your anyone else’s celebrity. However, they can ask anything else they’d like in order to find out who they are. Some examples of questions they can use include:
- What’s his/her job?
- Is he/she married?
- Where does he/she live?
- What does he/she look like?
- Does he/she have children?
- How many brothers and sisters does he/she have?
Keep going until everyone’s secret celebrity is revealed.
Along with being incredibly fun, this game is an excellent way to practice the grammar and vocabulary students previously used when talking about their families. Moreover, the exercise doubles as a creative way to get students speaking English.
Vocabulary games like the “Guess Who” game are great for getting students engaged, as well as helping get shy students to come out of their shells.
Connecting the Dots for Your Next ESL Lesson Plan
Every student responds differently to learning a new language.
Because everyone has very different goals and learning styles, the best approach to teaching language concepts is to include a variety of hands-on activities using family and other concepts all students can easily relate to.
By doing so, you’ll be able to turn your next lesson into a home run.
Emma Thomas is an ESL teacher in Bangkok with more than five years of experience in teaching students of all ages. You can read more about her experiences as a teacher in Thailand at Under the Ropes.