Learning Together: 5 Engaging Group Activities for Your ESL Classroom

Who doesn’t love games?

Working together can be a great way for shy students to get more involved with classmates in an easygoing atmosphere.

During group activities, ESL students can engage in authentic vocabulary practice while having a great time.

There are many ways to bring group work into your ESL classroom, even when you’re on a tight budget. Games and group ESL activities can focus on materials you already have, like cards and music.

Students who are tactile or kinesthetic learners will benefit greatly from learning through games and group work. Students of varying English levels can work together to support each other, make decisions together and learning from one another. Games and group work can involve all of the aspects of language—listening, speaking, reading and writing.

Totally convinced that group activities need to be part of your next lesson plan?

Then here are some great ways to get your ESL students working together!

Learning Together: 5 Engaging Group Activities for Your ESL Classroom

1. Who Am I? What Am I?

Using sticky notes or index cards, list common household or school-related objects on each one. Have each student pick a card without looking at what it says. Then have them stick it to his or her own forehead.

Students then ask their fellow students questions that have “yes” or “no” answers in order to figure out what their card says. Before beginning the activity, you may want to brainstorm the types of questions that will help students figure out their cards.

For more advanced students, cards can list literary characters, book titles or even idioms. Another option is to keep all of the cards related to one theme—like health words, clothing, colors or even slang.

This group activity allows ESL students to practice vocabulary, comprehension, speaking and listening skills. It can be modified to include writing if you ask the students to create the cards, rather than doing it yourself.

2. Oral Storytelling

Have students sit in a circle. Begin telling a story by speaking one sentence aloud.

The student on your left should add to the story by speaking a second sentence aloud. The student to his or her left should speak the next sentence aloud, and so on. Keep the story going around the circle one sentence at a time until it comes to a logical conclusion.

Remind students that each sentence should build on the one before it. It’s easy for students to add in something offbeat or random to try to be silly, but the goal of this lesson is to create a logical story. One way to keep the story on track might be to record it. For beginning ESL students, consider speaking sentences out loud and asking them to add one word at a time. They could even draw or hold up pictures to add to the story.

This group activity helps students develop listening comprehension and speaking skills. Students have to be able to follow along with the story, listening closely to what the people before them just said, and they have to think critically to build a correct sentence of their own.

In addition to language skills, you can choose topics for the story that revolve around cultural symbols, like the White House, or about cultural norms, like timeliness. For example, you could start the story with the sentence, “My name is President Barack Obama and I live in the White House.”

3. Written Storytelling

Divide the class into small groups. Each group gets to choose three random words from a bag and must incorporate each word into a short story. Depending on your students’ levels of English acquisition, you can assign specific numbers of characters, amount of dialogue, length, etc. to be included in the story.

At the end of the lesson, groups can take turns reading stories aloud. For increased participation and extra practice with speaking, you can ask the students who are listening to the story to comment on their classmates’ work. For beginning students, sentence starters like, “I liked….” or “what did you mean by…?” can be helpful to encourage feedback.

Both the written storytelling and the small group discussion that follows are valuable practice time. Together, they’ll help students practice written and spoken English in one swoop. As in the oral storytelling suggestion above, assign topics that require students to discuss American customs or cultural norms, like privacy, personal space, hygiene or dining. This adds an additional challenge for more advanced students and gets all students to improve their cultural literacy.

4. What’s the Question? Quiz Game

Show students a clip from the television game show, “Jeopardy.” Ask them to discuss what makes this show different from other quiz shows. If some frame of reference is needed, you can also play clips of shows like “The Price is Right” and “Family Feud.” For more support, direct them to listen carefully to how the host asks a question.

Students should discover that in “Jeopardy,” contestants have to ask a question in response to being given the answer. Put students in teams and play a few rounds of “Jeopardy.” You can find free, premade “Jeopardy” games in PowerPoint format all over the Internet on sites like Kids’ ESL Games. Or, you can download a free “Jeopardy” template and create your own game based on whatever topics your students are learning.

This game allows groups to work together to form grammatically correct questions. Because the format of the game forces students to work backwards and make connections between the topic and the given answer, it’s helping them to build critical thinking skills. Though it feels like a game, this type of language work is challenging. To simplify it for beginning ESL students, consider using pictures as the answers and question stems like “What is a…?” written on sentence strips for students to easily use for reference.

5. Unscramble the Song

Print multiple copies of the lyrics to a popular song. Cut the lyrics into small sections or, for more advanced students, into individual words. Divide the class into teams. Give each team a set of cut-up lyrics.

Play the song as many times as needed while teams race to unscramble the lyrics and paste them together in the correct order. Bonus points to you if you can play the song and sing it yourself. Your students would love that!

Many ESL students credit their language acquisition to pop culture media like movies and songs. Bringing popular music into the classroom is a great way to engage students in this group activity. In addition, each student in the group has to use careful listening skills and employ precise word order, especially if you choose a fast song or one with commonly misheard lyrics.

Once students have completed the task, you can begin to incorporate more advanced English instruction around musical vocabulary, by teaching words like bridge, chorus and hook.

You can pair this activity with playing the song on the FluentU program, which will give students a chance to see the song with English subtitles and on-demand definitions. You can also assign homework for students to either watch more music videos on FluentU.

Or, they can make their own vocabulary lists by clicking on any word as a video plays and adding it to their flashcards. They can then watch related videos where their target words show up, and complete quizzes that adapt to each student’s learning speed.

You can review every individual student’s progress in the teacher dashboard, as well as see how much time they spent on the program, which videos caught their interest and what questions they answered incorrectly. Students can even choose if they use FluentU in their browser or in the iOS or Android app.

Group work benefits all students.

It gets students talking to each other about their classwork and it helps them learn to listen to one another’s ideas. Group work benefits you, the teacher, too. It helps you come up with meaningful, authentic lesson ideas that engage students in ways that are most beneficial to them.

Group work ignites different parts of the brain and allows different types of learners to be successful. Group work gives you a way to assess both formal and informal language skills, as students work socially to complete something academic in nature.

As the inspirational Helen Keller once said, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”

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