Do you have a special place you go every summer?
Someplace that—for you—means summer has begun?
For people around Pittsburgh, that’s going to Kennywood Park. When the gate opens and the rides start moving, that’s when summer is really here.
Kennywood has lots of things to do. If you go, be sure to stop by the carnival area, where you can try knocking down milk jars with a baseball and get some ideas for your ESL lessons.
Yes, that’s what I meant to say.
Your ESL classroom can be like a carnival in all the greatest ways. That is, if you use independent learning centers.
What Are Learning Centers?
Independent learning centers (or stations) are various setups around the classroom where students can go to work independently or with a partner on a specific activity. When you use centers, your students will all be working and learning English, but they’ll be doing it in different ways—just like how everyone at the carnival games is trying to win a plush unicorn, but playing different games to get it.
The key is that these are different activities with the same goal, different roads to the same destination.
When you set up your learning centers, you choose different areas around your room for the different activities your students will do. Kind of like the different games you might play at a carnival.
Instead of assigning students to one center or another, they’re free to choose which activity they want to do. Students work independently or with a partner depending on what the activity specifies.
It’s up to you how you use learning centers. You might assign extra credit work for students to complete at the centers, or you might require students to complete a certain number of centers in a given time period, such as a month. Or you just might have them ready for students who finish assignments before the rest of the class.
No matter what your reasons for using learning centers are, here are some benefits you can expect to gain from learning centers.
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Why Choose Learning Centers for ESL Classrooms?
Learning centers have a lot to offer your students. With centers, students become invested in their own learning. They take responsibility for what they do at the learning centers and how many different tasks they accomplish. Students focus on the areas they choose and have control over their learning, which creates an ownership of their own education. In education, just as in the business world, ownership equals effort.
Learning centers can also cater to different learning styles. You can choose or create learning centers to focus on each of the learning styles represented in your class. While it might be difficult to do some activities with your entire class, one or two people might be very successful at hands-on activities, musical activities or solitary activities when they’re available in a learning center.
Another benefit to using independent learning centers is that it gives you a chance to work one-on-one with students while the rest of the class is doing productive work. You don’t have to give your students busywork just so you can talk one-on-one with certain learners in your class. Give them purposeful activities to complete at the learning centers, and then pull individual students aside as needed to do assessments or talk about performance.
5 Simple ESL Learning Centers That Get Your Classroom to Teach for You
1. Classroom Goodreads
Do you have an account on Goodreads? I love the app, which allows me to track the books I’ve read as well as how well I liked them. I have the freedom to write a review of every book I read or simply rate it on a scale of five stars. And my friends can see what I thought about each of these books, too.
Setting up this learning center in your classroom can accomplish similar things. Students have the opportunity to rate books they read and share their opinions with their classmates.
All you need to set it up is a classroom library (any books will do) and some sticky notes. Students choose a book to read during independent learning time or borrow a book to read at home. After completing the book, they write a short book review on a sticky note and place it in the front cover of the book. Students can share anything on their sticky note review, including why a fellow classmate should or shouldn’t read the book, and a rating of up to five stars.
When a student is ready to choose a new book, he or she can read the reviews their classmates have written and use those to make an informed decision about their book choice.
To really make this independent learning center attractive, include a comfortable reading nook where students can settle in and devour their book of choice.
2. Easiest Grammar Center Ever
I’m not kidding when I say this center is the easiest ever. It takes almost no effort on your part, other than a tiny bit of organization. The next time you have extra grammar worksheets from your class, put them in a folder at a spare desk. If possible, put an answer sheet in another folder labeled “answers.” Voila! That’s it.
Every time you have extra worksheets, continue putting them in the worksheet folder and an answer key in the answer folder. You can find some great ESL worksheets at busyteacher.org and usingenglish.com. When students use the center, they choose a worksheet to complete, work at the desk to complete it, and then check their own answers.
It may seem strange to give students work they’ve already done, but it actually benefits them. They get more practice with troublesome grammar areas. Students gain confidence when they successfully complete a worksheet, even if they’ve done it before. And odds are by the time they do one of these worksheets, they’ve forgotten what answers they gave the first time.
This center gives students a chance to practice skills they may be struggling with—without taking time from the rest of the class for unnecessary review.
3. Independent Listening Lab
If you have a CD player and some headphones, you’re all ready to set up an independent listening lab. At this learning center, students work independently to improve their listening skills.
You could set up a CD and textbook you that don’t plan to use in class, such as “Contemporary Topics 3” or “Person to Person.” Let students follow the directions in the book and complete the exercises independently. (Just warn them not to write in the book.)
They can write their answers on a separate piece of paper or on photocopies of the pages if you provide them. If you can set up a computer at the listening center, you might also try sending students to the ESL Cyber Listening Lab or Talk English.
4. Online Workshop
If you have a computer in your classroom, students can use it to work on just about any language skill you choose. That is, any skill your students choose, since they’ll be working independently at this learning center.
Set up your computer in a corner of your room, and make sure you have headphones your students can use. On the wall near the center, list several different websites your students can go to for practice with grammar, reading, listening or where they can take online quizzes. If you really want to make the center accessible, set these websites up in your favorites list.
Some sites that would be great to bookmark include:
- UsingEnglish.com — ESL grammar quizzes
- FluentU — Real-world videos with personalized learning exercises
- ESL Games — Vocabulary games
- Starfall — Early literacy practice
- eslvideo — Video quizzes
- ESL Fast — Various resources for beginning and intermediate learners
Students who use the center choose a website, go to it and complete the activities there. It’s that simple.
5. Classroom Postal Service
This independent learning center targets writing, and it can be a lot of fun if your students use it the right way.
At the beginning of the year, have students decorate shoeboxes to serve as their mailboxes, or just assign them shelves in an organization unit. Review with students how to write letters, postcards and address envelopes.
During free learning periods, students can write postcards and letters to each other. After addressing them correctly, they can put the correspondence in the classroom mailbox. Assign one person each day to deliver the mail to the appropriate mailboxes.
Students will enjoy purposeful writing and the fun of finding a letter in their mailbox.
Independent learning centers really have a lot to offer ESL students. With a little upfront setup, they can have long-term payoffs. You can rotate centers in and out of use, too, to keep things interesting for your students and to target specific skills you might want to practice.
Your students will love them, and if you give them a chance, you will too. Enjoy the carnival!
And One More Thing…
Searching for fun, authentic videos to show your ESL students? Check out FluentU!
It’s got a huge collection of authentic English videos that people in the English-speaking world actually watch on the regular. 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 English!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach English with real-world videos.