Brainstorming ESL: 6 Often Overlooked Resources for ESL Lesson Ideas

Do you ever get Teacher’s Block instead of Writer’s Block?

You know, that feeling when you can’t think up any ideas for classes? It’s a real thing, any teacher can tell you.

But what happens when you urgently need ideas and you’ve looked all over for inspiration?

Stop trying to reinvent the wheel!

Throughout this post you’ll find six great resources from which you can draw inspiration. From your television screen to your school’s bookshelf, ideas are all over the place.

6 Often Overlooked Resources for ESL Lesson Ideas

1. Psychological Tests

These tests are usually made to measure behavior or thinking patterns, but many can be repurposed and used to teach English language lessons in your ESL classes.

Some tests that try to capture a snapshot of your personality or issues like anxiety, anger and depression involve multiple choice questions that are usually answered by frequency adverbs. For example:

I have difficulty making decisions
(A) Not at all
(B) Just a little
(C) Somewhat
(D) Moderately
(E) Quite a lot
(F) Always

Some tests like these can be used with lower level students on simpler subjects or even with groups and partners to assess each other and possibly relate to how they feel. Many similarly useful tests can be found on the Psychcentral website. Psychology Today offers a pretty neat personality quiz.

Strive to keep these as enjoyable, intriguing and positive as you can, which means…try not to bring the mood of the classroom down having people take the more morose tests. You don’t want everyone to think that their results show they have moderate to severe depression, and you certainly don’t want to make light of any serious psychological disorders. You don’t necessarily know what everyone in the classroom is going through, or what their loved ones may be going through, so it’s best to avoid those stickier topics. Let students know that these are in no way professional assessments, and they’re more for language practice than anything else. Adjust accordingly and add a fun twist to your lessons.

BBC Science is a great alternative with tons of fun, lighthearted psychology tests that poke around with curiosities of the human brain and personality questions.

Another common psychological test is the Rorschach test, which asks people to describe what they see in an image of inkblots. This is good for students at all sorts of English levels because they can practice describing things and could even go into some detail if they’re more advanced. You could incorporate adjectives of all levels into it or even use it as a warm-up. Try it with kids!

I’ve included a fun psychological test example for more advanced learners. This “Guilt Story Test” is good to use to really fascinate the students and incorporate a good group conversation dynamic.

You could write the word “Guilt” on the board and go around the class and get ideas on what the students think it means. Then you can give them the guilt story.

Prince Wilhelm is passionately in love with Celestine but she does not love him. One day, Wilhelm comes to the King and asks for Celestine’s hand in marriage. Celestine begs the king not to marry her to Wilhelm, but the king ignores her pleas. Royal protocol means he must say yes to the match. They are married and Wilhelm takes Celestine back with him to his kingdom. That night, he attempts to consummate the marriage, but the distraught Celestine flees. She runs from the castle and across a field, ignoring the sign which warns of danger. In that field is a bull, who, seeing the girl, charges her. She falls under his hooves and is killed instantly.

Afterwards, you ask the students (individually or in groups) to arrange the four (Prince, King, Daughter, Bull) from most guilty to least guilty of the girl’s death. The classroom will have very different views of guilt and it makes for a very thought-provoking lesson for all. You could even play psychologist and see how some students view guilt and how that correlates to their personality.

2. Online Dating Profiles

These are all over the place (Hey, it’s 2016) and they all have the same premise: Sell yourself while accurately describing yourself. These can work well with beginners as well as advanced students too. Chances are these students may very well sell themselves a la dating profile in the future anyways!

To use these in your ESL lessons, you could create your own profile worksheet for the students to complete based off popular dating sites and their questions (sites like OKCupid or, for example). Create your own questions, or even leave a few lines open for the student to write whatever they would like.

This works best as a role-play for the students to act out as if they were looking for love on the Internet (in English of course!). Here’s a small example you could use to get started with your classes.

Online Dating Profile

My self-summary: _________________________________________________________________________

What I’m doing with my life: _____________________________________________________________

What I’m looking for: _____________________________________________________________________

Five things I could never live without: __________________________________________________

Favorite books/movies/food/music: ____________________________________________________

You should message me if: ________________________________________________________________

Online dating profiles offer many ideas that you could use since they include a personal touch, involve descriptive adjectives and are relatable for most adult, young adult and adolescent students.

3. Audiobook Courses

Most audiobook courses focus on listening and repeating to improve pronunciation or to improve memory on important phrases. Other audio learning courses like the Michel Thomas Method and the Pimsleur method focus on fluency and grammar in a more conversational atmosphere.

Those two methods are brilliant to take ideas from in your ESL classes. They usually require some speaking in the student’s native language, so it could create some tricky situations—but you can also choose to avoid this and speak completely in English. Nevertheless, the methods could provide some useful ideas to incorporate into your lessons.

The Michel Thomas method uses simple words and phrases at first and then gradually builds up to some more advanced language. This patented method is brilliant and can be used with all levels since it focuses on how the student learns rather than the actual materials at hand. You could use this technique with your classes using any target language.

Here’s an example of how this method plays out:

  • Focus on “need.” Define the word as simply as possible.
  • If necessary (and if possible) explain “need” in the native language.
  • Practice “I need,” “You need,” “He needs” and other simple, present tense conjugations.
  • From there, branch off to “I need to (verb),” “You need to (verb)” and so on.
  • From there you could branch off to “I need (noun),” “You need (noun),” etc.
  • You could then get slightly more advanced with “I don’t need” or “She doesn’t need to,” etc.

Keep in mind that with this technique there’s no writing, no notes, no nothing! The magic of it is that it’s purely student and teacher conversation and getting better through actual language use as opposed to traditional study methods.

The Pimsleur method focuses more on real-life scenarios and what you would say in a given situation. You introduce small quantities of key vocabulary in each session by engaging in a realistic dialogue, and then you revisit this vocabulary every so often to keep students reminded of what they’ve learned. You’ll also need to prompt your students to give answers in the correct contexts.

If you’re interested in these ideas, there’s a vast selection of material available online that you could dabble with to gain more inspiration!

I’d recommend that you check out Michel Thomas and Pimsleur products to really gain some more ideas that could greatly benefit your learners and classroom environment!

So if you’re looking for something more interactive than the normal audio learning “listen and repeat,” take a gander at the Michel Thomas and Pimsleur courses for some ideas to use in ESL lessons.

4. TV Game Shows

Game shows are highly entertaining as well as being pretty mentally stimulating.

Admit it, even you play along at home when you’re watching them. If you’re not a fan, it’s time to do some watching. Some of the classic ones like “Family Feud,” “Jeopardy!” and “The $25,000 Pyramid,” amongst others, are perfect to use in classroom settings, especially if you’re reviewing material and need a fun idea to engage everybody.

“Jeopardy!” has a simple premise of trying to answer questions in the form of a question, which can be used to practice vocabulary and even grammar structures.

Teacher: A phrase you say when you need to find the bathroom.

Student: What is “Excuse me sir, where is the restroom?”

Teacher: Excellent, 500 points for you!

“Family Feud” uses a simple style of trying to guess the 5 most popular answers of a particular question and is good for groups. An example would be:

Teacher: Tell me something you would ask for at an airport.

Student A: The ATM.

Teacher: Survey says…no! What do you think?

Student B: The lost and found.

Teacher: Survey says…*ding!*

The “survey” can be something you poll your class about beforehand, or you can even have your students go in the hallway and poll their fellow students the week before playing. Alternatively, you can make up the survey all on your own.

My personal favorite is “The $20,000 Pyramid” where partners work together and try to describe a word or phrase to each other within a certain time limit without saying what’s written on the card. This encourages the students to be creative in how they explain things and is quite good for vocabulary refreshers and practicing lessons with learners of all levels.

Here’s how it works:

(Card says “already”)

Student A: Okay, something that is…done?

Student B: Finished?

Student A: No, I mean, like, I ate before so I…?

Student B: Ummmmm…ate?

Student A: No, no, I…

It can get quite interesting with some complex words to explain.

Try to watch some TV game shows to get some other ideas to use into ESL lessons. The best part about these is that the contestants (students) do most of the speaking, making it a simple lesson for the host (you!)

5. Language Learning Apps & Software

Language learning apps and software are all the rage and are becoming quite the success. They infuse an approachable yet effective learning technique with the convenience of learning at your own pace and in your own chosen environment.

Usually these apps and software follow a “grab bag” sort of style where different aspects are introduced one after another in short spurts. For example, you may have a short pronunciation practice activity, then a grammar activity that involves matching immediately following (without directly explaining the concept) and then a listening portion right after.

This approach works well since every aspect of English is used one after another to help better retain knowledge and improve all skills, plus it’s done in a sporadic sort of way so too much time isn’t wasted in between activities. The brain stays busy and the activities stay fresh, fun and challenging.

6. All Different Books

Now when I say “all different books” I literally mean all different books. Raid the shelves of your personal bookcase, your local library and your family’s living room book collection. Grab a wide variety of materials. ESL books, your kid sister’s second grade science book, an activity book from the dollar store—anything related to teaching and learning any kind of material!

These books will all feature different and unique approaches of presenting information that could be of use to you if you’re dry on ideas.

I like to take glances at other books on my school library’s shelves, even if they’re intended for higher or lower levels. I’m always surprised by what I find and what I could use for my own ESL classes. I highly recommend you all do the same.

One book I’m currently using for some 12-year-olds has an activity where pairs of students look around the pictures in the book and write sentences as to what’s going on in each one. For example, there’s an image of what looks like a lady and a boy walking through a garden, so students write down “The woman is walking with her son” or something like that.

The idea of this activity could be used for your classes too and perhaps remixed a bit. Maybe creating sentences using “because,” “but” or whatever vocabulary or grammar you’ve recently explored.

Here are some examples of things students might write to caption the image I just described above:

  • “The woman is walking with her son because they are looking for his father.”
  • “They are walking in the garden but the boy’s father is at work.”
  • “The lady should go to sleep since she looks tired.”

This is just one example of ideas you could come up with using various books that sit on your school’s shelves.

You’d be pleasantly surprised of the ideas you could steal from all books if you took just minutes a day flipping through what lies on the shelves. There are hundreds of ideas, I tell you!

Teacher’s Block will now be a thing of the past.

The possibilities are endless and, as advertising guru Paul Arden said it best, “[Ideas] are out there floating by on the ether. You just have to put yourself in a frame of mind to pick them up.”

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