ATTN: Newbie ESL teachers.
I have a story for you that should sound familiar.
My first six months teaching English in Korea were a disaster.
I had no training, and no idea what I was doing.
A blank sheet of paper had to become 45 minutes of constructive ESL teaching.
After a lot of trial and error, I finally figured out a simple recipe to create ESL lesson plans that work. Now, I’m passing along all those lessons learned to you.
As a bonus, I’ve also included three ready-made ESL lesson plans that you can use in a pinch.
The Challenges of ESL Lesson Planning
While beginning to teach English in Korea, I only kept my job because of my incredibly patient co-teachers.
What made it so hard?
With no educational training, I was expected to teach English to Korean middle school students without a book. That isn’t easy to do, and I’ve repressed my horrible memories of the initial results. However, during my three years in Korea I (thankfully) got better. I fell into a formula for creating ESL lesson plans that actually worked well for my students.
If any of this sounds familiar, then this blog is for you. Lesson planning can be stressful. From the start, remember this golden rule: perfection isn’t possible. You’ll never get it completely right, and that’s okay. With that truth in mind, let’s dive into how to make ESL lesson plans.
Questions to Ask Before Making a Lesson Plan
Give these questions some thought before you outline your ESL lesson plans. Knowing the answers will save you time and aggravation down the road.
1. Will you review what the school is teaching the students? Or will you create new learning goals? If the target language will be new, be sure it’s appropriate for the students’ level.
2. Will you focus on speaking, reading, writing or listening? Or a combination? Your school may have a preference.
3. Will you teach alone or will you have help? The simplest games, for example, can be difficult to teach without translation unless you’re very prepared.
Getting Started: 6 Great Resources for ESL Lesson Planning
Whether you’re teaching in person or remotely, there are tons of amazing places to find ESL audio and video resources as well as ready-made ESL worksheets online. As we’ll see later, audio-visual materials and practice worksheets are essential tools for ESL lesson planning.
Familiarize yourself with these six resources now—they’ll come in handy over and over again as you plan your lessons.
ESL Library is an incredibly accessible resource with a well-rounded and extensive catalog of activities ranging from ready-made ESL classes to digital homework activities. They also maintain a regularly updated blog focused on contemporary issues and trends in the ESL world.
ESL Library is a subscription-based service, and it’s well worth a subscription for some ready-to-go activities if you’re a bit behind on your planning.
If you want all-in-one learning materials that’ll keep your students engaged, look no further than FluentU.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
The best part? Each FluentU video has its own “learn mode” that helps students practice vocabulary and grammar concepts. So, each video functions like a sort of “mini-lesson” where students learn through immersion.
English Speeches (Youtube)
We’re at a time when public debate, discourse and interaction have never been more relevant. Many ESL students don’t just want to learn English but are generally seeking more profound means of communication with people from around the world. The English Speeches YouTube channel compiles historical and contemporary speeches that are often moving, motivational or entertaining. Each speech is captioned with large lettering, and the speeches are categorized by English accent.
Linguahouse provides a wide range of ESL worksheets that are ready to use in class. The worksheets are divided into general, business, elementary and exam preparation, meaning you can utilize these resources for a specific class. You can also tailor the worksheets to suit the needs of a particular student or classroom. Access is free, and the website provides over 1,000 resources.
Film English is run by award-winning speaker, writer and educational trainer Kieran Donaghy. The content is based around (you guessed it) English films and short films. There are many well-prepared classes all devised around a particular video that can be downloaded. The lessons follow a very simple step-by-step format, and many of the topics are related to the themes of relationships, emotions and current issues.
Open Culture is a large-scale platform packed with educational and cultural content. The site is designed to be open-source, and you can draw from a deep well of specific topics and knowledge bases. The ESL section provides many audio and visual resources that can be easily adapted into an engaging and entertaining lesson plan.
Now that you have all the right tools at your fingertips, let’s look at a template for planning the perfect ESL lesson!
How to Create a Perfect ESL Lesson Plan in 6 Easy Steps (Plus 3 Ready-to-use Lesson Plans!)
Step 1: Decide on Your Lesson Plan Objectives
This is the daunting part, but it’s crucial that you know this from the start. Step one is the foundation of everything that follows. Your focus could be:
- a song or a movie (be sure that your school permits this and that it won’t disturb neighboring classrooms). Remember that audio must be played loudly for students to understand it since it’s in a different language.
- a specific grammar point, such as forming questions or practicing the present progressive. Young or beginning learners might need to focus on the conjugation of only one specific verb such as “to be.” More advanced students could practice multiple irregular verb conjugations.
- a general exercise such as understanding a short passage from a “Harry Potter” book.
- a vocabulary group. For example, you might teach cooking, colors, medical terminology or animals.
Step 2: Outline Your Lesson Plan
Remember that every lesson plan should include individual work. To keep things organized, my outlines included the estimated time spent on each section. For example, a movie outline could be this:
1. Waiting for students to arrive and for the class to calm down (teenagers never arrive on time) — 1 minute
2. Welcome/quick review of previous week/ask students questions — 3 minutes
3. Pass out movie worksheets — 1 minute
4. Play preview of movie — 2 minutes
5. Introduce vocabulary needed to understand movie scene — 5 minutes
6. Individual practice of the vocabulary on student worksheets — 3 minutes
7. Giving answers to worksheets — 2 minutes
8. Listening exercises with the movie (includes playing the movie scenes several times, then going over the answers and letting the students watch the scenes a third time) — 20 minutes
9. Free watching of the movie (always a class favorite, but get permission from your head teacher first) — 6 minutes
10. Wrap up the class by asking vocabulary review questions — 2 minutes
It’s important to balance classroom organization vs. time for the unexpected. Be ready for the unanticipated questions that can throw off your timing.
Step 3: Choose ESL Activities to Accomplish Your Lesson Plan Objectives
Variety is the spice of the ESL classroom. Everyone learns differently. You need activities for visual and audio learners as well as doers.
- Use games in the classroom. I believe in games in ESL classrooms. Used correctly, games let students test what they’ve learned in a relaxed, exciting way. The key is to make sure everyone participates. Without proper management, weaker or lazier students will quietly sit back and do nothing. In a 45 minute class, a game shouldn’t be longer than 12 minutes. Watch your motivations. There’s a big difference between playing Charades to review animal names vs. playing Hangman to let the teacher relax.
- Consider the pros and cons of individual vs. group ESL work. No lesson is complete without individual work. Everyone needs time to practice material on their own. These activities also help shyer students, who can work quietly without the pressure of a spotlight. Group work, on the other hand, is useful too. Students can practice a dialogue with each other and learn from stronger partners. Team activities are often fun and give everyone a chance to relax a little. The drawback of group work, though, is that more advanced students tend to dominate the action. The right mix is essential.
- Repeat recent ESL activities. You can repeat activities. How often depends on how popular the activity is. One of my classes insisted on reviewing vocabulary by playing Pictionary every week. For classes that meet once a week, it’s best to recycle activities once a month if you can. Otherwise, your students might start to lose interest – and perhaps you will as well.
- Ignore bad advice from ESL teacher websites and chat rooms. There are some great ESL websites out there. Just as many offer very bad advice. Be careful who you listen to. Some teachers are only concerned with winning popularity contests and so play games at every opportunity. Be sure that you’re listening to teachers who take their jobs seriously. Ignore those who only want a party atmosphere in their classes. Focus on advice that helps you structure your classes more while leaving time for fun.
Step 4: Create ESL Materials and Worksheets
It’s true that the internet has a lot of free worksheets. By all means, use them. Time, however, is your greatest enemy. You first must know where to find quality ESL material. (The list above is a great place to start.) Until you have a few favorite sites, searching for worksheets on the internet will take a lot of your time. You’re not done there. You still have to tailor it to your class’s level.
Here are some tips that could make things go faster:
- Reuse workbook materials. Photocopy exercises from a textbook, white-out the answers and let students complete the questions as a review.
- If you do make your own materials, remember to include two sample questions with answers at the very beginning. Kids and low-level students always need a clear model to look at before doing individual work.
- For each grammar point, include five to seven questions.
- Include pictures on the worksheet. No one likes to look at straight, boring text.
- Puzzles of any type are fun and can help to quiet down an energetic class. “Boggle,” word searches or riddles (make sure they aren’t too hard) are always a welcome challenge.
Hang onto your ESL materials for future classes. Do it. Especially if you stay at the same school for more than one year, you’ll be able to reuse your materials. Buy a good binder and stick nice copies of your materials in it. It pays to keep your hard work on your computer as well as a USB drive.
Step 5: Create Stellar Visual Aids for Your ESL Classroom
You’ll need visual aids that add depth and interest to your class. It could be a PowerPoint presentation, a restaurant menu from home or things from your kitchen. Whatever you choose, make sure it enhances your lesson.
- Decide: Is a PowerPoint presentation necessary for this lesson? In class, PowerPoint presentations are good time savers. They can show answers to questions, saving you the trouble of using the blackboard. You can also use them to show interesting pictures. Try to minimize using them, however. They take a lot of time to create, and it’s possible that your projector won’t work that day. What would you do then?
- Weigh the pros and cons of using videos in ESL classes. With today’s technological world, videos are a must. They quickly gain the attention of the class and are a sure hit. On the flip side, you must be very careful in selecting your videos. Even Disney movies have language that’s sometimes too difficult for low-level students. Background music, multiple people talking and jokes that don’t transcend cultures are all traps to avoid. You must always have a back-up plan for class in case technology fails and suddenly there’s no movie.
- Find creative ways to add visual aids to your ESL class. Newspapers are an interesting prop. Even if the articles are too difficult, students can find the date, place of publication, price and the weather forecast. Jazz up a food vocabulary class by bringing a banana and an apple. For more advanced students, bring a colander, grater, bottle opener and other cooking items. Pass around currency from other countries.
Look at your lesson’s target language and see if anything already in your home applies. Try not to buy too much. It’s not necessary to spend a lot of money on this.
Step 6: The Final Stages of Lesson Planning
You’ve made it. Believe me, I sincerely congratulate you. Before you head into class, do a few things first:
- Get advice from other English teachers. Show your coworkers your ESL materials. Especially if you teach in a foreign country, their advice is invaluable. They understand your students better than you do and they’ll see gaps in logic, things that are too hard and cultural pitfalls. Take their advice and change your materials.
- Don’t stress about the outcome of the first class. Nobody’s perfect, and you won’t be either. On the first day, make copies for only that day. You’ll probably come back to your desk with a few things to change for tomorrow. Save trees by not making copies that’ll only go in the recycle bin.
Put It All into Practice! 3 Ready-Made ESL Lesson Plans
To get you started, here are three ready-made ESL lessons that you can use today, if you’re in a pinch.
Each lesson is organized around a video. However, they all address different learning objectives.
The first lesson uses a simple video to practice vocabulary and basic listening comprehension.
The second lesson uses a more difficult video to help students fine-tune their listening comprehension skills.
The third lesson features a thought-provoking video, which serves as a jumping-off point to help advanced students practice their conversation skills.
Lesson Plan for Kids/Beginners: “What’s for Breakfast?”
This lesson plan uses a simple video to teach grammar as well as breakfast food vocabulary. It incorporates several activities focused on questions in the present simple, vocabulary building activities and word games.
The video is short and can be played several times throughout the class if necessary. Because the video is on FluentU, you can toggle the English subtitles on and off depending on the needs of your class.
These can be done in partners or with the whole group, depending on class size. Here are some examples:
What do you eat for breakfast?
What is your favorite food to eat for breakfast?
What do you think is a healthy breakfast?
Play the video
Play the video once (or twice, if you sense that your students are having a hard time understanding).
Activity: “Odd One Out”
For this game, you’ll need to compile a list of vocabulary taken directly from the video, plus one additional “odd word out.”
For example: Bananas, Eggs, Spaghetti, Coffee
Students will be asked to pick the odd one out. Of course, in this case, the answer is spaghetti, as it’s a dinner food, not a breakfast food.
You can ask questions such as Which of these would you not eat for breakfast? You can also follow up and ask students why they chose a particular food.
This activity can be done as a group exercise or individually depending on class size and whether this is done in a classroom or online.
For this game, you’ll need to compile flashcards related to the vocabulary shown in the video. Additional flashcards can be added for further study and can be food in general or breakfast foods. If you’re having difficulties preparing these materials, you can look at a website such as ESL flashcards for free resources.
The game is merely taking the flashcards and testing the vocabulary knowledge of your students. See if they can get all of the words through to the end without making any mistakes.
Questions in the Present Simple
Here you can ask questions in the present simple and encourage students to ask questions to each other. As this is a beginner-level class, I’d focus on positive questions only.
You can model a question-and-answer scenario and then encourage your students to follow their own questions. Be sure to write the question on the board or share a screen for an online class.
Do you eat breakfast in the morning?
Yes, I eat toast with jam every morning.
This activity is to encourage conversation between your students. Longer answers are to be praised.
Do you like fruit for breakfast?
Do your parents eat breakfast?
What is your favorite breakfast food?
You can encourage students to follow up on these questions by asking Why? or Why not?
If you still have time, you can encourage students to play a game related to the class. This would also be an excellent chance to do some free practice or conversation.
Again, you could utilize the flashcards. Encourage students to make full sentences with the object shown on the flashcard and award points in two teams.
Or set up a fake cafe and have children take and place an order.
What do you want for breakfast?
Toast with eggs, please.
In this way, you’re consolidating vocabulary from the beginning of the class.
Think of this lesson plan as a template that can be tweaked depending on the specific topic your class is working on. For example, if your class is studying the past tense rather than the present simple, you can ask different questions like What did you eat for breakfast yesterday?
Or, you can use all the activities as listed but substitute out the video to cover a different set of vocabulary words, such as animal words, sports words or clothing words.
Lesson Plan for Young Adults or Adults: “Introverts vs. Extroverts”
The video provided for this activity is called “Introverts vs. Extroverts.” It’s quite technical, so it requires quite a high level of comprehension. For this reason, it would suit an intermediate to upper-level class of young adult or adult learners. If you need to adjust for different learning levels in the classroom, you can turn on subtitles.
The class is mostly focused on listening and awareness due to the nature of the video.
Tell your students that the title of the video is “Introverts vs. Extroverts,” and ask them the following questions.
Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Tell us a story that highlights this!
What do you know about this topic already?
What do you think this video will be about?
Can you predict any vocabulary form the video?
Students will be encouraged to discuss these questions in pairs or small groups.
Comprehension in Context
Give students a hand-out with the following instructions and questions. Then, play the video twice—once for general comprehension, and once for answering questions.
Choose the best meaning in bold from the recording. Use the context of the video to help you. These are common phrases and phrasal verbs.
1. “It was Carl Jung who coined the terms introversion and extroversion.”
(a) Carl Jung discovered the terms.
(b) Carl Jung stole the words from another psychologist.
(c) Carl Jung invented the words introversion and extroversion to describe the phenomenon. [Correct]
2. “Introverts prefer to mull things over.”
(a) Introverts quickly forget about things.
(b) Introverts think deeply about something before deciding what to do. [Correct]
(c) Introverts are forgiving and generous.
3. “…introverts might have stuck to the sidelines…”
(a) Introverts willingly participated in activities.
(b) Introverts acted like referees and made sure people followed rules.
(c) Introverts stayed hidden to avoid dangerous situations. [Correct]
Who responds more strongly to rewards? Introverts or extroverts?
What does “extroversion bias” mean?
Activity: Emotional Profile and Video Discussion
Put students in pairs to discuss their takeaways from the video. They can answer questions like:
Did you agree with the video?
Do you think it’s better to be an introvert or an extrovert in today’s society? Why?
Do you think that being an introvert or extrovert is genetic? Why or why not?
Activity: Quiz and Discussion
For a bit of fun, the students will be encouraged to take this short quiz to determine if they’re an extrovert, introvert or ambivert.
Students will ask their partner questions and fill out the form for them as if they’re a psychologist and a patient. After this, they’ll read out the “prognosis” to their partner.
As a follow-up, you can ask students if they agree with the findings of the quiz.
If there’s time at the end of the class, a quick game such as hangman can be played using the vocabulary from the video.
If your class is set up on FluentU, you can send students away with the link to the video so that they can watch again and practice on their own time using the built-in comprehension quiz and learn mode.
Lesson Plan for Adults/Business English: “What Makes a Good Conversation?”
This lesson plan uses a video called “What Makes a Good Conversation?” and is mostly about conversation and video analysis. It encourages the students to examine a video at different levels while discussing key lessons and concepts. It would suit an English business class or an advanced adult class, and it’s incredibly adaptable to both an online setting or an in-person class.
Due to the class’s conversational nature, it’s integral to provide sufficient feedback and play the selected clip several times for the students.
You can also encourage note-taking as there will be some questions specifically related to the content of the video.
These questions can be asked in pairs or as a whole group, depending on class size.
Are you a conversationalist? What do you think this means?
Have you ever been involved in an incredibly enriching conversation? Tell us about it!
Have you ever been involved in a very poor conversation? Tell us about it!
What makes a good/productive conversation? What makes a conversation pointless?
Watching to Get the Gist
Show your students the video, and then ask them some general questions about the topic at hand.
What is the video about?
What does a conversation require?
Watching for Detail and Comprehension
Show the video again, and then ask more detailed comprehension questions.
According to the speaker, people don’t know how to have a good conversation anymore. What does she mean? What are the causes of this?
What advice did Henry Higgins give in “My Fair Lady” for people to have good conversations?
How many texts does an average teenager send per day?
What do you think conversational competence means? Can you define it?
What is the speaker’s profession? Or what do you imagine it is?
Follow-up: Personal Questions
Have you ever unfriended/unfollowed someone on social media because they said something offensive?
Do you think that people listen deeply these days?
What advice would you have for someone who wants to improve their conversation skills?
Follow Up: Roleplay
Ask students to get in character using one of these two scenarios.
Business context: you’re having a meeting with a new customer and your boss. It’s taking some time for your boss to arrive, so you have to engage in polite conversation with the customer.
General context: you’re new in a neighborhood and have been invited to a welcome party. Introduce yourself to your new neighbors and have a good conversation with them, following the tips in the video.
At the end of these conversations, conduct a short reflection activity. You can ask questions like: Did you have a great conversation with your partner? Why or why not? What would you change to improve the situation?
During Class: Troubleshooting Your ESL Lesson Plans
Now you’ve got three ready-made ESL lesson plans, as well as a template to help you create even more great plans.
But be forewarned: even the best-laid ESL lesson plans can go awry. Not to worry! You just need to know a few basic troubleshooting strategies. Let’s look at some of the most common problems that arise in an ESL classroom, and what to do if they should happen to you.
My lesson is finished, but there’s still time on the clock.
Extra time on the clock can mean that your class was too advanced for the lesson, or maybe that you overestimated the time you needed. Either way, go back to your desk and decide what to do differently in the next class.
- Have review games ready. Depending on the class, five minutes of vocabulary Hangman or Pictionary is legitimate. Let the students draw.
- Prepare three or four easy questions for a short conversation with the class. Make the topic similar to your lesson so nothing comes out of left field.
- Write a sentence from the lesson on the board. Give the class 15 seconds to memorize it. Erase the sentence and ask students to tell you what it was.
My lesson is too long.
Know what is a priority. What must you accomplish for the lesson to be a success? Try to focus on that while watching the time. No matter what happens, remember to leave 2 minutes for a quick review. Back at your desk, figure out what went wrong and decide what to change.
The students aren’t interested.
There could be a lot of reasons for this. Are your English lessons too hard or too easy? Did they just get yelled at by their previous teacher for poor test results? Did three students just have a fight before you arrived and everyone got in trouble? Are you speaking too fast? Did your materials make sense?
The solution requires some reflection on what happened in order to fix it.
Final encouragement to ESL teachers
As an ESL teacher, you have a hard job that most people can’t do. Making an exciting lesson out of a blank piece of paper is a real challenge. Even seasoned teachers who only use a book have trouble. To save your sanity, remember these points:
- Perfection will never be possible. That’s fine.
- Whatever comes out of your imagination will be awesome.
- Bells and whistles aren’t necessary. It’s the content and the thought behind English lessons that matter.
- When a lesson tanks, shrug it off. Fix what can be fixed. Forget about the rest.
- Teaching is a 50/50 relationship between the student and the teacher. You can do everything right, but if the student doesn’t do his part you’ll still have trouble. Do what you can and leave it at that.
The ESL classroom is an incredibly fun and exciting place. It can also be aggravating at times. But, hey, you’ll never be bored!
Teaching non-English speakers your language is an exciting privilege that you’ll never forget. Best of luck.