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6 Useful ESL Materials for Adults to Keep Your Students Engaged

ESL teaching materials are not a one-size-fits-all affair. Your adult students want to engage in global topics.

They want to transform their opinions and ideas into grounded, structured English words, sentences and full-blown conversations.

To accomplish all of this, you must use the right materials. But what works best for adults?

Here we’ll share six useful materials that will keep your grown-up learners engaged, challenged and learning. 


1. The New Yorker

Using The New Yorker as ESL fodder for your adult lessons is a great way to bring out that graduate level, professional language your students yearn to have in their arsenal. This material is best for intermediate learners and higher, with multiple topics to draw from.

Culture, science & technology, books, business, news and humor are all sections you can find in this magazine to pull topics from. There are also audio and video sections available online to put listening comprehension to the test.

the new yorker logo The New Yorker incorporates many ESL skills, including reading and listening comprehension, a higher level of vocabulary building, deciphering quoted speech, grammar and even slang.

You can easily transform one article in The New Yorker into an entire lesson, or possibly two or three, depending on topic and length. When using more reputable material, topics and dissenters in the topic will be illuminated, so it’s an excellent plan to also incorporate pair or group exercises to bundle communication with the other skills covered.

Sample Activity with The New Yorker

The January 21, 2016 article titled “The Lost-Jewelry Hunters” by Tyler J. Kelley covers a story about an international jewelry hunter ring available to anyone who is need of finding lost jewelry. One anecdote in the article discusses a lost wedding ring and the “jewelry hunters'” methods for finding it.

  • Depending on your class size, have each student read the entire article, or sections aloud. This will allow students to jot down any new vocabulary or sections they do not quite comprehend as others read.
  • Next, cover new words or challenging sections with your students to ensure complete comprehension by the entire class.
  • Then, ask your students a few detailed questions regarding the story. For example, “Who lost his wedding band and why is it so important that the jewelry hunter finds it?” Or, “What were some of the questions the jewelry hunter asked in order to gain a better understanding of where the ring might be?”
  • After comprehension questions, pair your students up and introduce a dissenter position. For example, “The jewelry hunter said in the article that it’s dangerous for people to call on them, it’s a matter of trust. How could it be dangerous?” Or, “Let’s say you lost your wedding ring, would you call a jewelry hunter? Why or why not? Should there be laws against this? Are there laws prohibiting this in your city?” Have your students discuss their thoughts with their partners.

Using this specific article is just one way to assist your students in developing more academic vocabulary while discussing an interesting article that relates to a topic many may have had personal experience with, like losing keys, an earring or other prized possessions. For your more advanced students, pick topics that have a more global debate attached to them, really placing a twist of academic sophistication into your lesson plan.

2. Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) YouTube Channel

Oprah Winfrey is one of the most famous talk show entertainers and celebrity humanitarians in the world. She has had multiple guests from all corners of the globe, and from all walks of life. There is an excellent chance your students will immediately recognize her, which is a great way to begin the material connection.

own logo There is a wealth of videos and playlists on the OWN YouTube Channel which your students can browse, whether at class or at home, encouraging personal English development.

The ESL skills incorporated into this resource include listening, subject comprehension, writing and classroom communication. The video clips on the OWN YouTube channel are short, so you can potentially cover several in one class period with ease.

Sample Activity with OWN Videos

First, you will need to spend some time browsing OWN to find the right clips for your students. Remember, if you have a class of corporate executives who are all male, picking a kitchen makeover video may not keep them too engaged. One topic most business professionals enjoy learning more about is self-achievement. Successful people often strive to continually improve themselves, which could even be one reason they are taking your English class.

  • This example OWN video clip discusses intuition and how to discover your life’s purpose. Have your students watch the video roughly three to five times, encouraging them to take notes.
  • Next, engage your students in a classroom discussion about the clip. For example, ask your students, “Why is having a good intuition important in personal and professional settings?,” “How can saying what you feel promote well-being?” or “How can you find your life’s purpose?” Have a classroom discussion, letting students respond to your questions and the answers of their peers.
  • To conclude, challenge your students to write how they have used, or can use, the advice given in the video clip—whether it be personal or professional.

3. NPR Podcasts

Did you listen to NPR’s podcast on “Star Wars” (The Force Awakens) spoilers? When current questions like these can be conversation openers during those early morning office hours, you can give your students the opportunity to be a part of the conversation by using NPR podcasts.

npr podcasts logo The wealth of topics available to you and your students in the NPR podcast directory is endless. Art, business, health, comedy, technology, news and politics are all up for discussion. There are even specialty podcasts covering pop culture, politics and TED Talks—so there’s truly something for every adult student.

You can engage your students at any level using NPR podcasts, bringing in essential skills such as listening, critical thought, communication, vocabulary, slang, idioms and phrasal verbs. For many of the podcasts, you can focus on listening, discussion and debate in your lesson plans.

Sample Activity with NPR Podcasts

This sample podcast from NPR is a quick take on President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address. Have your students ready to keep silent for a bit, because you will be challenging them with listening comprehension questions via a worksheet you compiled before class.

  • Your worksheet should aim for five to ten questions covering a few main areas of the podcast. For example, “How did Obama start out the address? Do you think this was effective?” Or, “Did Obama discuss policies? What did the podcast hosts say about this portion of Obama’s address?” Keep your questions semi-open in order to give your students room to get creative in their answers.
  • For the worksheet portion of this example exercise, you can also let your students group up and discuss the questions together before writing their own answers in the worksheet.
  • Next, address questions and have students read their answers to the comprehension questions. This will open the floor for classroom discussion, furthering comprehension of the material.
  • Bringing it all together, pair up students and them engage one another in discussion regarding the podcast details. The conversation should be casual in nature, but both students should use key points made by the NPR hosts.

You can also set up a debate situation if time permits, allowing students to take opposing sides of any argument made in the podcast. This will give them more confidence to approach conversations in real-life scenarios.

4. Corporate Press Releases

The corporate business world is filled with news, especially press releases that highlight company growth, new executive positions appointed, quarterly financial reports, and mergers and acquisitions, among other examples. These press releases should be enlisted in ESL classes to build the professionalism your adult students crave, from classroom to boardroom.

pr newswire logo Press releases issued by companies on platforms such as PR Newswire are picked up by media outlets across the globe, subsequently reaching millions of people. They allow professionals, like your adult students, to learn what is happening in business and possibly forge new connections and ideas for their own company.

You can illuminate a number of English language skills using press releases, including grammar, business-minded vocabulary building, reading comprehension and business-focused discussion.

Sample Activity with Press Releases

First, find a press release that has multiple layers. This is not vital, but it adds different aspects like quotes and proper business formatting, and builds creative ways to craft a press release—which your students will do at the end of this lesson.

  • Depending on the size of your class, have each student read the press release in its entirety, or by section. You may even want to read the release first, letting your students hear the correct way it should be read, including pronunciation.
  • After reading, open the floor up for discussion. Ask your students about key aspects of the press release, such as, “What is the press release’s purpose?,” “What is the position discussed?,” “What does the company do?” or “Who was quoted in the press release?”
  • Then, you can bring a bit of critical thinking into the conversation. For example, “Do you think quotes are an important part of the press release?” and “Do you agree with the formatting?” Or, “Why does the press release mention competitive platforms?,” “Why does it plug other companies?” This is a vital part of the lesson; your students should understand, discuss and think about the way the press release is formulated because they will use that knowledge to create a press release of their own.
  • Once your students are ready, have them develop a short press release discussing their own position at their current company. They can use the sample press release for help, but they will be describing their own attributes.

Another option is for students to write the press release using their ideal job position and a combination of attributes they have and qualities they would like to have.

5. Daily News Crossword Puzzles

Using crosswords in an ESL classroom is a time-honored teacher tradition to employ a crossword or two during any course. However, most ESL crosswords are easy, less academic in word choice, and either too dubious or too focused.

Daily news crosswords, on the other hand, are a sure way to introduce your students to new vocabulary, engage them in cultural topics, and promote collaboration and conversation by turning them into pairwork activities.

There are a wealth of word-worthy crosswords on the Internet to choose from, regardless of where in the world you teach. You can choose easy crosswords from The Guardian, or more challenging crosswords posted online by The New York Times. You do need a subscription to access the NYT crossword, but considering how much additional content this vital news resource offers for your students, you may find it’s well worth it. 

oregonian logo The Oregonian also has a decent intermediate crossword for your students to enjoy, with interactive features if you choose to do the crossword together as a class via computer.

Sample Activity with Daily News Crossword Puzzles

Knowing your students and their English vocabulary tool kit is important for this activity. You may want to consider starting with an easier crossword to build confidence in your students. You could even place a few solved words into the crossword, or cover a few vocabulary words that will be found in the crossword before beginning the activity.

  • First, pair up your students and pass out crossword worksheets, one worksheet per pair. This activity will have time limits incorporated into it. The first round should be the longest in order to let your students get familiar with the crossword questions. Your first round could be 10 or 15 minutes, with five-minute rounds thereafter.
  • After the initial round, have teams tell you how many lines they solved. Each correct word will be one point. Tally up each team’s points and discuss any issues and answer questions.
  • Next, you will follow with five-minute rounds, gathering points for each round. After all the rounds are completed, bestow a winning team, and then discuss the rest of the crossword hints as a class.

Using these crossword puzzles will provoke conversation, collaboration and grow confidence as well. You can also encourage your students to construct sentences at home using the new words they found during the team activity.

6. Vice News

Vice News has grown since it was established in 1994. It covers topics with a more 21st-century journalistic approach that conventional media outlets do not. This allows Vice News to be a slick way for your adult students to develop critical thinking and debate skills.

vice news logo Vice News covers topics such as politics, environment, health, crime & drugs, and opinion. Your adult students can enjoy the opportunity to discuss and debate some of the world’s most pressing issues in English. Vice News also offers a wide arrangement of videos and articles for you and your students to choose from.

Vice News will work on some of the most practical ESL skills: reading, listening, grammar, vocabulary building, comprehension, critical thinking, collaboration, conversation and debate. Some stories covered by Vice News may even be trending in your students’ local newspapers as well.

Sample Activity with Vice News

You will need to read this article and identify new words, phrases and/or areas that will benefit your students before moving into any activity. For example, covering vocabulary like “mentally ill,” “contend,” “deterioration” and “revolving door” will give your students some foundation to build from before reading and listening.

  • Have your students read sections or the entire article aloud, taking notes and asking questions about the content as needed. This introduction of material is vital to cover, ensuring your students have the gist before moving forward.
  • After reading and listening, engage your students in a few comprehension questions mixed with critical thinking questions. For example, “What is the issue this article is highlighting?” Followed by “Does your country have this issue?” and “What is the criminal system and jails like for criminals with mental illness in your country?” This will all fuel future debate.
  • Now you will set up the debate. Divide your class into two groups. One group will be for the current jail system, and the other will be arguing to change it. Each group will be a panel in which key aspects will be debated. Give the groups 10-15 minutes to gather supporting thoughts and ideas before the debate begins.
  • Be the moderator as the groups debate, jumping in when needed and keeping the debate flowing if it stalls.

There is a wealth of adult ESL materials online. However, finding materials that are engaging for your adult students is the real battle. You can change the atmosphere of your classroom by being more creative with the material you use. Nearly everything can be transformed into material for your lesson plans, and pulling essential English language skills from these six resources is fun for you and your students.

What Sets Apart ESL Materials for Adults?

Once basic language skills are honed, it’s essential for you to begin challenging your eager students in new, exciting ways. However, there are many instances when your approach needs to be geared toward specific students—adults included. Rather than practicing nursery rhymes with a CEO of a multinational company, you would strive to engage such a student on a more authentic level, using practical materials.

Your adult students have a higher degree of maturity, so your materials should reflect that in your lesson plans. You can introduce business topics that are currently trending or viral newscasts sweeping the global media stage. Placing practical English material at the center of your planning will keep lessons fun and enthusiastic as well.

Nothing wears down an adult ESL student faster than constant bookwork geared toward general English learning. With the materials above, your students can grow and even use them outside of the classroom. Your adult students need practical materials to draw opinions from, while building debate topics that may develop countless astute conversations. Inspire your adult learners to cultivate confidence with materials that capture the mind!


Implement practical concepts for your adult classes and you will see them blossom into confident English speakers willing to approach any topic in a structured way.

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