esl physical activities

5 Fun Physical Activities to Get Your ESL Class Moving and Grooving

Have you ever had a class of elementary students who sat perfectly still?

Young students who used quiet voices and stayed completely concentrated on a single task?

Probably not.

Anyone who has taught a class of elementary school students for more than a day knows how difficult it is to keep students in their seats and focused on the lesson.

But instead of getting frustrated with the kids’ energy, we should use that excitement for an educational activity

When students don’t release their natural energy, they become bored and distracted—they stare out the window, doodle, make paper airplanes or even run around the room. This can tire any teacher’s patience.

Studies have shown that students learn better when they have more physical activity during the school day.

So let’s couple that physical activity with English for an epic ESL class that your students will absolutely love!

Benefits of Physical Activities in ESL Classes

When you incorporate physical activities in your ESL class, you will provide your students with an outlet for all their energy that other teachers don’t allow them to release. A short period of exercise will make students more willing to sit still for another 10 to 15 minutes while you give your lesson. Just think, three to five minutes of physical activity that incorporates language can give you 15 minutes of quiet, organized class time.

And your students will use their language skills during and after the physical activity, increasing the total time spent learning. During physical activities in class, you will give students instructions—they will have to listen to participate in the activity. There will also be a spoken component to the activity to add to their language skills. In some cases, you can incorporate reading activities, thus including three of the four skills students need to use to learn English.

Because of the correlation between the English words and the physical response, the students will recognize words and phrases more easily. With a word as simple as “wave,” you can get your students to listen, speak or act depending on the prompt.

Most importantly, using these physical activities in an ESL class will create a fun atmosphere for the students. Students who find a class fun are more likely to be attentive during lessons and retain the information better. It can also turn you into a more popular teacher at school.

Individual vs. Full Class Physical Activities for ESL Class

When incorporating physical activities into your ESL class, you can either do full class activities where everyone’s participating, or have an individual do one of the activities. Individual activities will be a little more difficult for some classes, especially larger ones. You have to know when you can use them and how to maintain control of the other students while one student is performing the activity.

Singling out one student to perform an action in front the class (though it’s easier and less embarrassing to have the student do it in front of his/her desk) is usually best reserved for a warm-up, introduction or review lesson.

If you’re just introducing new vocabulary to be acted out, you may want to call on the better students who are more likely to already know the words and actions. You may, however, just choose a more outgoing student who wouldn’t mind being moved around by the teacher as a demonstration. During a review, you can call on the struggling students to help reinforce the concepts.

But the best way to allow students to expend all of their excess energy in class is through activities that involve the entire class at the same time. These types of activities can depend on the number of students, size of the classroom and layout of the classroom. As you grow more comfortable in your space, you will know which activities will work and how to organize them in the space you have.

Think of it as a theater project—you are the director and you have to work with what you’re given. You want a grand production, but you’re provided with a small empty space and talent that may be a little rough around the edges.

For the best results, we’re equipping you with five full-class activities below—which are sure to both delight students and improve English at the same time.

5 Fun Physical Activities to Get Your ESL Class Moving and Grooving

1. Teach verbs through motion

esl physical activities

This is when you can teach verbs to the entire class. If you’re teaching actions that can be performed in a small space, this is a perfect opportunity to get your students to act them out.

So after teaching your students words such as “jump” or “throw,” you can ask your students to show you what these words mean. As you watch your students perform these actions, you can also see who knows what to do immediately and which students need to follow the rest of class—now you’ll know who needs more help understanding vocabulary.

If you’re using words that require a level of interpretation and imagination, such as “dance,” you could have a bit more fun. Students love to show off in some of the most ridiculous ways—they’ll appreciate seeing you laugh when their dance style is absurd (let them go, they can learn to dance when they’re older).

This is also an opportunity for you to return to childhood games that require physical activity. You can teach your students parts of the body and actions through a game of Simon Says.

2. Reading and acting verb competition

esl physical activities

A variation of this first activity could be done in teams. Using the competitive nature of the students, you can determine which group of students can best perform each action and arbitrarily award points depending on performance and overall behavior.

This basic game should have only two teams, no matter the size of the class. The game itself should only take 10 to 15 minutes.

  1. Hold up a word or phrase for one team to read without showing the other.
  2. When the first team correctly reads the word or phrase, the other team will have to act it out.
  3. You can award a point for the team correctly reading and another for the team correctly acting it out.

You can also reverse the activity by playing charades and having the opposing team guess the action.

Another variation of the game includes showing the first team a picture that portrays an action and have a student from the team write the word or phrase on the board. The second team would then act out the word or phrase. Have fun trying these out and see what works best with your students!

3. Acting out dialogues

esl physical activities

In smaller groups, especially with students who are a little beyond beginners, you can use short dialogues for students to act out. It can be a fairly simple dialogue, such as “Where is the library?” or “May I borrow a pencil?”

These should be dialogues that students have read before, so they’re more familiar with the phrases and actions associated with them. There usually won’t be as much movement here as you would have with the previous two activities, but there’s still enough such that the students aren’t stuck in their seats for an entire class period.

You can call two students at time (sometimes three or four depending on the dialogue) to the front of the room. Provide them with a prompt to begin the dialogue (i.e. ask one another for directions or about each other’s hobbies). If it’s a dialogue that involves props, such as “May I borrow a …?,” it may help reinforce the vocabulary by forcing the students to pick the correct item for the dialogue.

4. Twister variations

esl physical activities

Everyone loves Twister, but it’s not something you can play with an entire class. There are, however, variations that can be used in class to get the students moving and thinking.

You can use anything from colors and shapes to words and phrases that you place on the floor (use laminated versions and tape them to the floor so they don’t slide around). Make them large enough or make multiples so every student has an opportunity when playing.

You or a chosen student calls out the word/color/shape/etc. and the class rushes to step on or place a hand on that card stuck to the floor. You can also show a color or shape and have the students find the matching word on the floor.

Note: You should not actually turn this into a traditional game of Twister as it could lead to more problems with students pushing and hurting each other.

5. Jump to the front

esl physical activities

This game works with groups of three to five students at a time. You can break your class into teams and award points based on the results of each round.

As with other games, you can hold up a picture and have the students say or write the corresponding word or phrase. The first student to answer correctly gets to jump a space ahead (three or four answers should win the round). At each jump forward, there should be a card that the student must pick up and read.

If the student reads it correctly, he or she stays in that spot for the next question. If the student reads it incorrectly, he or she must jump back. Replace the card if the student gets it incorrect.

This simple game also keeps other students paying attention because they must behave to join in the game for subsequent rounds.

No matter how you include movement in your classroom, it will improve the overall performance and behavior of your students. They will make connections between English words/phrases and actions, while expending enough energy to sit still during the rest of the lesson.

The creation of a fun classroom atmosphere will also encourage students to pay attention and learn more, so add some movement to your ESL class today!

Oh, And One More Thing…

If you’re really digging these fun, interactive ESL activities, then you’ve got to try FluentU.

FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, cartoons, documentaries and more—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons for you and your students. 

It’s got a huge collection of authentic English videos that people in the English-speaking world actually watch on the regular. These are videos that your students already love watching, so they’ll be beyond excited to interact with them in the classroom. 

2014 10 09 21.14.21 A Model Lesson for Using Songs as ESL Audio Listening Materials

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.

2014 10 09 21.15.16 A Model Lesson for Using Songs as ESL Audio Listening Materials

Worried that students might be stumped by some of the harder videos? No way. FluentU brings authentic content within reach by providing interactive captions and in-context definitions right on-screen. For example, if a student taps on the word “brought,” they’ll see this:

2014 10 09 21.20.15 A Model Lesson for Using Songs as ESL Audio Listening Materials

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.”

2014 10 09 21.21.16 A Model Lesson for Using Songs as ESL Audio Listening Materials

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.

Bring English immersion to your classroom!

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