How to Set Up and Follow Through on an ESL Sports Lesson

My first ESL sports lesson can be described in four words:

Swing and a miss.

I made the mistake of teaching sports lessons straight from the textbook and not finding ways to use sports to engage with my students.

And as a result, they weren’t very motivated to study.

For many people, sports is a very personal topic.

It’s something that they’re emotionally invested in, and the only way you’re going to capture their attention is to talk about sports in a way that’s relevant to them.

For example, if you’re teaching English to students from Sri Lanka, you’ll probably have more success connecting with them over cricket than you would baseball, simply because cricket is a huge part of the culture there and a lot of people enjoy playing and watching it.

Why Teach ESL Through Sports?

Playing and watching sports is something that many people enjoy and can be used to make learning English fun.

Also, people often talk about sports when making small talk, so teaching how to communicate about last night’s game is a great way to help your students practice their conversational English.

So let’s look at a few resources and ideas to help you pull a hat trick with your next ESL sports lesson.

The ESL Teacher’s Guide to Crowd-pleasing Sports Lessons

Break the Ice with Video Clips

Just like how athletes stretch and lightly practice before each game, your students also need to warm up before each lesson—especially when you’re teaching sports. Starting the class with a quick video clip is a great way to break the ice and get your students talking about sports.

Here are some awesome video resources that’ll get your students engaged and ready to learn about sports.

  • Richard Films: This channel mostly shows highlights of American football athletes, which is great if you’re teaching a lesson on sports in the United States. Outside of football, the channel also hosts an incredible video called “The Greatest Sport Moments of All Time,” which shows highlights of various sports that your students may be interested in.
  • FluentU: You can find all kinds of sports-related videos on FluentU, covering everything from snowboarding to rock climbing to bowling, and you can use it to find great material for lessons on other subjects as well!

    FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

  • Bad Lip Reading: Bad Lip Reading has an entire playlist of NFL videos of fake conversations between athletes on the football field. Their videos are hilarious and downright silly, and are perfect for using humor and sports as a warm-up exercise.

The great thing about sports videos as a warm-up exercise is that they’re easy to make actionable. Simply come up with a list of questions to ask your students after the clip has ended. Here are some ideas for discussion topics:

  • For clips of bloopers or highlights, pause after each action and ask the class to describe what happened.
  • For compilation videos involving a number of different sports, ask the class to list off all the types of sports they saw in the clip.
  • For all videos, have students summarize the clip they just watched.

Build Vocabulary with Flashcards

When teaching sports to beginners, flashcards are a great way to help your students memorize vocabulary words. Instead of memorizing a bunch of vocabulary words and definitions from a book, flashcards let your students actually visualize the words and expressions they’re learning. And for many students, this makes it easier for them to learn new words.

If you’re looking for a deck of flashcards to help you teach your next ESL sports lesson, have a look at these sites:

  • MES English: Here are three separate decks of sports-related flashcards that cover a number of different activities, including hunting, automobile racing and martial arts.
  • ESL Flashcards: ESL Flashcards has a free 26-card deck of various solo and team sports, including summer and winter Olympic sports. Flashcards are able to be downloaded at the bottom of the page and come in small, medium and large picture decks.
  • LearnEnglish Kids: While designed specifically for young learners, the flashcard decks on LearnEnglish Kids are actually suitable for beginners of all ages and cover a wide range of sports topics, including extreme sports and sporting equipment.

What’s nice about flashcards is that they’re incredibly easy to make actionable. Along with using them to introduce new vocabulary, try covering the word with a piece of paper and drilling students with just the picture. Alternatively, you could also hand each student a different flashcard and have them give a short oral presentation describing the sport to the class.

Teach Students with Sports News

Teaching sports to students who’re intermediate proficiency and higher is incredibly fun because you’re able to use more real material in your lessons. Even your beginner students who have developed the basic reading skills to understand the gist of newspaper articles can benefit from this activity, provided you condense the stories and simplify any difficult language.

A great blog for sports news from an American point of view is Bleacher Report. There, you can find up-to-date stories on American sports as well as other sporting events around the world.

If you’re teaching British English or you’re looking for sports news articles with a slightly more formal tone, the BBC Sport website provides global sports coverage on both the world’s popular and most obscure sports, such as…

If you want to help your students get the most out of their reading lessons, give them comprehension questions to answer as they read through various sports articles. You can also turn this activity into writing or discussion exercises by having your students give their thoughts about articles they’ve read.

For example, in this article covering a soccer player who attacked a fan, you can ask your students to talk or write about why the player shouldn’t have done that, and how he could’ve diffused the situation better.

Add Podcasts

Best suited for upper-intermediate and advanced students, podcasts are a great way to have your students practice their listening skills. Including podcasts in your ESL sports lesson can be incredibly beneficial. Not only do they let your students learn how to talk about sports in a conversational manner, they can be downloaded and listened to from any computer or mobile device with internet access. That means that you’re able to teach and assign homework assignments using podcasts.

If you’re looking for a few sports podcasts to add to your next lesson, here are three recommendations:

  • BBC Sports Podcasts: Radio coverage on a number of different competitive sports. Great for students learning British English.
  • The Podium: The Podium is a podcast run by NBC, an American television channel. It covered all of the news and updates surrounding the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, including results and political news—much of which may still be interesting to your students and relevant to your lessons. You can also download it from the iTunes App Store here.

To make your podcast lessons a little more actionable, listen to the programs beforehand and come up with related questions to ask the class after they’ve finished listening to the episode.

With podcasts episodes that are opinionated, try dividing your class into small groups of three or four students and having them debate using the theme of the episode. For example, this episode on a unified Korean hockey team can be turned into a classroom debate on how North and South Korea can improve diplomatic relations.

Describe Favorite Athletes

Biography Online has a number of biographies on some of the world’s greatest and most popular athletes. Here, students can read about people like Usain Bolt, Lionel Messi and Michael Jordan, in addition to many other influential sports personalities.

You can use this website to teach your students how to talk about sports by having them choose their favorite athlete, read his or her biography and then give a presentation on the person in class. Or, you can have your students write a short essay on the athlete as homework.

This activity is suited best for students starting at the pre-intermediate level. However, you can also teach beginners using Biography Online if you’re able to get the names of their chosen athletes ahead of time and write condensed biographies that use simplified English.


With these resources and ideas, you’ll be able to turn your next ESL sports lesson into something that all students can enjoy.

Let them practice their sports vocabulary using natural, real-world material that also teaches them how to communicate like native speakers!

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