4 Genius Teaching Ideas to Enliven Your ESL Lessons
You don’t need to be “artsy” to bring some refreshing creativity into your teaching.
And you know what else?
Your students don’t need to be artsy in order for them to appreciate your creatively taught English lessons either.
So infusing your lessons with some originality will be nothing but a win-win situation.
We’re going to help you get started with some tips on how to become more innovative in your ESL teaching, plus handy hints for better brainstorming.
Then we’ll reveal four juicy teaching ideas you can start using today. Take a deep breath and let’s dive in!
How to Make Your ESL Teaching More Innovative
First, here are a few tips to help you introduce more inventive methods into your regular teaching.
- Start small. Breaking out of the teaching box is easier said than done. At university we’re taught to stick to the curriculum and to stay on course. So try a small deviation first and see how it works. This will give you the encouragement to experiment further. Remember to keep notes and to ask for student evaluations so you can track what works and what doesn’t.
- Give students responsibility. Challenge your students to take responsibility for their own learning. Ultimately it’s the student’s “job” to learn, as nobody can do it for her/him. Often, though, we teachers find it easier to hold our students’ hands and guide them through the work so they won’t go astray. But this mother-hen approach can impede higher-thinking skills.
A more confronting and effective approach is to teach the students how to learn and how to become their own teachers. The initial step is that students have to be taught responsibility, which can be scary when it’s new, but will open doors for much more innovation.
- Talk with your students. Rather than talking to your students, talk with them. A very basic methodology is to sit down at a table with your ESL students. Simple as it sounds, this puts everyone more or less at the same eye-level. While it works well with children, it’s essential with adults, as they generally don’t appreciate anything that may be conceived as condescending. Talking together will set your teaching apart and again make it easier to get the creativity flowing.
- Delegate. To continue giving students responsibility, have them teach some classes. Work with groups on their lesson plans, but make it clear that they’re the ones who have to deliver the material. While it may be frightening for all concerned at first, it helps the students mature as peer-teachers and encourages a sense of camaraderie, as tomorrow it’s someone else’s turn. Whenever delegating, don’t forget to monitor the process and follow up.
One of the top ways to make your ESL teaching more innovative is to include contemporary and native English content that the students love from the FluentU program.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
Tips for Brainstorming Fresh ESL Teaching Ideas
Once you’ve used the four teaching ideas in the following section, here are some strategies you can use to come up with more original ideas of your own.
- Start at the end. Begin with the end goal and work your way backwards. Although this may sound strange, too many of us just keep plowing straight ahead without knowing where it is we ultimately want to end up. The goal must be firmly in mind when coming up with teaching ideas.
- Construct a mind or concept map. Get some blank paper and colored pencils and doodle your ideas into a tangible form. Start a file of your various concept maps and review them from time to time. Looking at a mind map you constructed six months ago may trigger new and innovative ideas. Drawing a mind map of the end goal and how you’re going to get there is a good exercise to help you stay focused. Make a copy of it and check your progress regularly.
- Pinterest. You don’t have to become a pinner yourself, but Pinterest is an excellent source of inspiration for ESL teachers. Type in relevant search terms and browse through the visual gallery of results. Some of the teaching activities you see will even spark ideas for a completely new application.
- Bounce ideas with colleagues. Oftentimes we can feel isolated when trying to be creative. The best way to overcome that feeling is to share ideas with colleagues. The “collective we” is often better able to come up with innovate thoughts than someone working in isolation. If possible, meet regularly with a group somewhere other than at school. A local coffee shop or a pub provides some distance from the classroom, which can allow for freer expression.
4 Creative ESL Teaching Ideas You Can Use Immediately
1. Incorporate the five senses
Too often we rely only on sight and sound while teaching. But what about touch, taste and smells, too? Since visual is the most often incorporated, here are some ideas for the remaining four senses:
- Read “touch and feel” books in small groups, like any of these or this (and others like it) on Amazon. If you don’t have any budget for purchasing books, you can definitely still make your own (or better yet, make them with your students). Cotton balls, pipe cleaners, sand, tin foil, sand paper, candy wrappers, seashells and feathers are easy materials to get you started. Here’s a DIY template (PDF) you can download.
- Spray foamy shaving cream on each student’s desk, in which they can then write letters or words with their fingers after spreading it out with their hands. You can decide how to structure this (ask questions, dictation, free play, etc.) based on your students’ needs and ages. This is a great one to do near the end of the year, as it can serve the dual purpose of cleaning student desks!
- Peel both an apple and potato, and then slice them up into bite-sized pieces. Give students/groups one of each, and let them investigate to figure out which is which, the final research being a taste test.
- You could also do a blindfolded taste test with your students, give them something small to nibble on, and asking them what it was. Depending on level and how many food samples you’re able to bring in, students could also sort them according to taste: sweet, sour, spicy, bitter and salty. Make sure to check for any food allergies before bringing anything edible into class!
- An additional resource for younger learners when exploring taste is the book “Tasting” by Rebecca Rissman.
- Bring in various items (~6), each in separate containers with holes (paper lunch bags work well), such that the items can’t be seen by your students. Have students close their eyes as they smell, and then to write down their guesses. Here are some ideas: popcorn, onion, banana, lemon, orange, mint, basil, cinnamon, pepper, pencil shavings, coffee, chocolate, leaves, bread.
- Afterwards, students could fill in a simple “I like to smell / I don’t like to smell” worksheet like this.
- Christmastime is a great occasion to introduce the scratch-and-sniff book “The Sweet Smell of Christmas.”
- If you teach modes of transportation to beginners, a fun review activity is to listen to sounds and have students guess what they’re hearing. Here’s a multiple-choice quiz video for younger learners, and here’s one that’s more difficult. You can find tons of sound effects online, so this type of activity isn’t limited to transportation.
- Have students listen to a piece of instrumental music with their closed eyes, and then write or discuss how it made them feel, or what mood/story it reminded them of.
There are so many other memorable learning activities you can do when the spotlight leaves the sense of sight, so don’t forget to give your students’ eyes a break every now and then.
2. Create a SOLE in your classroom
SOLE stands for self-organized learning environment, and it involves giving students a “big question” which they’ll explore online in groups. (You’ll thus need Internet access and one computer per group of four students to create a SOLE.)
Briefly, the main principles of SOLEs are that students take the front wheel on their learning, developing habits to think critically and to learn on their own for the rest of their lives.
During the investigation stage, instructors take a big step back and let groups research and problem solve on their own. Groups can talk to any other groups while they’re investigating a big question.
Big questions don’t have an easy answer, and they’re often very open. A few examples from the SOLE toolkit (for various subjects) include “Why do people slip when it’s wet?” “Who invented the alphabet” and “What would happen to the Earth if all insects disappeared?”
SOLEs have mostly been used to date for teaching content subjects, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t experiment and use this set-up in your English classes. In fact, founder Sugata Mitra and his team are always looking to collaborate with instructors to run global experiments involving SOLEs.
Watch Sugata Mitra’s inspirational TED Talk “Build a School in the Cloud” to learn more about this breakthrough method and how it came about.
Then, this 28-page PDF toolkit will walk you through the ins and outs of SOLE—from what it is to how to set it up, with clear instructions and friendly graphics. School in the Cloud is a platform that helps classrooms create and use SOLEs, though School in the Cloud is not necessary in order to use a SOLE.
3. Let students write plays and assign the roles
When plays are performed in ESL classes, often the script is already written, and you’ll assign roles as a class—either in small groups or a large one. Put a twist on this great skill-building activity by letting students not only write the skits/plays themselves, but also assign parts for their classmates to perform.
This dovetails with the concepts of responsibility and delegation, which can be pretty fun. This element can help increase student motivation and creativity while writing the skits, since students can write roles with a classmate in mind to play each part.
If students need help brainstorming a plot/situation for their skit or play, here are some helpers:
- Take characters from a well-known movie/book/show, and put them in a totally new situation. (i.e. Take the characters from “Frozen” or “Harry Potter” and put them on your local news show or a deserted island.
- Your students could also take one character each from several different well-known books, movies or TV shows, and mix them all together (i.e. Bart Simpson, Dumbledore and Willy Wonka).
- Have students randomly draw an action, a place, a quote and/or an item (which you can write on slips of paper, or let all students help brainstorm)—as is sometimes done in improv—and somehow incorporate them into their plays.
- Play improv games and spin-off resulting situations into full skits with scripts.
- Set limitations to help students be more creative and less perfectionist. For example: You cannot use the word “good,” or you only have 10 minutes to write the first x lines of your play.
For even more ideas on how to jazz up scriptwriting, here are four activities/techniques to try. Click on the activity name in blue to see the full procedure.
4. Break out the scrapbooking materials
Scrapbooking doesn’t have to be a full-blown hobby of yours to bring it into your English class. Part of teaching involves helping students to develop a positive self-concept, and scrapbooking is a recognized way to do just that.
Scrapbooks can be personal statements which provide students the opportunity to present themselves visually and in writing. Their scrapbooks will also give you an insight into their lives and personalities, which you may not otherwise have the opportunity to know.
For yearlong ESL classes, spending one day a month scrapbooking could be a good amount to start with. From there, you can increase or decrease frequency, or perhaps assign a second page each month as an at-home project.
Here are more tips to help you implement this idea into your classroom:
- Bring your camera to school. Take photos of your students at least twice a month and get them developed/printed. Students can then use photos of themselves and of their class in their scrapbooks, increasing personal investment.
- Get personal. Definitely don’t limit your students to classroom content for their scrapbook pages, though. For instance, making personal pages is a great opportunity for students to use English in a meaningful way. Here are 50 simple scrapbooking page ideas, from which you could easily just grab the topic (i.e. “A Day in My Life,” “I Am Thankful for…,” “My Heroes,” “Things in My Bedroom,” etc.) and not the layouts.
- Go beyond English. In the same way, you can just as easily expand to something else you’re learning as a class—a holiday, culture, time period, animal kingdom, etc. As long as any research, photo searching and writing is done in English, it can go in the scrapbook!
- Start small. It can be easy to get overwhelmed or caught up in the excitement of today’s scrapbooking supplies, templates and ideas out there, but begin simply. Students just need paper, glue, markers/pens and perhaps some photos/magazines to begin with.
- Use rubrics. If you must give grades, rubrics are going to be your best option for this type of long-term project. Make sure requirements are clear before students get started.
Now that you’ve gotten this far, you can exhale and take another deep breath. Innovative and creative teaching is only an option if you pursue it. Like students being responsible for their own learning, you’re in control of your innovative teaching.
One by one, use some of these ideas to help you break out the “traditional teacher” mode and make learning come alive for your students.