Rock Your World: 5 ESL Teaching Methods You’ll Turn to over and over Again

Have you ever gotten a song stuck in your head?

No matter how hard you try to shake it, it’s there—over and over and over again.

That’s actually a sign of pretty clever song writing.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if the same could happen with ESL teaching methods?

How helpful would it be to find teaching methods that are so clever, they just stick with you all the time?

Imagine having handy teaching hints constantly on recall, similar to the manner in which the melody to “Sweet Caroline” is never more than two seconds away from your mind’s reach.

The difference being, these methods are actually helpful. Caught in a communication conundrum? Grab a visual! Frustrated that your students don’t seem to be getting it? Recall those ever-important stages of language acquisition!

Prepare to have all these, and more, permanently imprinted on your brain. Just for the time being, clear your mind of the lyrics to “Yellow Submarine” and make some space for five ESL teaching methods that’ll rock your world!

5 ESL Teaching Methods That Totally Rock

1. Total Physical Response

Total Physical Response, or TPR, is a language acquisition method developed by psychology professor James Asher. TPR uses a combo of language and physical actions to engage students in the language learning process. Much has been learned about TPR from observing infants throughout the acquisition of their home language.

Think about a time you may have interacted with your 6-month-old niece. Maybe her mom said “Give your auntie a high five!” Your niece responded with the physical action of slapping your hand. Can she fluently communicate yet? No, but she does pick up on a few verbal clues like “high five,” and the hand slap is nearly an automatic response.

While the brain is generating this automatic response, it’s also taking note of things like syntax and speech patterns. After enough exposure, your niece will eventually generate language spontaneously. If it’s easy enough for an infant, why wouldn’t it be just as effective with your students?

Total Physical Response is a fairly low-stress strategy, which is one of the keys to its success. There’s no pressure for a student to speak when using TPR. Instead they simply listen and respond in a physical manner. TPR can be a great pre-cursor to verbal communication.

There are many ways to use TPR within the classroom, but as a warm-up or transition between activities are two great ways to get your students up and moving.

  • It’s best to begin with simple, explicit instructions or commands, such as “sit” or “stand.” It’s imperative that clear visuals are provided when introducing the concept. A physical demonstration paired with the corresponding action is a most effective strategy when beginning.
  • Once the group has been familiarized with the terms and the reciprocal actions, it must be revisited consistently. Meaningful repetitions will deepen understanding, as well as provide familiarity with the language.
  • Once your students have mastered these simple commands, you can move on to more involved, multi-step verbal tasks like “Stand up and touch your toes” or “Sit on the floor.” As the complexity of the tasks grow, so will your students’ confidence.

Before you know it, your students will be able to “Shake, Rattle and Roll” like rock stars!

2. Introducing Items of Cultural and Personal Relevance

Where do you feel most comfortable? Most likely at home, among familiar things. When we are in our natural environment we are typically secure and relaxed. Creating feelings of security and comfort within your students can help mentally prepare them for successful language acquisition. Though we usually can’t reach our students in their literal home environment, there are some things we can do to create a welcoming and familiar classroom.

Just as your home probably reflects your culture and personality, your classroom should reflect the background and interests of each culture represented among your students. Items of cultural relevance might include books in a student’s home language and maps or flags from their homeland. Of course, it’s always important to know your students on a personal level, too. Appropriate pop culture references and music can also be incorporated into your classroom.

If you’re looking for a massive library of ready-to-go content native English content, then look no further than the FluentU program.

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

You’ll be able to engage students while providing meaningful and educational lessons based on every day English media.

Providing these items not only creates a feeling of familiarity, but it also sends the message that your students are valued. It shows that you care about every part of them, culturally and personally.

When integrating items of cultural and personal relevance into your classroom, get creative! Again, think about your own home:

  • It has your favorite books. Create a classroom library comprised of your student’s favorites, including books in their home language.
  • It has photos of family and friends. Make certain the visuals in your classroom represent people from varying backgrounds.
  • If you like to paint, it has all the stuff you need to paint. Find out what your students like to do and have some of that stuff for them, too.

By adding just a few items to their classroom environment, your students can feel “Homeward Bound” regardless of how far away their home may be.

3. Using Authentic Materials

I have clear memories from my own time as a student in which the teacher requested that we perform seemingly mindless and mundane tasks. I’m sure they fit neatly into the lesson plan, but they didn’t seem to serve any real purpose. I remember a particularly bland piece of prose that revolved around an older gentleman’s trip to the library and the books he selected.

The point of reading the selection was to check comprehension. Why would I care to read about this fictional geezer, let alone prove my comprehension of his literary adventures by regurgitating the tale? Your students feel the same way.

Learning can be much more meaningful and motivating if it actually serves a purpose. Would you be in interested in reading this post if you didn’t think you’d take something away from it? Probably not. Your students don’t want to waste their time on something without a “take-away,” either. This is the true benefit of using authentic materials.

Authentic materials can be described as materials that have been created for native speakers and are used as teaching tools in the ESL classroom. These aren’t necessarily manufactured pieces from a classroom curriculum. It’s important to note that ESL considerations were not made as the materials were being created. This could include books, directions and maps, newspaper articles or recipes. It could also include videos or music.

Really, any source of language designed for the native speaker could be considered an authentic material. As a student, I would much rather have the end product of a lesson be a pizza I made following a recipe than a bunch of useless information about a useless subject (i.e. Grandpa’s trip to the library!).
There are tons of ways to incorporate authentic materials into your classroom:

  • Set up a makeshift restaurant in your classroom. Grab menus, recipes, signs and even little notepads for writing down orders.
  • Plan a trip to a local museum. You’ll need brochures, bus schedules (if you’re taking school transportation—pretend!), maps and directions. It might even be fun to provide a little history on the anticipated exhibits through written text or videos.
  • Plant a class garden. You’ll need to start with gardening and plant research. This can be done with books, videos and Internet resources. There are seed types to read about and predictions to make. Once again, you can incorporate recipes using the fruits of your labor.

This is just the beginning—all you need is a little creativity. In no time you and your students will realize there “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.”

4. Displaying Visuals and Realia

I must admit that one of my biggest pet peeves is when people try to describe an episode of a television show to me that I don’t watch. I have no background information on the plot or characters, so it doesn’t really make sense. They’re talking and talking about this thing I don’t really understand, with no reference, other than their wordy explanation.

I honestly feel like screaming, “I don’t know what you’re talking about and I don’t care!” But, I don’t want to be perceived as rude or unintelligent, so most times I just smile and act interested, all the while, mentally zoning out. Sound familiar?

This very scenario plays out daily in classrooms across the country with our ELL students. Unfortunately, the stakes are much higher than choosing your new favorite TV show.

How can we prevent our students from tuning us out? Well, If I had had any familiarity or background on that television show, I might have been more willing to participate in the conversation. This is exactly what we need to provide for our students.

Visuals and realia are one of the most effective ways to provide a relatable reference for our students. Visuals are just what you might think they are: a universal picture that accompanies your lesson. For instance, if you’re teaching about elephants, have a pictures of elephants available to share with students. Easy, right?

Using realia is just as simple. It just means having a tangible object that students can fully “experience” to help deepen understanding. If you’re teaching a science lesson about trees, have bark, leaves and twigs available. If you’re teaching an English lesson about plurals, have one bean available to show the meaning of “singular,” and two or more beans available to show the meaning of “plural.”

Remember that elephant lesson? A picture could be easy and helpful, but you can take it a step further by adding small elephant figurines, or by providing a scrap of leathery material to better describe their skin.

We’ve already talked about how realia can be used to help with an English lesson, and math is a no brainer, too. Provide something tangible when teaching addition, subtract or any other operation.

Visuals are invaluable when teaching routines and social emotional skills. Think about those feeling charts or visual schedules. What a great way to reach not only your ELL students, but all of your kids.

By providing just a few inexpensive and interesting items for your students, you’ll soon have your students “Seeing Clearly Now.”

5. Remembering the Stages of Second Language Acquisition

I recall as a young teacher I had a Hmong student named Cindy. I was quite inexperienced and I easily got frustrated with her silence, day after day. All the other kids greeted me with hugs, laughed at my jokes and sang silly songs with me. Cindy just sat for months, stone faced and silent. I honestly took it personally.

She didn’t appear to like anything about me or our classroom. I was constantly in her face, prompting her to repeat after me and “use her words.” I thought if I could just make her speak it would mean she liked me and I was doing my job as her teacher. Obviously, this was useless and I eventually just gave up, and so did she—before she even started. Cindy will forever be one of my biggest regrets as a teacher.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but Cindy was simply going through the stages of second language acquisition. She was stuck in the first stage, the silent or receptive stage, and I was doing nothing to help move her forward.

There are actually five stages that your students might go through on their language acquisition journey:

1. Silent or Receptive Stage: During this stage students may be silent or use non-verbal communication, like pointing or nodding their head. The focus is on building the confidence it takes to actually speak and on learning basic vocabulary. There’s no language fluency at this stage in the game.

2. Early Production: Students might begin speaking in one- to two-word responses or short phrases and could acquire upwards of 1,000 new vocabulary words during this stage. Confidence grows even though a student might not be comfortable with the language yet.

3. Speech Emergence: This is where the real communication begins. Sentences and phrases become longer and more complex, though the rules of grammar might still be foggy. Greater comprehension is gained in this stage and students might begin reading or writing in the acquired language.

4. Intermediate Fluency: Learners begin thinking in the second language during this stage. Take, for instance, a French student to whom you’re teaching English. Previously when they had encountered a small, fury rodent gathering nuts they would think ecureuil. At this point they might see that same fury rodent and think “squirrel.” Comprehension and fluency greatly increase at this level.

5. Advanced Fluency: This is full mastery of the language. It can take between two and 10 years to get to this stage. The work doesn’t stop once the language has been mastered, either. There must be ongoing opportunities to engage in the language to keep sharp.

It’s fairly easy to determine which stage your students are in. Language acquisition charts and checklists are widely available. You might display these around your classroom or work area as a reference for reasonable expectations during each stage. It’s also a good self-reminder to relax. Don’t take it personally if your students aren’t getting it just yet. You truly have to let nature take its course on this one.

It’s of great importance that we remember to never push our students through these stages, or expect more than what they’re ready for. We must observe students, catch them where they are and work with them from there.

Though my intentions were good, all of my urging with Cindy certainly caused anxiety, which resulted in a complete shut down. This could happen during any stage if you neglect to take time and pick up on the needs of your students. As we guide our students through the stages of language acquisition, always remember: “Time Is on Our Side.”


These five methods can be used with your students at all levels and stages of acquisition. Each method can practically be adapted to fit all classrooms, across the curriculum, within every lesson.

They’re clever and memorable—just like that catchy eighties tune. Time to put ’em on instant recall and rock it out in your classroom!

Jackie Hostetler has worked in the field of education for 15 years, earning her ESOL Masters in 2010. Her passions include early childhood education and language acquisition in our youngest learners. She is the director of an early learning center and the mother of two of her own little learners.

Enter your e-mail address to get your free PDF!

We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe