Picture a group of people who have never heard of Thanksgiving before.
What would you tell them it was about?
It’s a tough question to answer… but you’re in luck!
This holiday lesson is specially designed to make explaining and exploring Thanksgiving with your ESL class easy and fun.
As teachers, it’s always so rewarding when we can use current events to help teach our students. So why not create a thematic lesson for this uniquely North American holiday—Thanksgiving—to teach culture, history and vocabulary to your ESL class?
While Thanksgiving is celebrated in both the United States and in Canada, the holidays take place one month apart and have different histories. The lesson below is better geared towards a celebration of American Thanksgiving, but feel free to adapt it for a Canadian Thanksgiving lesson as well.
This lesson is ideal to use over the course of two days. Start on a Wednesday so that you can decorate your classroom in time for the celebration on Thursday.
A Cultural Thanksgiving Lesson Your ESL Students Will Gobble Up
Day 1: What Is Thanksgiving?
The first day of this lesson is all about introducing Thanksgiving to your students. Remember: Some of them may have never heard about the holiday, so it’s important to present all angles of the celebration. For the most part, on Wednesday you’ll be looking at the celebration; on Thursday, you’ll be delving further into the history of the holiday.
First, present Thanksgiving. Use images to show different ways of celebrating, and ask students what they know about the holiday. Help students arrive at a definition that adheres to the following idea:
Thanksgiving is an American holiday that celebrates the harvest. It’s a day for giving thanks. Most Americans celebrate with a big family meal featuring roast turkey.
For ESL Beginners
Once you’ve presented the general notion of Thanksgiving, delve further into traditions using a worksheet. This will also allow you to present Thanksgiving vocabulary to your students.
Here are a few of our favorites:
- This worksheet uses clip art to show students the definition of different Thanksgiving vocabulary words, which they then find via a word search. If you use this worksheet, try to use it as a jumping-off point for discussion about the definitions of the different words on the sheet, including their importance with regards to the holiday.
- Here’s a second word search you could use.
- This Thanksgiving pictionary worksheet could be used to incorporate the game into the classroom.
- This Thanksgiving bar graph allows students to rank their favorite Thanksgiving foods.
Encourage students to explore the vocabulary as much as possible, using images of Thanksgiving feasts to help them to participate orally as well as in their worksheets. Once they have an idea of the elements that should be on the Thanksgiving table, students will be able to more easily move on to the next step of the lesson.
For Intermediate ESL Learners
Try encouraging students to participate in class with this reader, which uses a playacting format to explain some of the traditions of Thanksgiving. After going through the reader, encourage students to give some ideas of what they think Thanksgiving is all about based on what they’ve read and what they already knew.
Feel free to use a vocabulary sheet, either one from the beginners section or from the “other resources” section below, to reinforce the acquired vocabulary.
For Advanced ESL Students
Present Thanksgiving using this funny farmer vs. turkey video. After having seen the video, ask your students to explain what they think Thanksgiving is about—based on the clip and their own experiences. You could also use pop culture references to introduce the Thanksgiving meal, like scenes from “Friends” or other television shows featuring the holidays (like these 10).
Once you have gone over the basics, give students this Thanksgiving crossword as an exercise to reinforce the information they have learned.
Decorating the Classroom for Thanksgiving
Finish off the class by creating Thanksgiving decorations for the classroom, which will be used for the celebration tomorrow.
- Here’s a Thanksgiving cornucopia students can color in.
- This is a great resource for Thanksgiving crafts to try with your class.
Be sure, as you’re decorating, to encourage your students to speak to one another in English. Present the crafts that you have chosen in English, including the tools they will need to complete them. Also propose the right structure so that students can ask for the materials they need as they work.
Give students a writing exercise for homework, answering the prompt, “What am I thankful for?” Be sure to take at least 3-5 minutes to introduce the prompt and define the word “thankful” as needed. Be aware that, culturally speaking, the idea of saying what you are thankful for is not something that is immediately apparent for everyone, so take your time with this explanation.
Other Resources for Your Thanksgiving ESL Lesson
Here are a few other great resources to explore Thanksgiving traditions:
- This roundup of Thanksgiving worksheets will give you a few more ideas for in-class work or homework.
- This wild turkey reading exercise might work well with your intermediate or advanced groups.
- This Thanksgiving disaster prompt is fun to use with intermediate and advanced learners.
- There are exercises in these Thanksgiving crosswords that can be used with any level.
- This roundup of Thanksgiving videos might be helpful with your class.
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Day 2: The History of Thanksgiving
On the second day of the lesson, you’ll explore the history of Thanksgiving in greater detail.
History of Thanksgiving Videos
Start out with a video; choose one that will suit the level of your class from the following options:
- This history of Thanksgiving video, told by Plymouth Rock (yes, a rock) is geared towards kids.
- This story of Thanksgiving video is also targeted for children.
- This history of Thanksgiving Day video is a bit more academic in format.
Be sure to discuss the elements of the video after (or during) viewing as needed.
Thanksgiving ESL Reading Comprehension Activity
Next, encourage students to delve a bit deeper with reading comprehension exercises. For this, you have a few options:
- This first Thanksgiving reading exercise is great for intermediate or advanced learners, though you may have to modify the questions a bit to suit the level of your class.
- This Thanksgiving in the 19th century worksheet can be used with all groups, provided you do the legwork to adapt it properly to the level of your class.
- This Mayflower reading comprehension exercise is interesting to try as well.
- This reading explores the first year that the Pilgrims spent in the New World, and this reading talks about the Wampanoag tribe. You may wish to give one reading to each half of the class if you are working with an advanced group, then have them share their findings with one another.
- This history of Thanksgiving is a bit dry, but it presents all the facts clearly, making it a good resource when paired with interesting and thoughtful reading comprehension questions.
Share What You Are Thankful For
Finally, encourage students to express what they are thankful for. Either ask them to read what they wrote for homework or ask them to share orally. Explain that this is a tradition that is usually done around the Thanksgiving dinner table.
If allowed by your school, you could end with a class party, at which point the sharing would take place. For a class party, consider including some traditional Thanksgiving flavors, like cranberry sauce on crackers, pumpkin cookies or small turkey sandwiches.
Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday to explore with your ESL students, as in addition to teaching American culture, you get to spend time focusing on gratitude—a value that benefits all!
Oh, and One More Thing…
If you liked these lesson plans, you’ll love using FluentU in your classroom. 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. There are tons of great choices there when you’re looking for songs for in-class activities.
You’ll find music videos, musical numbers from cinema and theater, kids’ singalongs, commercial jingles and much, much more.
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.
For example, if a student taps on the word “brought,” they’ll see this:
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.”
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.