Instant ESL Video Activities: 2 Resources, 3 Lesson Ideas

Ready to brew up some video activities for your ESL class from scratch?

It’s okay if you’re thinking, “No, not really.”

Maybe brainstorming fun and creative ways to use video just isn’t your teacherly cup of tea.

But remember, when we were students, how much fun videos in class were?

As soon as the teacher wheeled the TV stand into the classroom, we would cheer and jump for joy—mostly because we were excited to close our textbooks and learn something fun.

Well, your English students feel the same way.

They want more than textbooks and vocabulary drills—they want engaging lessons that are different from the same old classroom routine, and there’s no better way to give them that than video activities.

But planning those video lessons still seems to involve a lot of work: Hunting down videos that are the right level and topic and then adding your own creative spark.

The good news is that finding and creating video lessons can be really quick and simple. With a mix of reliable ready-made activities and a handful of go-to ideas, choosing and arranging the right activities for your class can be as simple as adding water to tea leaves.

With the list of resources and activities below, you’ll be able to give them instant hands-on video lessons that are fun and informative.

And with the grunt work out of the way, you’ll be free to focus on exactly what you want your students to learn.

Mix ‘n Watch ESL Video Activities: A Resource and Idea Guide

Quick ‘n Reliable Resources for Video Activities

Unlike our old teachers who depended on educational DVDs and VHS tapes, we’ve got a wealth of video resources at our disposal. Sites like YouTube and Vimeo make it easy for any teacher to plan a video lesson.

But I’m going to give you my best-kept secrets—two sites that make planning ESL video activities quick and easy, so that you’ve always got a video lesson handy for when your students want something different.

Behind the News: Video Lessons That Don’t Just Teach English, but Teach in English

One of my favorite ways to teach English is by teaching other subjects in English. It’s a great way to trick your students into learning English while covering interesting topics like technology, earth science and current events.

With Behind the News, you can find lessons that are enjoyable and entertaining while also focusing on vocabulary, listening skills and reading comprehension. This is because Behind the News is an Australian program designed to teach current events to middle school students. But don’t worry, the content is far from juvenile.

You’ll find that each episode covers a handful of interesting topics that are suitable for intermediate and upper intermediate students of all ages.

Best of all, every episode also comes with a “teacher pack,” which includes worksheets and exercises that students can work on while they watch the video, or directly after.

Road to Grammar: Comprehensive Lessons That Test Listening, Speaking and Reading

Have you ever spent hours planning a lesson for an hour class period only to watch your students breeze through the activities in a few minutes? It happens to the best of us, which is why it’s always a good idea to have a backup lesson handy so that you can keep the class engaged for the remainder of the period.

Well, if you happen to be teaching a classroom of upper intermediate to advanced students, you’ve got a total of 10 lessons with ESL video activities in your back pocket thanks to Road to Grammar.

Each lesson includes an introduction, a list of vocabulary words with their corresponding definitions and an educational video. After the video, students are given two activities to complete: a five-question quiz and a series of topics for classroom discussions.

Engaging Video Lessons for 3 Different Skill Levels

Now that we’ve looked at some resources, let’s check out some other basic video activity ideas for your next class. Each of these lessons is designed to test your students’ ability to use English naturally in an uncontrolled setting, so that they’re able to improve their listening and conversational skills regardless of their skill level.

Beginner: Test Listening Comprehension with Short Stories

Are you looking for some basic video activities to test your beginner students’ listening and speaking skills? Try a video that tells a short story. You can pre-teach target vocabulary before playing the videos and write your own comprehension questions, but there are also plenty of videos out there with vocabulary and quizzes already built in, like Episode One and Episode Two of the Short Stories to Learn English series.

At the beginning of the clip, students are introduced to a few target vocabulary words covered in the video. Then students are introduced to the story’s two characters, Angela and Peter, where they learn various pieces of information about their lives. Throughout the video, students are asked a series of comprehension questions relating to the information they’ve just learned.

With quiz exercises already built into the two stories, these video activities are relatively straightforward. You can choose to let your students answer along as the video is playing, pause at each question and have students answer individually or in groups, or have them write the answer on paper like they would during a regular quiz.

Intermediate: Cover Verb Tenses with Animated Shorts

Are you covering past, present continuous or future tenses with your students? If so, try showing a few animated shorts and having them talk about events that have happened in the videos, as well as make predictions about what’ll happen next in the story.

While this type of activity can be done with virtually any type of video, cartoons work especially well because they’re usually fun, entertaining, and tend to have a lot of exaggerated cause and effect reactions that students can make predictions about.

If you’d like some good videos to include in this activity, have a look at the following YouTube videos:

  • “Lonely Island”: A story about a man stranded on a desert island who is continuously ignored by airplanes passing over.
  • “Mouse for Sale”: The story of a pet-shop mouse who’s having a hard time finding a new home.
  • “For the Birds”: A Pixar short about what happens when one-too-many birds are perched on a powerline.

The good thing about animated shorts is that they’re funny and easy to turn into verb tense activities. Here are a few ways to do that:

  • Stop and Go: Pause the video just before a major action takes place and ask students what they think will happen next. For practicing the past tense, stop just after the action has completed and ask them what happened.
  • Follow Along: Have your students write observations about the character using past, present and/or future tense as they’re watching the movie.

Example: He is on an island. He is waving at planes. He is alone.

  • Gap Fill Worksheet: Give your students a worksheet with sentences related to the video, the main character’s actions and the consequences as a result of his or her actions. But only give them the infinitive form of the verb and have them conjugate it in the right tense.

Example: The bird ___ onto the powerline. (fly)

Advanced: Sharpen Conversational Skills with a TED Talk and a Debate

Debates are a great way to let your students practice their English skills in a natural setting, where they’ve got more freedom to play around with the language and have fun. One of my favorite ways to teach a debate lesson is by playing a video from TED Talks and having the class debate the subject afterwards.

Here’s how you can turn your next debate session into an engaging video activity.

  • Lesson planning: Find a TED Talk video covering a subject that you think your students will be interested in. As you watch the video, write down a list of debate topics for your students. Also, make sure to note new vocabulary words covered in the video.
  • Icebreaker: Start the class with a light discussion related to the debate, then pre-teach vocabulary words to the class.
  • Assign debate topics: Before playing the video, divide the class into groups and then assign debate topics. Remember, every topic you assign needs two groups: One for support and one for opposition. I like to limit my group sizes between two and four students; that way everyone gets the opportunity to argue.
  • Play video: Have students watch the video while thinking about their arguments. With TED Talks, you can print the script and pass it out beforehand if needed.
  • Start the debate: After the video is finished, give your groups a few minutes to prepare their arguments and then have the support and opposition debate in front of the class.

If you’re looking for some debate topics, these two TED Talk videos are great for starting classroom discussions.

Remember to Have Fun!

The best part about ESL video activities is that they give students the opportunity to learn and practice English in a less restrictive learning environment.

For this reason, video activities are a great way to add a little bit of fun to your classroom lessons!

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