Sneak Attack! How to Create an Effective “Back Door” ESL World History Lesson

Do your students sometimes wonder aloud just why they have to study English?

Have you tried storytelling in class, just to find your students don’t seem to have stories to tell?

Are you teaching history in a full immersion environment where students look at you while you lecture with faces as blank as a fresh piece of paper?

In any of the above situations, as well as others, you can use world history to animate your students to make use of their present level of English.

They can then improve upon that level by actively outlining and then telling their classmates about those events in world history.

Why Combine English and World History?

English has a place in world history

English teaching and English usage have had an incredible impact on the world since the early days of British colonization. Students don’t always realize that English, despite its difficulties, didn’t just suddenly become the lingua franca of the modern world out of the blue.

It took centuries of sometimes dramatic events to lead English to surpass other languages, like Spanish or French, as the language of commerce, diplomacy and even air traffic control. World history is full of examples that you can share with your students to help them understand the importance of learning English today.

In many cases, students may resent having to learn English. It may be just the required class they have to attend twice a week, or the after-school activity their parents sign them up for. They don’t get why they have to study it.

On the other hand, they might be aware that the language dominates much of modern, day-to-day activity: from the popular music they hear on the radio to surfing on the internet. They know that English is somehow important but don’t really know how it got that way or why.

Beginning this activity by working through the world history behind English dominance can help your students understand why it became a lingua franca today, how it has shaped the modern world and why being familiar with English is important. Look at the history of how English, as a language, has developed into the modern-day “universal language.” There are tons of stories of migrations, conquests and colonies that led to the modern English language, and ESL students often find them fascinating.

World history is full of great English language lessons

Exciting or controversial moments in world history can prove to be an excellent way to distract your students from any number of linguistic goals you want them to work on and achieve. While keeping your students focused upon the exciting events, you can sneakily slip in any number of language items:

  • vocabulary (century, eon, ancient)
  • verb tenses (simple past, perfect modes, past continuous)
  • conditional statements (if this had happened, then this would have been different)
  • passive voice (this was made possible by that, this result was caused by that)
  • time marking expressions (ago, since, when, during, in earlier times, after that)

Small frustrations with grammar and vocabulary are indirectly overcome while they are actively involved in researching and preparing a presentation on a significant world history event. Your job will be to observe them as they work through the activity, gently reminding them when a simple past or a specific time expression will best suit their storytelling needs.

History is particularly great for teaching the English past tenses

History is history because it took place in the past.

There is hardly a better way to get your students accustomed to using the past tenses and expressions than telling a story from world history. From verbal tenses to time expressions, to finally understanding the time-bridging characteristics of the perfect modes, telling a story from history will often indirectly bring that spark of comprehension as to when and why to use a particular tense or mode in English.

All the historical stories you share will provide excellent context for English grammar and vocabulary. By reading about history, or listening to you talk about history, they’ll gain a better perspective on how English is used to describe events.

By combining storytelling with the practice of past tenses and constructions, you end up contextualizing these structures. You can draw on each contextualization to help explain when to use the present perfect, past continuous or simple past.

You break away from simply diagramming and explaining the structures since you’ll have numerous examples from the stories being told.

History is storytelling

World history won’t just stop at why we use English everywhere, though. For thousands of years, mankind has kept track of what’s been going on in the world. That history is made up of an infinite number of stories to be told.

History has its roots in storytelling, and the vast amount of material available in world history will give your students ample resources to work with.

You can turn your students into storytellers

Always have students share what they’ve learned about the topic with their classmates in some way, using their English to tell stories. They don’t have to invent stories, they can simply tell what happened. In this way, they concentrate on both the organization and linguistic tools they’ll need to tell those stories. Plus, there are millions of ready-made stories available from the thousands of years of known history.

Storytelling is always a popular activity in the ESL class. Though it can put a student “on the spot” by having to perform alone in front of the classmates, group storytelling can become a confidence builder if handled with care and preparation.

You can employ “back door” English teaching

You may be teaching a straightforward ESL class and are looking for an alternative, distracting focus to practice specific language feats. Perhaps you’re in immersion teaching and the focus of the class is world history, with language acquisition taking an important, but necessary, back seat.

In these and other ESL teaching situations, using world history will help your students to understand events, map out linear thought while practicing the specific language needed in storytelling. The benefits are multiple, but the technique is subtly “tricky” on your part.

Backdoor teaching is a technique in which the teacher diverts students’ attention from a particular teaching objective with a larger, more general task. The teacher will thus establish two objectives: a distracting objective and a back door objective.

The distracting objective is the larger, more general objective that is meant to capture your student’s attention, excite them with the feeling that the activity that they’re concentrating upon is fun, different and entertaining. You’ll want your students to believe that this is the main objective of the activity.

The back door objective is what you, the teacher, really want them to be working on and practicing. This objective may be easily expressed in your teacher lingo, which often ends up being some combination of grammar terms and teacher-talk. This kind of objective, though important to you, can prove, at the least, boring and, at the worst, intimidating for your students.

In the case of a world history ESL lesson, as a distracting objective, you’ll inform your students that they will be preparing an oral presentation of a particular series of events in world history. You’ll want to sell this objective as something different and exciting, an excursion from the usual structure and grammar work from their textbook.

The back door objective will be the use of certain verb tenses and modes, time expressions or vocabulary. While you might outline those language items and remind your students when they’ll need to use them, you should keep the attention of your students on preparing the world history oral presentation.

So, backdoor teaching will involve, on your part:

  • setting goals for the linguistic objective you want students to practice
  • teaching and reinforcing the English language students should use to talk about historical events (or anything in the past)
  • focusing students’ attention on the larger objective of world history (rather than focusing on drilling the grammar or vocabulary)

Though you’ll let your students know the language goals, you’ll try to keep their focus on the larger world history lesson. This makes the language instrumental, but not principle.

In this way, the language objective enters through the “back door.”

How to Create a “Back Door” ESL World History Lesson

Here, we’ve got everything you need to do for a world history lesson broken down into three easy steps. For each step, we’ll show you how it plays out in an example World History ESL lesson on the topic “English teaching in Colonial India.”

1. Set Goals

Before you jump into the class with, “Today we’re going to look at Henry the XIII’s personal relationship problems,” you’ll want to develop a game plan for yourself that you can employ in any history lesson.

Since you’ll be teaching both language structure and storytelling structure, your presentation will also need to reflect this in order to reinforce the background for your students. That template will have three main parts:

  • Student objective: Students will prepare, practice and present a short explanation of a historical event.
  • Language to be practiced: According to level and course work, you’ll plug in a structure or two.
  • Presentation material: You’ll want to have read up on the historical event, have some pictures or graphs ready.

You’ll know best what your students already know, what challenges you need to present them with, what they need to practice, what new information you need to introduce.

Example goals

Lesson: English teaching in Colonial India

  • Student objective: Students will prepare, practice and present a short explanation of a historical event about the history of English teaching in colonial India.
  • Language to be practiced: simple past, present perfect, past perfect and past continuous
  • Presentation material: timeline of Colonial India from 1759 to 1958; pictures of English colonists and Indian citizens from the time period

2. Give a Presentation

You’ll want to present the entire activity clearly to your students. This presentation will have several parts, which you’ll have prepared when you’ve worked out the details of the section “Presentation material” in the template.

Let’s see how this plays out for the example topic, “English teaching in Colonial India.”

Give your historical event a title.


English teaching in Colonial India

Draw a timeline marking key events.

Use different colors and symbols (squares or triangles) when making your timeline to differentiate between verb tenses and modes.


1759 (bought) – 1787 (began) – 1797 (wrote) – 1813 (became) – 1830 (taught) – 1835 (introduced) – 1850 (used) – 1857 (established) – etc…

Employ your target grammar points to discuss each timeline event, as well as the relationships between those events.


Using the simple past to discuss each timeline event:

1759 — The East India Company brought English to India.
1787 — Rev. Swartz began establishing schools for the teaching of English.
1797 — John Miller wrote “The Tutor,” an English study book.
1813 — East India Company became responsible for educating Indians.
1830 — Private schools taught English to the Indian middle classes.
1835 — T.B. Macaulay introduced English teaching in South Asia.
1850 — 1947 — Indian intellectuals and freedom fighters used English as a political tool.
1857 — English universities were established in Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai.

 Relating present events to earlier events using the present perfect:

Indians have studied English for over 250 years.

English has been taught as an administrative tool since 1904.

Relate the earlier event to another earlier event using the past perfect:

Though Gandhi had recommended native language in education, English continued to be taught.

English universities had developed years before Gandhi’s suggestion.

Discuss a past event that was happening when a later past event occurred using the continuous past:

Intellectuals were using English as a political tool when Dhaka university was founded.

Universities were teaching English when India got its independence.

Tell the story in a continuous narrative.

Finally, once you’ve gone through the entire timeline outlining, marking past tense verb forms, drawing bridges between events to illustrate each mode, you put down your chalk, sit in front of your students and tell them the entire story, showing the pictures you’ve gathered.

With your introduction, review of vocabulary and structures and the help of realia, you’ll find your students understanding much of what you’re sharing.

Use video content

You’ll find that video and film content can really help a history ESL class “come to life” before the eyes of the students. For access to tons of great history videos plus heaps of other great content, be sure to sign up for a FluentU teacher account.

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

Because of this, you’ll be able to examine historical events with fun and engaging content. Plus, with a teacher account, you’ll be able to set homework and keep track of the student process!

3. Hand It Over

Once you’ve made your example presentation for them, you’ll want to hand the matter over to your students.

  • Put students in groups. Group your students in pairs or trios so that they work together, reducing solo performance stress. You can either make these groups randomly or wisely pair stronger students with weaker students for some peer-level self-help.
  • Hand each group a timeline that represents a historic event. This can be the one you’ve presented or a different event for each group.
  • Students highlight verbs in the presentation. Have your students follow your example of noting verbs in the different tenses and modes while bridging events on the timeline that they’ll use in their presentation. You can include a basic “cheat sheet” of how each tense is constructed to grease the way.
  • Divide the word. Have each group practice the presentation of the story, dividing the sentences up evenly among the members. For example, Sally says two sentences, then Tom says two more, then Bill says two more and then back to Sally. Their presentation should mock the one you’ve given.
  • Let students practice. Set a presentation date and allow your students a couple of practice periods in the meantime to hone down their oral work. It’ll be during these subsequent practice times that you’ll take a look at their work and help them out with corrections, pronunciation and vocabulary.
  • Add visual aids to the timeline. As an alternative, you can have the groups prepare posters of their timelines with cut outs from magazines or drawings. Make sure, though, that the basic timeline and the bridges are present and visible!


In a regular ESL class, you can adapt the above method for any number of language aspects and for any proficiency level. Beginners may only need to focus on using a few chosen irregular verbs to describe their timeline. Choosing a world history topic related to food production can introduce characteristic vocabulary related to food, farming, shopping and the like.

However you choose to adapt the lesson, make sure you keep in mind how much your students already know and what you want them to learn from the exercise.

If you’re teaching in an immersion program in which regular world history course work is taught only in English to non-native speakers, working with their ESL teacher can give you insights into how to combine the linguistic aspects with the historical study.

Having your students actively tell the stories aloud will help them not only remember their history lessons but will also lead them to more proficiency in English, which will only help them to improve in both ESL and course content areas.

World history offers so many rich opportunities for language practice, from understanding verb tenses to learning how to outline and tell stories. Getting the focus off of the grammar and vocabulary with this activity can give your lesson a fresh direction that can keep the dynamics of your classes motivated and upbeat.

Revel Arroway taught ESL for 30 years before retiring into Teacher Training. His blog, Interpretive ESL, offers insights into language teaching, simplifying the classroom, language class activities and general thoughts on ESL teaching.

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