Early in my days as an English teacher, I was once thrown into a classroom of elementary students without any prior preparation.
How do you think that went?
As you would expect, it was chaos.
I had no idea about their skill levels or what lessons they’d already covered. No matter what I tried, I struggled to engage the students and spark some meaningful English conversation.
Unsurprisingly, I quickly realized that planning for your first ESL lesson is just as important as every other lesson.
But you don’t have to be a newbie like I was then to understand why the right kind of preparation is crucial for the first day of class. Even years into the job, teachers can still get jitters before a new semester starts.
In this post, we’ll explore five simple tips for not only having a successful first ESL lesson, but also building the foundation for a successful semester or year with your ESL students.
So shake off those jitters and get ready to start every class on the right foot.
Why First Lessons Are Challenging
Preparing for your first lesson can be difficult for a number of reasons:
- You don’t know the classroom dynamics. It takes time to learn how your students will relate to one another and how you’ll need to differentiate your instruction among them. That type of information is crucial to lesson planning, and you don’t have it walking into lesson number one.
- You don’t know everyone’s proficiency levels. Again, knowing where your students’ strengths and weaknesses lie is hugely important to designing effective lessons. This too will take time.
- Many students are more reserved on the first day. Whether it’s because they’re unfamiliar with you or still feeling shaky about their language skills, getting students to open up and become comfortable communicating in English is always a process.
So that’s the bad news. The good news is that it’s still possible to pick up the missing information about your classroom and students and bring them out of their shells in English. With the right tools and materials, your first lesson can be a smashing success.
How to Prevent Day One Jitters and Create a Fantastic First ESL Lesson
Having an awesome first ESL lesson starts with you, the teacher. It’s all a matter of knowing what obstacles you face on day one and preparing for them accordingly. Let’s take a look at some of the activities and materials you can rely on for your first ESL class.
1. Get Your Students Talking with Warm-up Activities
Remember, some students may feel shy on the first day; it’s probably the first time they’re meeting you and their classmates. A good way to help students overcome their shyness and lighten up the mood is to use icebreakers.
These fun activities are a great way for students to share a little bit about themselves while becoming more comfortable in the classroom.
I’d recommend the game “two truths and a lie” in particular for your first ESL class. We broke the ice at my teacher training with this game and it worked very well for spurring conversation. It also showed who in the group the serious people were and who the jokers were. (If you’re not familiar with this game, check out the simple instructions here.)
Along with introductions, you can also give your students the chance to share a bit about their culture. The ESL classroom is the perfect place for exchange, and many students like being a cultural ambassador.
This warm-up conversation topic is really great because of its versatility. In mixed classrooms, it’s interesting because students from different backgrounds talk about their countries. In classrooms where students are of the same nationality, it can turn into a great group discussion where they work together in an informal presentation.
2. Explore a Range of Language Competencies
You don’t want to dig too much into material on the first day of class, but you do need to get an idea of your students’ skill levels. Plan activities that test four basic English competencies: listening, speaking, writing and reading.
Here are some ideas to do this:
- Again, icebreakers are perfect because they create an informal and conversational environment, which can get students comfortable speaking from day one.
- Test their listening and writing skills while you introduce yourself. Have them write down the things you tell them, like your age or birthplace, and afterward, ask them to hand in their papers or call on them to repeat the information back to you.
- Give each student a printed copy of the classroom rules and have them read it over. Once they’ve had enough time to read, ask the class questions about your rules.
However, one thing you may want to avoid is diving into the textbook on your first lesson, especially if it’s not an all-day class. First classes are usually filled with latecomers, absentees and students without textbooks. The last thing you want to do is jump straight into the first chapter only to have a quarter of your class falling behind on day two.
3. Have a Plan B, Plan C, Plan D…
I’ve found that one of the best ways to ensure a successful first lesson is to plan a lot of activities, backup activities and backup activities to your backup activities. This may seem extreme, but since you don’t know exactly what you’re walking into on the first day, it’s important to have a lot of teaching options.
The easiest way to do this is to have a range of activities and materials you can use on the fly if you feel like your first lesson is dragging, too challenging or too simple, too quiet or any other scenario.
Here are some helpful books you can use to find activities and backup activities for your first day. Many of these activities take minimal prep and are easy to implement.
- “Easy and Engaging ESL Activities and Mini-Books for Every Classroom” — Teaching your first ESL lesson to elementary students and need some help coming up with games and activities? This book is for you. It comes filled with creative material for students between first and fourth grade, and even has a section dedicated to teaching on the first few days and the first week.
- The Emergency English Teacher” — Written by an ESL teacher in South Korea, “The Emergency English Teacher” is perfect for livening up your middle school classroom. It’s designed specifically for the teacher who has a mixed-level classroom and many activities are meant to target multiple language skills, so you’ll have something to use no matter what type of class you walk into on day one.
- “ESL Classroom Activities for Teens and Adults” — You want to make sure you teach electrifying lessons for your teenage and adult students, as they generally have higher expectations and more concrete learning goals than younger pupils.
If you’re worried about how you’ll do on the first day, check out some of the activities in this book. They’ll get students engaged and talking about a number of interesting topics.
- “The ESL/ELL Teacher’s Survival Guide” — Whether you need ideas for games or want to learn new teaching strategies before the first day of class, this book has the answers. The focus is on how you can become a better English teacher and is loaded with ideas to help improve your first lesson.
4. Set the Tone for All Future Classes
Your first ESL lesson is the perfect time to lay out your rules and expectations.
Go over what you want out of your students, but make sure to also tell them what you plan to do for them. You can also take this time to have each student say or write down why they want to learn English and what their strengths and weaknesses are with regards to learning the language.
Another great way to prepare your students for future lessons is to walk through the textbook with them. Talk about the specific skills covered in each chapter and be sure to mention any supplemental materials like CDs, phrasebooks, verb charts and glossaries that are in the back of the book.
You’d be surprised how many people never check for these things despite what useful language references they are, so let them know.
5. Make Yourself Accessible
Before you end your first ESL lesson, you want to let your students know that you’re invested in their success. If you feel comfortable giving out your contact details, let your students have a way to reach you.
I particularly recommend using WhatsApp groups. It’s an awesome way to encourage English discussion, and many of your students may already use WhatsApp for texting so they’ll be familiar with the platform. Plus, you can designate yourself “administrator” of the group to keep things structured and appropriate.
You can also use WhatsApp to make announcements and help students outside of the classroom. Your students will really appreciate the fact that you care about their progress!
Have a Great First Lesson!
Having an incredible first ESL lesson sets the precedent for future lessons and makes your students look forward to coming to your classes.
All you need is a good attitude and a few activities prepared beforehand. Treat your first ESL lesson as a meet-and-greet rather than a classroom lecture, and be sure to have fun!
And One More Thing…
Looking for an endless array of ESL videos for your lessons? Then you’ll love FluentU! 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.