How to Teach Practical ESL Lessons to Adults with Real-world English Needs

Many of the adults who are learning ESL are what we call false beginners.

They feel and act like they are beginners, but they have actually tried to learn English before.

This post will help you figure out how to teach ESL to adults who aren’t quite absolute beginners but still need a lot of guidance.


Why Is Teaching ESL to Adults Any Different?

Unlike carefree children, adults may be feeling quite stressed as they first poke their noses into your classroom.

As the teacher, you need to be aware that there could be all sorts of things in their lives that make these lessons extra stressful.

  • Maybe they had English lessons way back when they were still in school, but somehow the lessons didn’t stick and now they need to start again.
  • Maybe their whole school experience for some reason was frustrating and unhappy.
  • Maybe they are generally skilled at their job but their boss insists they need to learn English.
  • Maybe they have migrated or are planning to do so (possibly under very difficult circumstances) and they need to learn English to be successful in their new country. Their children and other family members may have already gone ahead and learned faster than them—or maybe the whole family is relying on this one person to learn English and help them adapt.
  • Maybe they are afraid that they are too old and therefore unable to learn.

If they have taken the leap and put themselves “out there” enough to have arrived in your ESL class, or if they are working one-on-one with you, then they are trusting you to make sure that they are not wasting their time.

While kids generally love surprises, adults often prefer to avoid surprises because they are afraid:

  • of seeming undignified.
  • of being made to look silly in front of others.
  • of “losing face,” which is a very important concept in some cultures.
  • of failing—again.

That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have fun! It just means you do not want to scare them off with too many spontaneous activities or by putting them in the “hot seat,” answering questions in front of the entire class.

So how can you make sure that your adult students are having fun?

  • Make sure that they are involved and engaged—not just spectating.
  • Make sure that they succeed in their learning by checking in regularly.
  • Make sure that they notice that they are succeeding, and encourage self-confidence.
  • Make sure you encourage them to keep going even if they feel like they are failing. Mistakes are all part of the learning process.
  • Make sure that you have the right training. If they’re expecting someone with TEFL certification, you should have it—and let them know that you do. Luckily, nowadays it’s quite easy to obtain TEFL certification online with a quality course like you'll find on Premier TEFL.

The following activities are good places to start incorporating all of the above information about adult ESL students.

*Look for the asterisk to see ideas for adjusting activities to one-on-one lessons.

Listening Activities

Just by looking at their facial expressions, it can be hard to tell whether your students are really listening or whether they are daydreaming. To make sure that they are engaged in listening, it is best to give students something to do or some way of responding.

*One-on-one: These ideas will help you add variety rather than having your student just listen to your same old voice.

1. Bingo

In this activity, as you well know, students will listen carefully and mark words or expressions on their Bingo cards.

Playing the game can also allow them to practice their speaking—if you give them turns at calling—and their reading as they recognize the words on their cards.

Choose the words or expressions that you want them to learn or practice. The standard Bingo card has 25 spaces, or you could have a smaller card with only 16 or 9 for less advanced students or less time commitment. Alternatively, you could opt for 24 filled-in spaces and one free space on each card.

Each player’s card has the same words, but arranged differently. Or you can have more than 25 items so that each card is missing different ones. Go to a website such as ESL Activities and walk through the steps to create and print out a different card for each student. Also be sure to print out a set of caller cards.

Press “play” and allow the video to be the caller.

The Bingo caller (you, or a student) can have caller cards with each of the words or expressions to call from randomly, or you can have caller cards with clues to the words and expressions that are on the Bingo cards. This means students will have to do one more step of critical thinking to figure out which space to mark.

Rather than spoil your printed Bingo cards the first time you use them, have your students mark the words or expressions as they hear them used by placing something on the squares that does not leave a permanent mark, such as a small stone, shell, counter or sunflower seed.

When someone gets five markers in a row in any direction (horizontal, vertical or diagonal) they call out “Bingo!” They are celebrated as the winner, and then everyone removes their markers and the game starts again. The winner could be the new caller. Players could swap cards to keep the experience fresh.

Every student will be engaged, not just spectating. Anyone can win, so they are motivated and unafraid of failing. Winners don’t really need to win a prize, just winning is enough. The game is totally non-threatening, and as a group game can develop a real sense of fun and unity within the class.

By the end of the session, everyone will know all of the words and expressions!

*One-on-one: You and your student could have one card (or even two or three cards) each and take turns pulling caller cards out of a hat.

2. The Art of Listening

In this activity, students will draw according to instructions.

They could start with a blank piece of paper, or they could have a prepared picture and color it in a particular way or draw items against the background. Adult coloring has become very popular in recent times with carefully chosen pictures and topics, and it is being hailed widely as a miraculous stress-reliever—perfect for adult ESL students!

Every student will be engaged in drawing following your instructions, or following those of a classmate. Make sure you encourage a sense of fun and reassure each student that it does not matter whether their drawings are artistically correct or not. There are no winners or losers, it is not a race.

Students could work in pairs on the same piece of paper, or even on a section of the board, taking turns adding something to the drawing as they listen to instructions.

*One-on-one: This activity can still work as-is in a one-on-one situation. You could try also following a set of written instructions and drawing with your student, or letting them come up with the instructions in English for you to draw out.

Speaking Activities

Students of all ages are often shy to speak up in a second language (especially in front of a group) because they are afraid of being wrong.

The skills of speaking and listening are very closely linked and are often well taught together. So each of the listening activities (above) can become a focused speaking activity as well.

3. Bingo Talks

Standing up (or sitting at desks) and giving a fairly formal short talk on a set topic is an important practice in ESL adult classes, especially if students are preparing for a standardized exam such as IELTS, TOEFL or TOEIC.

Their bosses at work may also be expecting them to give talks in English eventually. With a little bit of preparation on your part, you can match topics with a set of key words for the rest of the class to listen for and mark off on a Bingo card as they hear them.

Start by writing topics on the board that are related to areas of interest in your students’ personal, professional and academic lives. Ask the class to brainstorm key words for each topic. Draw up small bingo cards (with 9 spaces on them) and get them to choose and arrange words on their cards to listen for during someone else’s short talk.

This keeps all of the listeners quiet and attentive while one person is giving their talk. It also gives the speaker some ideas for their talk.

Now choose someone to talk about the topics using the key words on the board. This can happen in the same class period, or you can assign writing a talk as a homework assignment. Have the students copy all the words, and have them draft talks before the next class. Then they can take turns reading out loud for the Bingo session.

Everyone is engaged, whether speaking or listening. Everyone has a chance to win if they hear all of the words on their card.

*One-on-one: With a one-on-one teaching situation you could do the same key word brainstorming session, get your student to give their talk in front of a camera and then watch the recording. As they listen to themselves, they could mark off the key words on a Bingo card.

4. Directed Drawing

This can be done with one person at the board receiving instructions called out by class members.

I usually stick a picture to be described on the back of a chair near the front so all class members can see it. Alternatively, this activity can be done in pairs.

The speaker(s) describe a simple picture for the listener(s) to draw. They need to remember to be specific about size and positioning of items in the drawing. To step it up a notch, have them only permitted to use shape terms rather than specific vocabulary items—e.g., they must say “draw an oval” and so on, rather than “draw a face.”

It is not a competition (although it could be if that is suitable for your students) but rather an opportunity to cooperate together to produce a picture. Everyone will be engaged as they think of words to help describe exactly what to draw or how to correct the drawing.

You can find simple pictures to use for this activity by searching your topic on Google Images and include “drawing” or “clip art” in your search terms.

*One-on-one: You can take turns with your student to draw and instruct.

5. Take a Survey

Asking questions and giving answers provides a basis for many of our conversations, but correctly phrasing questions can be tricky in English, especially when you add various degrees of politeness and indirect questioning, such as “I wonder if I could ask you about…,” etc.

Prepare questions or help your students to create questions around a particular topic, using vocabulary that you may be focusing on at the time, for example, food, transport, reading books, hobbies, etc.

To start with, each student could have three related questions. It is not necessary for every student to have completely different questions, but some variety will help to keep it interesting for everyone. You can see some examples of surveys.

Tell your students to survey a number of other students—maybe 6 or 10, depending on your class size—and keep a record of their answers. They can also answer questions for each fellow student that they survey.

This is easier to do if the questions are carefully worded to limit the number of possible answers. Then they can collate what they have found out and prepare a short talk for the class about their results.

*One-on-one: You can help your student prepare some questions to ask you, and you could also ask them questions, more in the nature of an interview rather than a survey. Then you could each give a “talk” (maybe in front of a camera) reporting on the interview.

You could also arrange some people for your student to survey—maybe in your school hallways, or in a local shopping center or library—and accompany them as they take their survey.

Reading Activities

Hopefully the adults you are teaching are already literate, able to read and write in their own language. If not, then you will need to do some very specialized work with them on basic literacy skills such as phonics.

Even people whose first language has a different script—such as Chinese—often also learn Roman script at school. So you are not teaching them how to read, the mechanics of reading, like when you learn reading in grade one at school. They are really just learning the peculiarities of English spelling and pronunciation.

6. Reading Aloud

Children in school are frequently asked to take turns at reading aloud. Due to their level of familiarity with it, adults often find this quite a relaxing activity in the classroom. It shouldn’t be a competition, but rather a cooperation.

Everyone should have a copy of the story or article and be following along and engaged. This could be done as a whole class, in pairs or in small groups.

Depending on the material, if the students are interested, this could lead to a role play or drama activity.

*One-on-one: With a one-on-one student you could take turns reading through a story or article. You could each have a newspaper or magazine, and take turns reading out short excerpts.

7. Scavenger Hunt Reading

This is particularly fun if you can get a bunch of free local newspapers, but you can use other texts as long as each student or pair has the same. Get them to find a particular word/expression/answer to a question on a particular page.

Again it is usually better to have cooperation rather than competition. It can be a lot of fun as everyone is engaged in scrambling through the paper and scanning pages for clues. They can also have turns to suggest things for others to look for.

*One-on-one: In a one-on-one arrangement, you and your student could take turns to set items for the other to search for.

8. Dictionary Scramble

If you have enough (English to English) dictionaries to go around, see who can find and read out a definition for a particular word. Students could select a word and set it as a task for everyone else to find and read. Practice reading and correctly pronouncing difficult words using the help provided in the dictionary.

You could start by reading together (silently) through an interesting—but maybe slightly difficult—article and choose some words to look up in the dictionary.

You can also use technology for this activity, with FluentU. Search through the program’s many authentic videos, like movie trailers, news segments and commercials, and find a video that you think will be engaging to your students but also slightly above their current skill level. (You can do the latter by filtering by difficulty level, as FluentU organizes all its videos into six skill levels from absolute beginner to nearly fluent.)

You won’t need all those dictionaries if you use FluentU, since the program has a built-in contextual dictionary. Students can simply click on any word to see what it means, view other videos that use it or add it to a flashcard list.

There’s plenty to read with the accompanying transcripts, but learners will also be using more than just their reading skills. They can practice listening (toggle the subtitles off to really focus on the spoken words), writing (with the quizzes that accompany videos and flashcards) and even speaking (in the iOS / Android app).

You can adapt this activity to have students watch videos with different uses of one word, like “date” meaning “to go on an outing” and “date” meaning “specific day on the calendar.” Students can then teach each other the meaning that they learned.

*One-on-one: Your student chooses words from a text or article.

9. Pelmanism

This is the old “Concentration” memory card game. Cards are created in pairs which could be two identical words or expressions, or a word to match a picture, or a word matching its meaning.

Students could choose their own words, make a few cards of their own and challenge a partner or friends, mixing their cards together. (Just make sure the cards all look the same on the back!)

To play the game: Mix up the cards—can be a large number or small—and then lay them face down in neat rows. Each player in turn (can be two or more players, or played as solitaire) turns over one card and reads it aloud, and then selects and turns over a second card. If the cards match they keep the pair, leaving spaces in the array, and have another turn. If there is no match they turn them over carefully and (both players) try to remember them.

*One-on-one: This is a great game to practice one-on-one with your student—while they are improving their vocabulary you can be giving your memory a good work out.

Writing Activities

Most of your adult students will not be wanting to write creative stories in English, merely to get by on tasks that are relevant to their daily life and work.

10. Reality Hour

Let your students decide what they need to learn. What kind of writing will they be using most often at work or at school? Talk to them to find out. Then, assign them a writing hour in class that lets them practice that type of writing.

  • Job applications: Find some authentic job openings on the Internet, print them out and have students practice writing applications, cover letters and CVs.
  • News article: This is great practice for describing an event that has occurred or an imaginary event. Students can be required to bring in a news article that is relevant to their lives or make up a news story that matches their own interests. Then they’ll need to write their own articles. Try making a class newspaper.
  • Class blog: There are lots of options for setting up a free blog, such as Blogger and WordPress. Encourage your students to all write a post every week.
  • Emails: Encourage students to write emails to each other and to you. Then have them answer those received emails.

For their own sake, to improve their learning skills, it is a really good idea to encourage your students to keep a Reflective Journal. It could be handwritten in a notebook or kept on a device or computer according to their preference. They could choose whether to share what they have written with each other or with you.

To keep everyone engaged with their writing, display printed efforts on the classroom walls or make a series of books that they can flip through to see what each other wrote in the interest of getting them to encourage each other.

As the teacher, look for positive outcomes to take note of and encourage individuals about, rather than getting out the red pen to mark the mistakes.


All in all, the above activities are great for exercising those real-world English skills.

Give them a try in class, and let us know how it goes!

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