Make ELL Activities Interesting Again with 8 Creative Teaching Ideas

Teaching English is a roller coaster of moods and energy levels, full of ups, downs, corkscrews and loop-de-loops.

Ever have one of those mornings where you just can’t get out of bed?

So do your students.

How about those mornings when you just seem to wake up with an extra spring in your step?

Your students have those, too.

What about those days full of so much stress, you just can’t seem to focus on anything?

ELL students know all about stress.

We all have “off” days and “on” days, sleepy days and peppy days, grumpy days and happy days, slow days and fast days. Our students experience all of these things, too. It’s up to us to be prepared with appropriate and engaging ESL activities, no matter what kind of moods and energies the day might bring.

8 Interesting Activity Ideas for Teaching English, Ranging from Lively to Chill

Get Up and Go

Fridays are amazing! It’s so easy to get out of bed on a Friday. You stroll into the building casually, your colleagues are wearing jeans, someone brought donuts, the students are excitedly anticipating the weekend. You can just feel the buzz of energy in the air. So, how to handle all this energy once it’s time to get down to business? Use it to your advantage, of course!

1. Musical activities

Music is one of the best ways to keep the energy high while still facilitating learning. You might simply use music as a way to get students up and moving.

Start your class with a catchy tune and allow students to expend some of that energy. It’s not just for young students either—older students will enjoy anything fast-paced and current.

Leave instructions loose so students don’t feel that they’re being forced to perform. Let them move about the room in a manner comfortable to them, maybe even stop the music and let them chat a little.

Younger students might enjoy more structured musical activities. The singing duo Greg and Steve is perfect for young ELL students. After years of teaching in mostly primary ELL classrooms, I’ve amassed an epic collection of Greg and Steve CDs. Were I ever to meet them in person, it might be the equivalent to most people meeting The Beatles. These songs are fast-paced enough to keep things interesting yet slow enough that learners will catch on to the repetitive English patterns. Besides that, they’re just really fun.

Another great way to incorporate music is through the use of instruments, particularly rhythm sticks. These are inexpensive and easy for any student to master. Next time you’re reviewing vocabulary, pass out the rhythm sticks. Kids love to tap out words in sentences, syllables in words and rhymes. Really, anything that can be spoken orally can also be “tapped.”

2. Gross motor games

Want to add some excitement to the classroom? Throw stuff! Incorporating gross motor movement—the movement and coordination of larger muscles and limbs—into instruction can be a novel and motivating way to engage students. Every class has a handful of students who avoid answering questions at all costs.

If you make a game out of it by introducing a ball, suddenly everyone wants to answer. Ask a question. Throw the ball to a student (beach balls and bean bags work best). They answer the question. Works every time.

It’s best to start with a student or two who’s more comfortable speaking. They, of course, will love getting things rolling. When their peers see how much fun it is to throw a ball around inside and all they have to do is answer a simple question, your classroom will be filled with eager hands.

Feeling Antsy

Okay, so maybe it’s not a Friday and maybe your students aren’t in the best of moods. Perhaps it’s been one of those weeks full of assessments.

Students are antsy and filled with unspent energy. We’ve all been there. Not really one of those happy-go-lucky, break-out-the-boombox kind of days, just a day that calls for a change of pace and a bit of energizing.

3. Board games

Board games are great because they’re a very low-pressure way to practice oral language in a smaller group. They’re especially great on a day when students might have a hard time focusing and just need some time to unwind and recharge. Board games are self-paced, allowing students to work at the levels and paces most comfortable for them.

There are a million board games on the market, making it easy to find the best fit for your classroom needs. Do be cognizant of reading level and content, always making certain the chosen game is appropriate for the classroom.

To get the most bang for your proverbial buck, you can always create your own. Not only is this cheaper, but you can also incorporate classroom content. Make a Bingo game featuring your vocabulary words. Images of everything are readily available on the internet. Create cards featuring the visuals, and provide either a written or verbal cue that relates to the image. You know the rest… bingo!

4. Silly sentence strips

Mad Libs is always good for some serious silliness. You know, that game where you have to provide a certain part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, etc.) but you aren’t given the context in which the words will be used. Before you know it, Batman bought pink underwear at Taco Bell—and hilarity ensues! What a fun way for students to play with the English language.

Start by having each student write their own name on a portion of a sentence strip or a card. You provide part of the sentence and allow your students to finish it. When beginning, the sentence might look like this: ” _____ likes to _____.”

Your student might complete the sentence like this: “Jennifer likes to swim.” Depending on the level of your students, you can either provide a number of pre-written words for them to choose from or allow them to create their own. I always find the sentences to be much more entertaining when they’re based on students’ original thoughts. Even if they aren’t at the level of doing their own writing, they can still verbalize their thoughts and you can write the lines out together for extra support.

This one simple activity incorporates reading, writing, creative thinking and encourages ownership of the language.

Balanced Energy

Every once in a while the stars align just right, creating the perfect learning environment. Students are alert, but not so lively that they’re distracting each other. They’re calm, but not to the point of being comatose. They’re engaged and enthusiastic. You better be ready, because this doesn’t happen often. Don’t waste it.

5. Interactive writing

Structured writing might not be the most exciting activity for a student, but it’s vital to the success of the English learner. Though it may not be as fun as throwing a ball around, done correctly, it can always be engaging. Interactive writing refers to the “sharing of the pen” between teacher and student. The teacher and students decide what they’re going to write about and then compose the writing together.

Students are encouraged to directly follow the model of the teacher by observing what and how the teacher is writing. The student then has the opportunity to try independently. After the text has been created, teacher and students read what they’ve written together, always exploring different text features (letters, sounds, punctuation).

This experience provides support from the teacher, while still promoting independence and bolstering confidence with reading and writing. Most modern classrooms are now equipped with interactive whiteboards—the perfect medium for experimenting with interactive writing.

6. Creative writing

For a little less structure, throw in some creative writing. This can still be a fairly rigorous activity, but it does leave room for more self-expression. Providing a story-starter can be a great springboard for sparking creativity.

Story-starters are simply prompts that help guide a student’s writing. If a student is at a beginning level, start by having them create a picture. Encourage them to describe the picture. Add text together using their thoughts and words.

As mentioned before, these sorts of activities can be a bit more intense than throwing a ball around, but they’re necessary for student growth. Make sure your students are in the right mindset to undertake the rigor these activities provide.

Mellow Mood

Sometimes you can just walk into a room and feel the peace. It might be an overcast day. Maybe it’s just one of those days where everyone happens to be feeling mellow for no reason in particular.

Personally, I love these days. I’ve always felt like this is when my students and I seem the most like a little family. Shut off those horrible fluorescent overhead lights, switch on a few lamps, put on some soft music and go with the vibe.

7. Fine motor movement

Recently there has been a popularity explosion regarding those intricate adult coloring books. One reason for their popularity is the fact that they give racing minds a chance to rest. You can don’t have to worry about solving the world’s problems. You can just focus on that relaxing fine motor movement.

Think your students wouldn’t benefit from the same sort of activity? They don’t necessarily need to be coloring, but they should be doing something to keep their hands busy and their minds calm. If you want to add a bit of an academic punch, incorporate current classroom themes and concepts.

If you’re working on particular letters or words, give students old newspapers and highlighters and let them search away. Pass out magazines and allow students to look for pictures of current vocabulary words and create vocabulary collages. For an extra element, add labels.

All of these activities are best done independently to keep the tranquility flowing.

8. Individual whiteboard activities

Students always love these. It might be the fluidity of the marker on the board. Maybe it’s the feeling that they’re in charge of that small area. They can write and erase at will. That big whiteboard at the front of the classroom can be intimidating. Even though it can be fun to actually write on that board, everyone is watching, which might lead to feelings of insecurity.

Individual whiteboards can be utilized from the security of their own cozy area, which is perfect for a low-key day. Whiteboards give students the freedom to experiment with reading and writing. If they mess up, no big deal. It’s far from permanent, just erase it and try it again.

Managing the Ups and Downs of Teaching English

Students have good days and bad days, and moods can fluctuate on a dime. That’s okay.

If the tone in your classroom shifts, shift your instruction.

As a teacher, you’re allowed to have a bad day, too. Even if you’re feeling a little “off,” with these strategies in your back pocket, your instruction will never show it.

Jackie Hostetler has worked in the field of education for 15 years, earning her ESOL Masters in 2010. Her passions include early childhood education and language acquisition in our youngest learners. She is the director of an early learning center and the mother of two of her own little learners.

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