I’m not much of a fancy coffee drinker.
A little sugar and cream is generally all I need to be happily caffeinated.
But on a recent road trip I splurged. I got a very large, very chocolatey frozen coffee concoction and, of course, it was topped with a generous peak of whipped cream.
Sometimes we mistakenly think of our English instruction like that fancy coffee.
We teach the essentials, cover the curriculum, teach to the test (when necessary) and then we try to top it all off with a dollop of creativity.
Unfortunately, that really isn’t creative teaching. It’s not much more than doing lip service to creativity in the classroom.
If you really want to teach creatively, it’s got to be a part of the mix and not something to throw on top. It has to affect what we teach and how we teach it, not just what projects we include at the end of the unit.
To make creativity a part of the mix, here are six key ideas you can use to incorporate it into your classroom all year long.
6 Illuminating Ideas for Teaching English Creatively
1. Teach Through Play
Have you ever participated in a three-legged race, where one of your legs is tied to one of your partner’s and you run awkwardly to the finish line? Imagine trying to dance when you have that kind of restriction on your body.
That’s kind of what it’s like when we’re so focused on our agenda and its outcomes that we don’t take time to play in class.
Play is fun and freeing. It allows students to get engaged with English in a low-stakes, entertaining setting. It creates positive associations with the language and provides the space for unique ideas or new questions to come to the surface.
But unstructured playtime can also devolve quickly into chaos. How can you incorporate play into the ESL classroom without the risk of wasting a class period? Here are some ideas for meaningful, educational classroom play:
- Games are a great way to encourage play for students. There are plenty of great games for the ESL classroom out there. And if you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for, create your own or modify one that already exists.
- Role plays are another way to encourage play among your students, especially if they include dressing up. When students play a role in a dialogue they get the chance to be someone else, and that allows different aspects of their personalities to come through. It’s a fun, low-pressure way to get students speaking in English naturally.
You might especially consider role play activities with older students who aren’t interested in “playtime,” per se, but do want a chance to relax and engage with English freely.
2. Incorporate Students’ Interests into Your Lessons
We wouldn’t have the expression “curiosity killed the cat” if curiosity wasn’t a strong motivator. When we have an interest in a particular subject or skill—when we have an individual connection to something we’re learning—we’re driven to learn more.
Your students are curious. They have interests unique to themselves. They want to know things. Encourage that.
I once knew a student who could name every known species of dinosaurs. He loved dinosaurs, and his own curiosity lead him to learn everything there was to know about them.
Take advantage of the curiosity students already have by noting what interests them, what they ask questions about and what they do in their free time. Ask students what they would like to learn about, and take their ideas seriously.
Then, use students’ interests as a frame for teaching what you need to cover in your curriculum. When you base your instruction on their interests, they’ll be engaged and motivated and their passion will take them to places they might not otherwise go.
Here are some example ideas that you can use as a jumping off point:
- You can teach the past tense by asking students to summarize current events and pop culture, including anything from a recent soccer match to last week’s episode of “Survivor.”
- Teach vocabulary from a magazine or blog students like to read in their free time.
- Have students work on their speaking skills by role playing a favorite celebrity on a recent film or TV show.
But don’t stop there. Model curiosity for them. Give them the tools they need to ask questions and pursue knowledge by showing them how you do so in your own reading, research or daily life.
Highlights has some great suggestions for encouraging curiosity in kids.
3. Celebrate Student Accomplishments
Celebration is a great way to support the successes of your students, and you should make room to celebrate often.
In the process of learning English (or any language for that matter), it’s easy to see more of what you don’t know rather than what you do. When you celebrate accomplishments, you help students see that they’re making progress and moving along the road to fluency. And when you point out their successes, they’ll be more motivated to reach for the next goal.
Celebration is often reserved for holidays and special occasions, and those celebrations are great, but don’t stop there.
- You can create class books containing work from each of your students and put the book on display for all the members of your class to enjoy. You might laminate pages and bind them or make your book by placing student work into plastic sleeves and compiling them in a three-ring binder.
- You can also give students a chance to celebrate their own accomplishments. Consider scheduling regular “open mic” time where students can share their English successes.
If you’re teaching ESL students within an English-speaking country, this is a great opportunity for them to note moments that they’re proud of, whether it’s getting a job after an interview in English or even just correctly asking for directions on the train.
By celebrating your students’ accomplishments, they’ll feel valued, supported and freer to express themselves in English in the future.
4. Conduct Classroom Experiments
They’re not just for science class! Fun classroom experiments can be an exciting, creative way to get students speaking and thinking in English.
Let students make predictions and test outcomes to see if their predictions were correct. Encourage use of the scientific method in which students pose a hypothesis and then design experiments to test those hypotheses before coming to a conclusion. You can have students write down their hypotheses and results in English, which can then get presented orally at the end of class.
Not only will you be giving them vital English practice, you’ll also be teaching them valuable research and critical thinking skills. Any of your students who plan to continue using English for academic purposes will especially thank you.
Here are some ideas for experiments that you can bring into your ESL classroom:
- The “egg drop” project is an easy and inexpensive experiment in which students can make predictions and test the outcomes, and it’s also good not-so-clean fun.
- Bring a little magic to the classroom with these three experiments that make magic before your eyes.
- Find out what soda does to your teeth with this simple experiment.
5. Encourage Reflective Thinking
Creative teaching doesn’t stop at coming up with new activities. Creative teaching is also about encouraging new ways of thinking, unique ideas and student-driven learning.
One of the best ways to do this is to encourage reflective thinking, or considering and analyzing the surrounding world and past events. For English learners, it means being able to learn from mistakes and decide what goals, practice habits and language tools will help in the path to fluency.
You can introduce reflective thinking in English to your classroom with a simple but effective activity. All you need to do is pick a recent lesson or project from your curriculum and ask students to list three things that went well and one thing they would want to improve.
Students can do this in groups or individually.
So for example, if you recently assigned a book report, you might ask the students to list three things they enjoyed about putting together their own report and one thing about the process that could’ve gone better.
This way, students will be engaging in English while also considering their own language proficiency, strengths and weaknesses, which is crucial for anyone looking for the drive and direction to become fluent in English.
6. Foster Connections Between Students
At the end of the day, teaching English isn’t really about vocabulary lists and grammar drills. It’s about getting students to effectively communicate in English. It’s important that your creative teaching methods home in on this goal if you want them to have a real impact.
Fostering connections between your students is one of the easiest and most useful ways to do this. You can help create a supportive classroom environment by making sure to carve out time in your lesson plans for group work and collaborative learning.
Pair students up with different classmates, always giving them a common goal. As they pursue their goals and then achieve them, they’ll develop mutual understanding and encouragement and will support one another.
This will create a safe place for students to put their English skills to use in a supportive environment that encourages creativity.
In addition, remember that culture is always a factor in ESL classrooms. Since so much of culture is subconscious, it’s easy for students from different nations and groups to come into conflict without even realizing why.
It’s therefore essential to make your classroom a safe place for students to take risks as they express themselves in English, and you can do that by promoting diversity and understanding among your ESL students. When culture is something that can be discussed rather than being taboo, students may become more aware that clashes they run into may be due to cultural differences.
Teaching English creatively is much more challenging than including creative projects in traditional education methods, but it’s so very worth it. When our students can think for themselves and express their thoughts, support each other and explore and evaluate their own ideas, they’ll be confident learners, speakers and thinkers in the English language.
Oh, and One More Thing…
If you like getting creative with your lessons, then you’ll love using FluentU in your classroom. 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.