Having a bad sense of direction isn’t just a nuisance.
It can be pretty scary.
I’ve gotten lost in drug dealer central, Mexico, and in a small town on the volcanic Ometepe Island, Nicaragua.
I don’t wish that on anyone, especially people managing the mishap in their second language.
However, even if you’re a visual-spatial genius, a good sense of direction doesn’t always save you.
Sometimes, people give you bad directions either to seem like they know what they’re talking about, or because their memory is terrible. Other times, the directions are fine but you run into construction or your ex along the way.
You bolt in the opposite direction and before you know it, you’re totally turned around.
There are a million ways to get lost and I like to circumvent as many as I can for my students. If they’re living in an English-speaking country or planning to visit one, you want to give them all the tools to navigate it, right?
With this in mind, I’ve written up some fun activities for ESL learners to start and progress in getting themselves oriented on this vast planet.
How Do I Get To…? 5 Creative Ideas to Teach English Directions
1. Navigate a Meaningful Map
Asking for and giving directions is one of those hyper-practical, necessary English skills. However, that doesn’t mean it has to be boring.
In this versatile activity, ESL learners get to talk about their favorite places to go in town, and you have the opportunity to teach about different cultural landmarks in English-speaking countries. If students are given real-life context and if they’re more emotionally invested in the content, directions will stick in their long-term memory.
Here’s how it works: you’ll provide a map of a meaningful place—either a recognizable local area or an exciting English destination—and students will use that map to give one another directions with key vocabulary. Print out the map as handouts or project it in front of the class, as you see fit.
After setting up the map, introduce a list of base vocabulary for students to use throughout the activity. For example:
- Where is the…?
As students become more advanced, you can add more challenging vocabulary accordingly.
Ask them to choose three to five of their favorite spots on the map to give directions between. For example, a student may choose to give directions from their home, to their best friend’s house, to their favorite store, to the movie theater.
If you would rather take advantage of teaching directions as an opportunity to also educate about culture, you can give them a map of, say, Manhattan in New York City, and have them navigate between landmarks that they’re interested in. It’s helpful to mark some key landmarks on the map ahead of time.
If students are more advanced, you can add reading comprehension exercises about the English-speaking cities and landmarks they’re practicing directions with.
This may be especially satisfying if students will be traveling soon. Imagine knowing how to get to the best crumpet shop in London before even arriving there!
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2. “I’m Lost!” Role-play
Directions lend themselves well to theatrics.
Once your ESL learners have practiced direction vocabulary to the point where they feel comfortable, you can ask them to write and perform a short skit where a person is lost and needs directions. If your students are already dramatic types and they genuinely enjoy role-playing exercises, you can even try out different improvisation exercises based on the main skit.
To start, choose everyday situations those roaming in a foreign city might find themselves in. Here are some ideas:
- Getting directions to their hotel
- Finding a specific landmark when wandering the street
- Going to a friend’s apartment
- Finding an address from the subway or train station
Designate one person to play the lost traveler. They’ll have to approach the other actors to ask for directions to their location. Don’t worry about keeping the directions accurate like you did in the map activity above. The actors can make the directions up as long as they’re using key vocabulary, and the traveler follows accordingly (e.g. mimes turning right and then walking straight if they’re told to).
Once your direction-givers reach intermediate level, it’s time to improvise. One idea is to do the same scene in many different genres. For example, the first run-through could be a regular interaction giving and getting directions. The second could be the same scene performed as comedy, drama, horror, etc.
This is a fun exercise because it reinforces and repeats the content without being boring. It also encourages creativity and the incorporation of other vocabulary the students might know.
Of course, make sure that they’re equipped with the necessary vocabulary for the situations you have them improvise. Depending on your students’ English level, this may be necessary or only necessary for certain improvisations.
It’s also good to know how to manage when you don’t have all the vocabulary (as this happens to everyone when traveling, even native speakers), but everyone feels safer and more confident with a helpful list of words.
3. Listening Exercises with the Locals
It’s all well and good giving and getting directions between classmates and people you know.
But what about when you ask directions from a random native speaker on the street who speaks quickly and doesn’t articulate words perfectly?
It’s important for ESL learners to practice listening to native speakers giving directions. Even if they don’t understand everything, they can learn to pick out key information.
As a teacher, you can help them along by showing realistic yet level-appropriate videos to get used to a real-life interaction.
My favorite beginner to low-intermediate directions listening exercise starts at minute 2:27 of the video below. It’s comedic and has hand motions to go along with each direction:
For more intermediate or advanced students, here’s a good video where native speakers give directions in relatively slow speech:
The video below follows the same premise (asking native speakers for directions) but with more realistic, faster speech.
After playing your chosen video (or a segment of the video), give students a list of basic questions to answer about it, such as:
- Where does the person want to go?
- What landmark does she need to pass?
- How many blocks away is it?
If you want your students to be truly comfortable with native English speech, show them real-world English videos on FluentU. These include everything from TV show clips to music videos to inspiring talks and more, and all the FluentU videos come supercharged with language learning tools.
On each video, students get clickable captions providing instant definitions and native pronunciations for any unfamiliar word. FluentU’s innovative Learn Mode also creates flashcards and exercises from each video, to ensure they retain new vocabulary. With videos like “How to Read a Map,” a cartoon about traveling to a museum and many others, they’ll boost not only their directional vocabulary but also their conversational and comprehension skills in general.
As an educator, you’ll love the built-in progress tracking, curriculum building and student communication tools. Check out a 15-day free trial to start sharing fun, authentic English videos with your classroom.
4. TPR Directions
Not everyone can learn only by writing and listening. Some need to get up and move.
Total Physical Response (also known as TPR) is a dynamic teaching technique that involves incorporating kinetic learning into the classroom. It makes vocabulary immediately relevant, and therefore more memorable.
So what does this look like for ESL direction lessons?
Do you remember the game Simon Says? It’s kind of like that, but start out just giving simple directional commands. For example, you’ll say “Go right,” and students should turn right and walk (or mime walking, depending on the classroom space). Then you could say “Go across the street” and students, well, imagine the boundaries of a street and cross.
See how this could work really well for a directions lesson?
I once tried this activity from the student’s perspective in a teaching workshop, with directions in Hungarian. Hungarian is not a romance language, therefore it’s something totally foreign to me. And I got down the basic directions pretty quickly.
You can use mapmaking as a fun exercise for your students who are visual learners. Who knows, you might even inspire a new career goal in some of your students!
For beginner classes, provide maps like in our first activity. However this time, have students draw routes on their maps while their partners dictate directions. To give an extra boost to memory, color code directions. For example, right turns in green, left turns in purple, straight in yellow, etc.
For more advanced classes, you can have them make their own maps from scratch. Provide directional information about the streets, landmarks or other locations you’d like them to include in relation to one another. For example:
The library is located in the center of town. The movie theater is eight blocks west of the library. The school is next-door to the library on its west side.
As you can see, this activity is particularly well suited to teaching cardinal directions.
It’s great to have all the vocabulary written down in your notebook, but it’s even better when it’s put in context on a map. This exercise will solidify already learned material as well as give a reference point for vocabulary.
Since this is a relaxing activity that reinforces vocabulary, it can be a great warm-down for an ESL directions lesson.
While teaching directions might seem like a boring chore, it can actually lead to dynamic, energized lessons. If you think of direction-learning as a portal to new worlds, it all of a sudden gains a new, brighter color.
So, feel free to grab your students and hop through that shiny swirly portal, all while moving, drawing and exploring!
Oh, and One More Thing…
If you like using unique, engaging material in your classroom, then you’re going to 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.