Teaching Pronouns to ESL Students: 11 Enticing Activities to Make This Vital Grammar Point Stick
Pronouns can make a huge difference in your students’ English proficiency.
Understanding where a pronoun can be substituted for a noun will make their speech and writing smoother and give their confidence a boost.
But how do you make sure these pronouns stick?
In this post, I’ll show you how to sweeten up this challenging but crucial part of English grammar. Make sure you’ve covered “to be” verbs, simple sentences and other core grammar topics before teaching pronouns to ESL students!
- 1. Personal Pronouns: Link to Classmates/Items
- 2. Demonstrative Pronouns: Demonstrate With Cups (Or Other Objects)
- 3. Indefinite Pronouns: Identify in Example Sentences
- 4. Intensive Pronouns: Master With Multiple-choice Questions
- 5. Reflexive Pronouns: Show How They Work Through Videos
- 6. Relative Pronouns: Spot and Circle
- 7. Relative Pronouns: Join Two Halves of a Sentence Together
- 8. Possessive Pronouns: Do a Scavenger Hunt
- 9. Interrogative Pronouns: The Interview Game
- 10. Reciprocal Pronouns: Storytelling Exercise
- 11. Distributive Pronouns: Debate With a Twist
1. Personal Pronouns: Link to Classmates/Items
Have students pick out nouns around the room as you write them on the board. These nouns can be in the form of items or even their classmates. Then, have your students label each noun with its corresponding personal pronoun.
You can build on these pronouns by having your students write short sentences, utilizing the noun first and following it up with the correct way to use the pronoun.
|Notebook||It||I have my notebook. It is full of notes.|
|Tim||He||Tim sits next to me. He is my friend.|
This interactive activity can also be used to introduce a few simple adjectives.
You can further challenge and engage your students by practicing first, second and third person pronouns separately, then at the same time.
2. Demonstrative Pronouns: Demonstrate With Cups (Or Other Objects)
A great way to teach demonstrative pronouns like “this” and “that” is to focus on the near vs. far aspect associated with them. For this lesson, you’ll need to make use of your whole classroom.
The best way to keep things organized is to use the same objects throughout the activity. This way, you’ll avoid confusion. You may have to bring materials from home, so make sure to plan ahead.
For example, using cups of different sizes, shapes and colors gives you the option to incorporate adjectives into this lesson once your students have mastered that concept.
Here’s an outline of this activity:
- Place one cup in front of you and another cup on a desk across the room.
- Ask the students what you have in front of you. They’ll reply, “A cup.”
- You’ll then say, “Yes, this is a cup.”
- Ask the students what is on the desk across the room. They’ll reply, “A cup.”
- You’ll tell them, “Great, that is a cup.”
- After your demonstration, you can highlight the importance distance plays when using the demonstrative pronouns “this” and “that.”
For “these” and “those,” just add more cups to your demonstration and your students will immediately pick up on the concepts.
You can also pair up your students and have them write about the different cups or cup near them and away from them.
3. Indefinite Pronouns: Identify in Example Sentences
Indefinite pronouns can be tricky, so your ESL students might struggle a bit more with them than with other types of pronouns. So before beginning your activity, give your students a working list of the different types of indefinite pronouns. You should have an example sentence for each one on your list, with the indefinite pronoun underlined.
Once your students have thoroughly familiarized themselves with indefinite pronouns:
- Separate the class into small groups or pairs, depending on the class size.
- Make two worksheets: one with singular indefinite pronouns and the other with singular and plural indefinite pronouns mixed together. Each worksheet will have sentences (different from your examples, of course).
- Have the groups or pairs underline the indefinite pronouns in each sentence, like “Do you want anything from the store?” or “Has anybody seen my car keys?”
- After all worksheets are finished, read out the answers to each question.
- If you like, you can also give rewards to the student(s) able to get the most number of correct answers.
4. Intensive Pronouns: Master With Multiple-choice Questions
For this intensive pronoun activity, you can:
- Split your class into small groups, giving each group a worksheet filled with multiple-choice sentences. Try to make each question more challenging than the last.
- Let your students work through the many multiple-choice sentences you provided.
- Once they’re done, have each group choose one of the intensive pronoun sentences to act out in front of the class. For example, if the sentence is “The woman did all the work herself, because her team had gone out to lunch,” let a female classmate (or a male classmate dressed in women’s attire) pretend to work on something while everyone else is huddled in a corner chatting.
5. Reflexive Pronouns: Show How They Work Through Videos
Since both intensive and reflexive pronouns end in the suffix “-self” or “-selves,” your ESL students might easily confuse them with each other.
To emphasize the differences between the two, you can use the same activity you did for intensive pronouns—except this time, ask your students to identify if the pronoun is intensive or reflexive.
Alternatively, you can also pick up an English-subtitled video from the language learning platform FluentU that highlights the use of reflexive pronouns.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
6. Relative Pronouns: Spot and Circle
Before you do this activity, introduce each relative pronoun by writing it on the board, touching on pronunciation and giving examples of how each is used.
- Put together a worksheet that has 10 to 20 sentences using the various relative pronouns in them.
- Let your students work through the worksheet, circling the relative pronouns they find.
- Discuss the answers in class.
7. Relative Pronouns: Join Two Halves of a Sentence Together
You can do this as a standalone exercise (ensuring that your students are familiar with the concept of relative pronouns first) or right after the “spot and circle” activity mentioned above.
For this one:
- Divide the class into pairs.
- Ask each pair to designate one student as “Student A” and the other as “Student B.”
- Give Student A a worksheet with the first half of sentences and Student B a worksheet with the second halves of sentences.
- Ask them to put together each sentence using the correct relative pronoun. For example, if the first half says “I am not sure” and the second half says “bag that is on the bench,” the appropriate relative pronoun in this case would be whose.
8. Possessive Pronouns: Do a Scavenger Hunt
This is a common ESL classroom activity for teaching possessive pronouns, and you can do your own spin on it.
One of the simplest versions goes like this:
- Take various objects that are easy to carry (like a toy or book) and stick Post-its on them.
- Imagine that each object is owned by a person or animal, and write phrases that indicate that the object is possessed by that person or animal (e.g., “Fido’s toy,” “Michelle’s book”).
- Bring the objects to class.
- Before your students arrive, hide the objects in various nooks and crannies around the classroom.
- Create a “treasure map” showing clues as to where the objects are hidden.
- Once your students are in class and are settled in, discuss what possessive pronouns are.
- Make enough copies of the map for each student group that’ll participate in the activity.
- Divide your students into groups.
- Ask each group to locate the objects using the treasure map you gave them.
- Once they’ve gathered all the objects, ask your students to identify the correct possessive pronoun for each object. For example, “Fido’s toy” would become “his toy,” while “Michelle’s book” would become “her book.”
9. Interrogative Pronouns: The Interview Game
As with the other activities, this one requires a thorough discussion of the concept of interrogative pronouns first. Then, you can proceed with the following:
- Prepare a set of question cards that use interrogative pronouns. You can write questions like “Who is your favorite author?” and “Which food do you like the most?”.
- Divide your students into pairs.
- Give the students a set of question cards they can use to “interview” their partner. Remind them of what they’d learned during your conversational English lessons.
- Let the partner answer the questions as creatively as they can.
- Once all of the question cards have been used up, take them away.
- This time, cover/delete the interrogative pronouns used for each question. For example, “Who is your favorite author?” becomes just “___ is your favorite author?”
- Shuffle the cards, and return them to your student pairs.
- Ask them to repeat the activity, except this time, they’ll have to write down the correct interrogative pronoun in the blanks.
10. Reciprocal Pronouns: Storytelling Exercise
There are only two reciprocal pronouns—”each other” and “one another”—but you can reinforce the subtle differences between the two through a fun storytelling activity.
Here’s how it goes:
- Create reciprocal pronoun story prompts with the reciprocal pronouns blanked out (e.g., “Two strangers met at the library, and they introduced themselves to _____”). Write these prompts on index cards or small sheets of paper.
- Distribute these prompts to your students. Your students can work on them individually or in pairs.
- Ask them to fill out the blanks in the prompts.
- Then, ask them to create a short story or scene using the prompts, making sure to naturally incorporate the reciprocal pronouns in their story. Encourage them to be as creative and imaginative with the stories as they can.
- Have them tell their stories in class.
11. Distributive Pronouns: Debate With a Twist
In a debate, distributive pronouns like “each,” “either” and “neither” often crop up, making it the perfect activity to help your students master this type of pronoun.
To incorporate distributive pronouns into a debate:
- Divide your class into teams.
- Prepare cards with distributive pronouns written on them.
- Choose a debate topic that uses distributive pronouns, like “Every student should bring their own lunch to school.”
- Give each team a card containing a distributive pronoun. The card will determine their stance on the topic. For example, if they get “each,” they will argue in favor of the individual’s right to choose, while getting “every” means that they will argue in favor of a statement like “Every student should bring their own lunch to school.”
- Follow the standard debate format (i.e., give enough time for each team to formulate their arguments, and then let them take turns arguing in favor of or against a stance).
- Encourage your students to incorporate distributive pronouns as naturally as they can into their arguments.
No matter the pronoun you’re teaching, remember to keep your students engaged with the material.
Start off each lesson with a concise overview of the pronoun type in question, follow it up with the activity and close with a review of the activity and the lesson it’s based on.
With the above-mentioned tips, teaching pronouns to ESL students can be one of the most rewarding things you can do.