Tool Time! 13 Handy Language Teaching Tools You’ve Gotta Have
Would a carpenter go to a job site without the right tools?
Would a surgeon enter the operating theater without the trays of necessary tools prepared?
Would you trust the plumber who showed up to your door without a toolbox?
You, as a teacher, should have a box of tools of your own!
Some of those tools will be the usual things most language teachers have on hand: the dictionaries, the blackboard and chalk, the pencils and paper. But you know that sometimes you need additional tools to help you with your class. From real-life items to virtual, technological tools, you’ll want to build a good toolbox.
Different Types of Language Teaching Tools
There are all types of tools that you’ll want to put in your teacher’s toolbox. These include realia, audiovisual (AV) materials, organizational tools and items that record student progress.
- Realia: Defined by Merriam-Webster as “objects or activities used to relate classroom teaching to the real life especially of peoples studied,” realia can become a core set of items you’ll always want handy when trying to get a language point across or animating your students to practice that point.
- Audiovisual (AV): These will be those videos and recorded songs that you use to support your teaching. Though sometimes a great “getaway” from regular classwork, using AV can often excite your class into enthusiastic participation in real, effective language learning exercise. It’s a lot of fun—but so much more than that, too!
- Organizational tools: A lot of activities will need organization. These types of tools help keep the activity agile and exciting. They also help “keep the rules” when playing games.
- Progress tools: All work you do with your students in the language classroom will need to be evaluated. Progress tools are items you’ll have in that toolbox that will make your students aware of just how they’re doing in your class, both immediately and in the long run.
Fill Your Toolbox: 13 Indispensable Language Teaching Tools
1. Daily newspapers / Glossy gossip magazines
In today’s iPhone, iPad, i-everything world, printed matter seems almost old-fashioned. This couldn’t be farther from the truth! Newspapers and glossy magazines are great tools to have around your classroom.
Think about going to the dentist. You might pull out your cell phone and catch up on your messages until that home and garden magazine that you can flip through without using your paid data plan catches your eye.
Providing a target language newspaper about once a week or having a variety of glossy magazines on the “newsstand table” in the corner gives your students something to pick up and browse through while waiting for class to begin. Older material can be cut up and used to make scrap books or posters for specific types of language activity. And of course, there’s the good old “use it for discussion topics” idea.
2. Bag of props
That says “bag,” but it could be a big drawer, a medium-sized box, a small trunk or any other container to store items in to hand out to your students. These props can fall into three main categories:
- Props one might carry with them: A set of keys, a cell phone, a funny pair of eyeglasses, a box of mints, a set of false ID cards, a compact, a mirror, a toothbrush, some bills and coins.
- Props one might have at home: An iron, a wooden spoon, an alarm clock, a coffee cup (you could have a whole plastic table setting to play restaurant!), a bookend, a candlestick.
- Props that are just weird: A plastic pig, a compass, a wooden duck, a wig, an unusual stone, a piece of broken crockery, a bent piece of iron.
Props are useful when doing role plays or paired conversations. Just pull a couple out and hand them to your students, insisting that they incorporate the props into their conversation.
Play “Archaeological Dig,” where students have to explain a prop as if it were an ancient artifact they’ve just dug up.
Play “Action Movie” and turn the props into super exciting tools of destruction and mayhem. A cell phone can be converted into a stun-gun for a sci-fi scene. Use your imagination and have plenty of props in that bag, box or drawer!
3. Official forms to fill out
Government offices love forms. Just drop by your local driver’s license office and pick up several of those forms they make you fill out. Do a search on the Internet, download and then print out forms from different government branches. Hand them out to your students and have them fill them out.
Types of forms might include:
- Car rental applications
- Online flight booking
- Credit card applications
- Student loan applications
Students are welcome to make up what they write rather than supplying very personal information, as long as each invented entry fits the bill. Keep in mind that students might not have certain types of identification numbers that are requested from people in the country where the forms come from, so you may have to explain what these are.
Again, any of these can be picked up and photocopied from any official (or not so official) office, and many can be found on the Internet. Delve deep to find odd ones, like an agricultural vehicle registration form, or a form to request residency in the target language country.
4. Food packaging
Set aside some space in one of your bookshelves to build a corner market. Here you’ll stack empty packages of food stuffs. If you’re teaching the target language in the country where it’s spoken, you can have your students bring in empty packages.
If you’re at a loss for target language packaging, pick up the local brands and do a “translation” exercise, having your students prepare and paste onto those packages the target language texts to replace the local language texts.
Good items for this store are:
- Cereal boxes
- Pizza boxes
- Beverage bottles
- Prepared food packaging
Having a complete store means you can play shop from time to time, practicing shop language, paying, numbers, money, greetings and goodbyes. This is especially fun for younger students, but adult students will appreciate the practice too, as they’re often the ones who have to face doing the shopping in the target language.
When used correctly, movies can offer valuable practice material for your students. Some things to keep in mind when choosing movies to have available for your students:
- Choose movies that are appropriate to your students’ age group. Adults may not enjoy Disney, whereas kids may get bored with a drama. That’s not always true, though—poll your students to see what kinds of movies they like best.
- Choose movies with dialogue, that is, speech between two people. Don’t show your students the entire film, just show them short scenes and repeat those scenes for vocabulary, intonation and understanding.
- Watch for subtitles. Subtitles in the original language (like those done for the deaf) and subtitles in the students’ native language are both helpful when first studying a scene. You can decide which subtitles to use based on your students’ comprehension level.
- Look for movies made specifically for language study. These types of films are usually shorter and thematic. They may be scaled to different proficiency levels.
6. CDs with song lyrics
You’ll want to do sing-alongs in class. Unless you play the guitar, though, you’ll want to have some recorded music for your students to sing along with. Make up cloze exercises for listening and search the Internet for karaoke sites that let you sing along. These songs are great items to have in your toolbox as a treat for work well done or as an alternative to that irregular verb list.
7. Language flashcards
Any type of language can be represented on a flashcard. Verbs, nouns, adjectives, people, places, things, occupations. Flashcards aren’t only useful for quick vocabulary review, but they can be used in any activity, from role plays to hot potato.
Besides creating your own flashcards, you can have your students help with the handy work, cutting out pictures from those older glossy mags or coloring cards and penciling in the words. For rapid game playing, online flashcards exist.
8. Several pairs of dice
From playing board games to practicing random numbers, having at least one die per student in your class will help keep activities organized. Dice can even be used to randomly pair students—one student throws his dice, calls out the number (in the target language) and each student throws theirs in turn until someone matches the first student’s number: A pair is made!
9. Deck of playing cards
The basic deck of playing cards is an invaluable random selection tool. It can be used to make pairs, trios, groups of four and two teams (odds vs evens). As flashcards, they can be used by beginners and teach them to quickly identify numbers in a random fashion, instead of the same old beginning at “one” to remember how to say “seven.”
10. Egg timer
The good old wind-up egg timer with a bell will let you mark the passage of one minute when playing charades or five minutes when giving a pop quiz. You can also download a desktop timer for your classroom computer. Using your cell phone timer may not be the best idea, as many times cell phones are not allowed in class, but if they are, no problem!
11. Photocopies of large-denomination bills in L2 money
When doing activities in which students will be responding in the target language, it’s useful to have a physical object you can hand to them that can be counted up. Download an image of a large denomination bill used in the target language culture and print out dozens.
The best denomination is of 100, be it 100 dollars or 100 yen. Each time one of your students responds satisfactorily, hand them a bank note. At the end of the activity, have them count up the notes and announce their total. This helps students practice bigger numbers than one to ten and teaches them just how those bigger numbers are expressed in their new language.
Who doesn’t remember gold, silver and bronze stars stuck to a large poster? Did you learn the times-table that way? Kids, adolescents and adults will be tickled when they receive a sticker, stuck on the cover of their language notebook or in their passport (see number 13). You can decide just what grade gets each color of star, gold for a 10, silver for 9/8 and bronze for a 7.
Use funny stickers to show your approval of student work, like smiley faces, animal stickers, colored dots or squares. As these stickers accumulate, students will have a visual reference of their progress.
13. Student passport
During the first week of class, hand each of your students their class “Passport.” This is a document where everything of import that happens in class will be recorded.
Use a template from an online service and print out one passport for each student. You can personalize these templates to include pages for quizzes done with their scores, test scores, books read, good (and bad!) behavior. Leave spaces for those stickers.
Each time you’ve reached some type of milestone in your class, have your students note what that milestone was. Then you note the accomplishment by stamping and/or signing it. For younger students, having them show this “Passport” to their parents also lets the parents know that progress is being made.
As a discipline tool, untoward behavior can be noted, and parents will need to initial that they have seen something their kid may have done that needs to be nipped in the bud. On the other hand, filling the passport with constructive comments (and stickers!) reinforces the students’ excitement in learning the new language.
Filling a good language teacher toolbox will take time.
You’ll build on your experience. You’ll count on your students to help you out.
These few tools are just a starter’s kit. Use them to imagine other types of items or resources that you can add to that toolbox until it’s no longer a small, handheld box but one of those cabinets on wheels. Both you and your students will benefit from this collection.
Revel Arroway is a retired teacher with over 30 years experience in ESL and Spanish teaching, as well as teacher training. Though he no longer teaches, he continues to be active in training teachers, creating and writing about methods and activities that help ESL teachers jump-start their classes and simplify their lesson load.