ESL Activities You’ll Want to Use Often

These ESL activities give students a chance to use what they have been studying and really make it ‘theirs,’ so they can draw on it when needed in their lives.  They provide a variety of ways to practice structures and vocabulary students have been learning, at first with some guidance, then more and more independently.

Teacher demonstrating an ESL picture activity to his class.
Teacher demonstrating an ESL picture activity to his class

Most of these activities can be adapted to many different lessons. Several are especially useful as icebreakers (to help classmates get acquainted), warm-ups (start of class review and switching-mind-to English activities, especially useful if not all students arrive on time) and as breaks or extra review when there’s a little time left after the main lesson has been completed.

Teaching tip #1: Always have a back-up plan. (I was given this advice by experienced teachers during my first ESL job interview, and it has proved its value over and over.) Have one or two special activities in mind to keep students interested and productive if the planned lesson turns out to be too hard or too easy; if not enough students show up or they are unusually tired or restless; or the equipment needed for the planned lesson doesn’t work.

Short Activities for Icebreakers, Warm-ups, or Breaks

·       Find someone who (An activity in which Intermediate students ask many classmates questions from a list until they get a positive response and signature for every question possible.) I liked using this as a warm-up related to the day’s lesson or a review of previous lessons. If we were working on the past tense, the worksheet would start “Find someone who went to the beach this summer...” ; if on the present perfect tense, “Find someone who has broken an arm or leg” then “Find someone who has been to Disneyland...”, etc.

The first time you use it for a new tense it’s important to teach how to convert these statements into questions: “Find s.o. who has broken...” to “Have you broken...?” Working with mixed level classes, I often gave my beginners the questions themselves so they wouldn’t have to try to convert from third-person statement to second-person question. The basic point is to practice related questions over and over, while learning a little about your classmates.

·       Odd One Out (to practice categories). The teacher gives sets of words that can be grouped in various ways-- with all but one of the words fitting in each possible grouping. (See top of the linked page for a better explanation and examples.) Each student in a group gives his/her opinion and explains why that item is different, and then the group decides which explanation makes the most sense.

·       ESL Café’s Idea Cookbook: Icebreakers. Over 100 first day icebreakers submitted by ESL teachers. I haven’t used these, but the ones I looked at looked promising-- and planning the first day of class can be a challenge!

ESL Activities that Emphasize Listening or Speaking 

·       Short dialogs to let beginners practice common, most-useful phrases for situations they may encounter in daily life before they have learned enough English to improvise on their own: greetings and introductions, asking or giving directions, telephone etiquette (asking to speak with someone, leaving a message, etc.-- phone conversations are especially difficult because there are no visual clues to meaning. For High Beginners or Mixed-level classes, dialogs can be a good guided practice before trying a role play.

·       A few more great communicative activities; (for more details on these, see ESL Conversation Techniques: Get Your Students Talking:)

·       Information gaps

·       Corners

·       Talking (or writing about)/finding things in pictures (What’s happening here?)

·       Line up (partner exchange) for short Q & As

·       Mingles

·       Role plays 

·       Dictations  (not communicative, but they give more hearing practice as well as being useful for assessment. They were quite also popular with my students for end of the week vocabulary tests, probably because it’s easy to see what they’ve learned.) 

Dictations, like Bingo (below), encourage students to link what they hear to words they know; practice vocabulary and maybe spelling, and (if you give full sentence examples for each word, have the advantages of context and exposure to correct sentence structure.)


ESL Activities Using Reading and Writing

·       “Language Experience”: students dictate a procedure or story and then practice reading their own work. (This can be used with beginning or beginning literacy students, since reading is easier because the subject and vocabulary is already known.) 

A small class may work together, dictating to the teacher, or in a multi-level classroom students may be divided into mixed-level groups or pairs in which lower level students may dictate to a higher level student (who can already read and write in English.)

 Students may describe the steps of a process (how to make coffee or a favorite recipe from their country) or tell a story (about a class field trip, a folk tale they know, what they imagine may be the background of an interesting picture-- a wedding or graduation, a couple fighting, dramatic weather, etc.) 

I have seen beautiful spiral-bound illustrated books put together by ESL classes (with a little teacher editing) to share with other classes in a large adult school. One of them was stories dictated (and illustrated) by individuals about their childhood homes. Another was refugees telling what they wanted to share about their experience. 

·       Jigsaw readings: Students are divided into groups of 4, each with students A,B,C, and D. They leave their groups to read together with other As or Bs, etc. (All As read certain info, all Bs something else) and after understanding and discussing the reading with other Bs or Cs, everyone returns to their initial groups and must teach the info they’ve learned to the rest of the group.  This of course requires much more talking (as well as reading mastery) than simply having all read the same information initially.  

Group division can be arbitrary by the teacher or based on student interests or experience. Almost any reading that divides well into sections can be used. In my classes we have used this to study information about different community organizations. It could be used for test preparation (especially for ELL students with other subjects to master in English, perhaps working in study groups), job-related or technical information, or field trip preparation.

Good End of Class Reviews

·       Add-on lists (Teacher starts “I went to the store and bought a...’ or “in my Grandma’s attic is a...’ and students go around the room, each repeating the list and adding one item until someone forgets one... A variation is going through the alphabet: Person 1:“I like apples”, p.2: “I like apples and bananas...”) 

·       Bingo (very popular and good hearing practice, with all the advantages of a competitive game. Students can make up their own bingo boards with random order copying of words on the board. We usually did this with a lesson’s or reading’s vocabulary, but it also works for irregular pasts or other forms.

Do review the words and their meanings first. I always give an example sentence after each word, both to clarify the word and so students have another opportunity to hear English sentence structure and their vocabulary in context.

·       Group competitive games: team relays; eraser tag-- also called ‘flyswatter’ (front member of each team races to the board to be the first to ‘tag’ or ‘swat’ the word that fits the category the teacher mentions, then races back to pass the eraser or fly swatter to the next team member...) Taboo and Charades or Pictionary-type games or Jeopardy. (For these and other game ideas see Multiplayer Word Games.) 

·       The Question game (20 Questions.)  This is one of my favorites as it’s good question practice and can fill as little or as much time is left in class. 

Some of these ESL activities are quite simple and may not sound like much If you haven’t tried them, but if they are planned considering the levels and interests of your class they can add a lot to a lesson. Enjoy your class, listen to their needs, and feel free to experiment.

L.A. Unified has an excellent pdf e-book, Tools for ESL Lesson Planning, that explains how to conduct many of these  (and other) ESL activities in more detail: TPR, dialogs, info-gaps, corners, peer dictation, focused listening, and more, as well as some very helpful sample lesson plans.

HomeESL Lesson Plans for Teachers> ESL Activities.

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