One of the most exciting — and slightly overwhelming — parts of becoming an ESL teacher abroad is filling your arsenal with fool-proof ESL activities. Much like your staple recipes in the kitchen, committing to memory a handful of ESL classroom games not only makes your prep go smoother, it can also easily fill those awkward voids when other activities don’t go as well as planned (or your would-be sixty minute long activity ends up only taking ten).

The Premier TEFL team has put together this handy-dandy list of four fail-safe ESL activities, for those moments when it all goes wrong and you need a creative plan STAT. Not sacrificing an ounce of fun, this resource affords you reading, speaking, writing, AND listening activities to help level up your students’ English skills when you’re in a bind.

1. ESL activities to improve SPEAKING skills

ESL conversation games are essential to helping your students — regardless of age or skill level — become confident in their foreign language capabilities. After all, we can all relate to how nerve-wracking speaking aloud in front of other people can be, even when we’re using our native language (picture everyone in the audience wearing underwear ring a bell?). That’s why it’s important that your lesson plan is equipped with ESL conversation games. This one’s a classic.

Show & Tell

  • First, introduce the activity by bringing in a handful of your prized personal possessions. Since that caribou trophy from last fall’s hunting trip didn’t get packed, consider instead bringing photos, favorite souvenirs, things that remind you of home, etc. Introduce the items and their meaning to you slowly in front of the class.
  • Discuss the process. Elicit answers from students regarding what types of details you shared as you explained the objects. Did you talk about color? Size? The memory? Help give students context and a framework for when it is their turn to share their own stories.
  • Ask students to bring in an object (or more) that is of importance to them to class the next day.
  • Before starting the activity, review questions to answer with students. Write the prompts on the board for students to default to if they lose their words.
  • Have students present for the class one-by-one about their objects. Generally, try to keep students at the front of the classroom for :30-1:00 at minimum. Encourage questions from their peers if a particular student is not speaking much.
  • A twist! Choose a famous person from history or a favorite pop culture icon (like Kermit the Frog, Kublai Khan, or Santa) and have students print an image of what they think this individual would bring to show and tell. Ask students to explain their reasoning and if there are students who came up with the same idea (i.e. Rudolph’s collar), group them together to present as one.

Backup activities: Have students read texts aloud, teach new vocabulary terms and require them to use them in a sentence, conduct make-believe phone calls between pairs. Remember: open ended questions are essential to making great ESL conversation games.

Show and tell

2. ESL activities to improve LISTENING skills

ESL listening activities can prove tricky for some students, especially if the majority of their training has not been conducted with native English speakers. Just like hearing an American or a Scot pipe up in their accent causes pause to the Irish or English, students might struggle to adapt to your cadence or pronunciations. Once you’ve got your tone sorted, we recommend incorporating fun ESL listening activities like this one into your repertoire.

Describe & Draw

  • First things first. Hand out a sheet of paper and task each student to draw a picture. The picture doesn’t have to be perfect, but it needs to be more complex than a simple square or smiley face. Have students shield their drawings as best as possible from their neighbors. Allot 10+ minutes for students to really draw something complex.
  • Split students into pairs. This can be done at random, drawing from a hat, by counting 1-1, 2-2, 3-3 around the classroom, or more intentionally by pairing same-level or diverse-level students together.
  • Pass out new pieces of paper to students.
  • Task students to describe their drawing — in detail — to their partner. Their partner will aim to replicate the drawing as best as possible. To this end, students are wise to be specific in their descriptions.
  • Whichever pair draws the most similar images wins!
  • A twist! Instead of having students describe to their partner what to draw by using words like “cat” or “tree,” have their partner put the pen on the paper and have students give directions such as “move the pen up four inches,” “draw a quarter sized circle,” etc. This is a good test for more advanced students.

Backup activities: In conjunction with reading texts aloud, have students answer questions about the story they have heard. Play red-light green-light or Simon Says. Introduce students to podcasts on interesting subjects.

3. ESL activities to improve WRITING skills

ESL writing activities are crucial in the classroom, as it allows students to process more slowly all of the information on the English language they’ve been given. With the space to internalize new vocabulary words, practice grammar structures, and model the syntax of what they’ve heard, excelling at ESL writing activities can positively benefit all aspects of their language learning.

Tweet Tweet!

  • Who doesn’t love tweets? With social media blowing up around the world, these small, 140-character tidbits feel like a manageable challenge for students of all ESL levels.
  • Ask students a question and then prompt them to write — without exceeding the character limit — as many tweets as possible that comment on that question.
  • Encourage students to say as much as possible with as few words as possible. Discuss “filler words” and how to be concise. Provide concrete examples of consolidating points, so students can better understand the concept.
  • Have students edit and give feedback to one another on the content of their tweets.
  • A twist! If your students are more advanced, consider watching real-life news bits and have students comment on those stories within their tweets. Afterall, tweeting about a cute puppy is a lot easier than tweeting on a natural disaster or the state of the British economy!

Back up activities: Create short stories, describe their dinner from the previous night, introduce rhyming and poetry, task students with writing stories about the lives of fictional characters.

Class USE

4. ESL activities to improve READING skills

Not only can your ability to run successful ESL reading activities bring joy to a student’s learning, it might also introduce them to a wonderful lifelong hobby. The ability to read English unlocks a world of new information to students — from articles and books to movies with subtitles and radio transcriptions. The possibilities are basically endless, which is why you should focus on incorporating ESL reading activities into your stock of go-to games.

Read Then Act

  • Collect a dozen or so short stories. You can either author these yourself (trust me, it’s not as hard as it sounds!) or find some online from other online ESL activities resources.
  • Prep your students. They’re going to read a story then act it out. Move past the groans and focus on how fun it can be to interact and tap into your inner Johnny Depp/Jennifer Aniston/insert-favorite-actor.
  • Break your classroom into a few small groups. Be conscious of intermingling different levels, so that you don’t get stuck with a group that has no idea what is going on.
  • Task students to read through their piece together, then to create a short-play to perform in front of the classroom.
  • Be sure to allot plenty of time for students to read, assess, create, practice, and then perform. This activity can take multiple hours — showtime!
  • A twist! Ask students to create a shortlist of questions to ask the class after their performance. This will encourage the audience to stay engaged and listen, and will help the performers stay on track.

Back up activities: Read a different variety of literature types — from newspaper articles, to poems, to websites, to blogs, and beyond.

Effective ESL classroom games make your job 10x easierHigh 5

Having a stock of default-ESL classroom activities can take a lot of stress and pressure out of your everyday life in the TEFL classroom. These are just some ideas to get the juices flowing — feel free to create your own and to test which games and activities best suit your classroom culture and student skill levels. Be bold, have variety, and plan ahead; then and only then will your ESL classroom games be good as gold!

Love these ideas and dying for more? Download our Warmers-Fillers-Coolers ESL activities guide!

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