More ESL Activities

Since my week of solo-taught English conversation classes with extremely mixed levels has been going really well, I thought I’d write about a few more of the activities I’ve been doing with them that they’ve really liked.

I think it’s good to have a structure in place when you’re teaching daily classes with the same students for any length of time. The routine helps them get through class (knowing what to expect), and it also helps you as the teacher with lesson planning and prepping if a solid chunk of time is devoted to the same set of activities each day, which you can just tweak according to the day’s theme or whatever.

Daily Routine

(1-week mixed-level conversation class, 1st & 2nd grade middle school, two 45-minute sections w/ the same 9 students):

Warm-up (5 min): A quick activity that gets their brains or bodies moving, such as the “Word Chain” race I described in my previous post or some kind of brainteaser. Simple “Who/What Am I?” riddles usually work well. I tried toothpick puzzles similar to these, but they didn’t go over as well, since most of the kids were too impatient to try to solve them and it slowed the class momentum right at the start.

Tongue Twister challenge (10-15 min): As described in my previous post. However, if I could do this over again I would NOT show the teams their times each day, because if one team gets significantly behind they might lose hope towards the end. The next time I use this activity I’ll keep the times a secret until the final day, when the winning team is revealed.

Worksheet (10-15 min): As mentioned, I’m using some that I pulled from handy-dandy ESL sites like iSLCollective. I just chose random themes that all middle school students will know some basic vocabulary for by now, such as summer vacation, food, or labeling body parts. I don’t want to teach new vocabulary/grammar in this class so much as review and practice what they already know. Even so, the C level kids have struggled a bit, so I’ve usually modified the work by telling them to complete the first half of the worksheet or working with them in a group while the other kids work independently.

This takes up a good portion of the first period. For the remainder of the first period and through the second period, we’ve done speaking activities and games such as these (reminder/disclaimer- these are not activities of my own creation; they’re easy to find in many many places around the internet):

Minimal Pairs: Listening + Speaking

Time: 10-15 minutes

This is great practice for comprehension and pronunciation. Minimal pairs are two words that have only one different element of pronunciation, such as the vowel sound or the ending consonant sound. These can be really really really really REALLY hard for ESL learners to distinguish and pronounce. Examples: bad/bed, bad/bat, sheep/ship, mouse/mouth, lice/rice, walk/work, glass/grass.

For this activity, you need to print off minimal pairs “tree” charts (see some examples here, or you can make your own either in Word or by hand & make copies).

Start by saying one of the two minimal pair words at the top of the tree. Then say a word on the second level, then the third level, etc. until you reach the bottom. Students should follow along down the tree and circle the correct word at the bottom of the chart. If they circled the wrong word, you can retrace their steps and figure out which word they heard incorrectly.

After a few practice rounds, get the students to repeat each set of minimal pairs after you several times to practice the correct pronunciation. Then have the students do the activity with a partner so they can practice both speaking and listening. They really seem to enjoy this relatively simple activity.

Song Lyrics Game: Listening

Time: ~ 5 minutes per song (I recommend only using 1-2 songs per class even though they might beg you for more!)

For this game, you should choose a number of kid- and ESL-appropriate songs (i.e.: no inappropriate language, not too fast, relatively clear pronunciation).

It may be best to play this game after doing some other activities related to the song, such as talking about new vocabulary or doing a lyric gap fill sheet. However, it can also be played without any prep as a time filler, and the kids love it!

To prep, look at the lyrics and select some of the words that come up many times in the song. For example, if the song is “Eight Days a Week” by the Beatles, you could choose “week,” “babe,” “love,” “you,” etc. Write these on the board. Students choose one word and write it down (they have to write it so they can’t cheat).

Play the song. When students hear their word, they stand up. If they hear the word again, they sit down. At the end of the song, any students who are standing up are the winners (in my case, I gave them a small piece of candy as a prize). Note: make sure to choose some words that show up an even number of times, and some words that show up an odd number! Otherwise everyone will win or everyone will lose. o.O

Alternate version: Select words that are scattered throughout the song, but they don’t have to appear many times (just once is fine). Students choose and write down a word. They begin standing up, and as soon as they hear their word, they sit down and they’re out of the game. The “last one standing” is the winner. Lazy middle school students will like this version much better (haha), but the downside is that students who are “out” early in the song may tune out or get bored. So, especially if you teach elementary, I recommend version 1.

Note: If you have some low level students in class, I recommend tapping or pointing out the words on the board as they come up in the song, because some students may not be able to recognize each time their word comes up.

Telephone: Listening & Speaking

Time: 10-15 minutes

The classic game we all played in elementary/middle school (right?). Have students stand in a straight line. Show Student 1 a written word or sentence, which they memorize and then whisper to Student 2, Student 2 whispers to Student 3, etc. etc., and the final student says the sentence out loud. Hopefully it will get messed up somewhere down the line and the end result will be something goofy and everyone will laugh, but then again if they get it right that’s a good thing too!

For bigger classes (20+), you can make two or more teams and have the teams race to get the correct sentence down the chain, then have the last student run up and say the sentence to you.

Photo Scavenger Hunt

Time: 25-30 minutes

Okay, so this isn’t necessarily an “ESL” activity, but it’s really fun for the kids and can be categorized under “immersion English.” This is great for camps, after-school classes, or random extra classes like the one I have this week, and works well for ~5th grade elementary and up. Not recommended for normal class, and not recommended for young kids.

Put students in teams (teams of 3-5 students are preferable). Give the teams a list of items/places/things around school, such as “the library,” “an English sentence,” “the playground,” “the gym,” “a green license plate,” “a black car.” Instruct them to go around school with their team and take pictures of each item (with their phone, which inevitably most of them will have). Each picture must include at least 1 team member. You can also include some fun ones, such as “with an English teacher,” “with another [non-English] teacher,” “jumping pose,” “cute pose,” “[adjective] pose,” “team selfie,” etc.

Stress that teams MAY NOT LEAVE SCHOOL and must stay with their team members at all times. Technically I’m responsible for them during this time period and I don’t want anyone wandering off. My kids have always been good about this.

Assign point values to each item, with more difficult items worth more points. This motivates every team because even if another team finishes first, they still have a chance to win via points.

When teams return to the classroom (I usually give 25 minutes for about 30-40 list items, but you can make yours harder with more items if you want), check their photos and tally up their points to determine the winner. You can give prizes or candy as you see fit.

That’s it for now! Tomorrow is the final day, and we’re watching a movie (they voted for Bridge to Terabithia, which my school conveniently had a copy of stored in the back of the supply closet), and I’m bringing snacks and drinks as a treat. I never let them watch movies in normal class, so I’ve justified watching one with this class. We’re not even going to do a worksheet or a discussion. We’re just gonna watch and eat chips and choco pies and drink juice.

And then it’s time for real summer vacation.


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