I spent the summer before my first year of teaching English in Madrid tossing lesson ideas back and forth with secondary school teachers I knew, and saved a spot in my suitcase for activity books with creative writing prompts and unique vocabulary words. However, being placed at a non-bilingual school with a generally lower English level meant that I would have to shift my lesson planning focus. While this took some time, through trial and error I found compromising teaching methods that were both enjoyable to older students and English level-appropriate. Here are a few of my favorite ESL lesson planning tricks to serve as a resource guide that could be a success at any type of school:
Presentation Resource Guide for Non-Bilingual Students
Ah, powerpoint. I still remember getting so excited about making my own backgrounds and adding only the wildest animations to my presentations in elementary school. But after 5th grade, my fear of public speaking was more powerful than my love of rainbow gradient backgrounds.
By learning to tailor my presentations to my students’ needs, I was able to engage them thoroughly and gain confidence in my public speaking when they reacted well to my lessons. My presentations included a little bit of everything.
- Questions: adding a question to info-heavy slides gets students involved and keeps their attention
- ESL Conversation Questions: if you’re at a loss for ideas, this website has discussion question ideas for a wide variety of topics
- Videos: including a video is a great way to add variety to a presentation! They are great for practicing listening skills and sharing a bit of your own culture.
- LearnEnglish Teens: I love British Council! Their entire LearnEnglish Teens website is interesting and relevant, especially the Video UK section (under the UK Now heading). Its videos are divided by skill level, so you can easily find something that any class would enjoy.
- Grammar: if you include review exercises every few slides, new info is certain to stick.
- English Club: groups of exercises with a wide range of difficulties and topics. These can break up long stretches of teaching. My students loved getting to come up to the computer to solve a problem.
- ESL Games World: if students picked up on a lesson really well, I would reward them with a game week. They loved the chance to beat their classmates! This works best with smaller groups so that everyone gets a chance to participate.
- Projects: I like to conclude my presentations with a project that involves all the new skills students have learned. Students can review everything while getting to express a bit of creativity. Here are some of my personal favorites:
- Talent Show: have students write a little description of a talent they have that must include a number of relevant grammar or vocabulary. Then, they can each present for the class. This can be done periodically throughout the year, as they keep adding to their English skill set.
- Memory Book: give the students a theme to write about, such as vacations, birthdays, or their school year. Have them pick four specific memories related to the theme, each of which must include a different past verb. They can draw pictures if they want, or if they are completing the activity over a longer period of time, bring in their own.
Contact YOUR Teachers
When I began to encounter situations in the classroom that wouldn’t occur at a bilingual school, I reached out to my high school teachers with whom I am friends with on Facebook. They ARE professionals in the field, after all! Even if your former teachers have never taught ESL, they have years of experience with lesson planning, discipline, and engaging all types of students. They can act as excellent support systems and mentors if you find yourself overwhelmed by the expectations of working at a non-bilingual school. They can serve as your own interpersonal resource guide.
Competitions for Non-Bilingual Students
A fail-proof way to motivate students is winning, and what’s a better way to do that than through competition? After my competition-based lessons, I’d be able to hear the winning team bragging to their friends for minutes afterward. Alongside the joys of winning, students get to practice teamwork skills in the process. A wide variety of strengths can shine together while playing a game. No resource guide would be complete without these classics.
Here are a Few of My Favorites for Students:
- Categories: divide the class into teams. On the blackboard, write a theme: this can be literally anything, from general grammar points like adjectives or present continuous verbs, or a specific vocabulary topic. Each group then gets two minutes to think of as many words as possible that fit this category. Students receive points based on the number of correct answers. Whichever team has the most at the end of a few rounds, wins!
- 20 Questions: this is a great game for students who are just getting started with English. I have even played it before with kids who are on their first lesson, but it can be a great way to introduce new vocabulary to anyone. Divide the class into teams, and give them a word. The teams then take turns trying to guess the definition by asking yes-or-no questions. Whichever team guesses the correct definition gets a point.
- Scavenger Hunt: this game is best for classroom vocabulary, but if you can get permission it can really be played anywhere on school property. Divide the class into teams and give each one a vocabulary list of things to find and label. If the game is taking place in a larger space, have each team take photos of what they have found. Whoever finds and correctly labels the most things on their list wins. Bonus: if the game does take place in the classroom, you can keep the labels there for the year and encourage students to always refer to these things in English.
Practical English Lessons
I think one of the most exciting things for me while learning Spanish has been being able to use the language in my daily life. Having yourself in the classroom as a native English speaker gives your students this same unique opportunity. Conversational lessons can be one way to incorporate this well, but teaching practical skills in English can go beyond simply asking students questions.
The best thing to remember in this resource guide about practical English is that just about any topic being studied in class can easily have real-world applications. To practice food vocabulary, have them design their dream menu and then act out a restaurant scene. If they are learning directions, have them tell you how to get to their favorite place in their town. If possible and with permission, you could even start a pen pal program with a class at one of your old schools to practice letter writing: this is a practical English assignment that would actually have an effect in the real world! When students build confidence in various practical interactions, their general conversational skills will improve as well.
Creativity is a Must for Students
Having just graduated from college when I started teaching (and therefore not having been too far removed from high school either), I remember how long the school day could feel. Often, the last thing that students want to do is sit through yet another lecture or complex project.
When I could tell that my students were restless, a creative lesson would be the most productive means of teaching. Mixing up the routine got students enthusiastic and less likely to drift away as the class went on. Students also enjoyed getting to use their language skills to do something other than taking notes.
Go-To Games: a Resource Guide
- Mad Libs: everyone, including me, seemed to be obsessed with these when I was in elementary school. The basic concept is that there is a story with blanks throughout it. Students select a word from a word class to complete the story without receiving any details of the story. Then, read the story with students’ word suggestions: it’ll likely make no sense! If a student has a high enough English level, they can then write their own Mad Lib. There are plenty of templates online, but you can write your own as well and cater them to specific lessons.
- Pictionary: another classic that can be played with any lesson. Divide students into teams, and give them words to draw. The rest of the team has to then guess what the student is drawing. If the student who is drawing’s team cannot guess correctly, the other team gets the chance to guess and win a point
Get Personal With Lessons
During conversational lessons, I would get excited when students started asking me questions about myself. To an extent, I was an open book with them: toward the end of the year, I even asked one of my older classes for opinions on houses my family had been looking at buying when we moved to New York. Having someone new and from a different country in the classroom is exciting for students, and in my experience, they were super curious about my life.
Even if you’re not willing to share a lot about your personal life with students, there are ways that you can use a personal touch to spark interest in conversational English. If you have a talent, share it with your classes. I often brought my ukulele to classes. If they completed lessons without problems, I would play them a song.
Grammar Lessons – a Resource Guide in Finding Structure
Have your students get personal in their speaking lessons too! During grammar lessons, I included writing assignments that incorporated the topic and always had students share something about themselves. Games like Two Truths and A Lie can also add structure to speaking lessons: have students think of three things about themselves, two of which are true and one which isn’t. Then, make the class guess what each lie is. By encouraging students to direct lessons toward their interests, conversations will happen more organically.
Final Thought For Our Resource Guide: Non-Bilingual Students
Most students I worked with were excited to have someone new in the classroom, especially from a different country! With a strong knowledge of what works–and doesn’t work–for your audience, tapping into your students’ curiosity to make the most of your time together will be simple. I hope this resource guide provided new opportunities for you and your students!