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How to Choose Useful Activities for ESL Classes

Updated on August 2, 2012

Does Your Class Look Like This?

Time to shake things up!
Time to shake things up! | Source

Are Your Learning Activities Working?

When you plan activities for your classroom, there are several considerations you need to make.

First and foremost, what will the students be able to do after doing this activity? That is to say, what are the educational goals or expected outcomes of the activity? There is nothing wrong with occasionally doing something simply because the students enjoy it, but don't fool yourself into thinking that word searches are educational tools.

Second, how does the aim of the activity fit in to the lesson overall? Tasks should add to the lesson in terms of the overall objectives of the lesson. For example, if you are introducing the students to past continuous, your activities should allow them to use that form more than, say, simple past.

Third, do the activities follow a rational order? In a traditional PPP (Present, Practice, Produce) lesson, students are introduced to the target language, then given guided practice tasks, and finally using the target language in a freer manner. So, you wouldn't want to start the students off with a discussion which requires the target language and then have them complete a pattern drill. Always move from more to less scaffolded in your lessons.

Developing a Lesson with Useful Activities

When you begin to plan your lessons with this order of tasks in mind you will see that your students respond positively. Being given the opportunity to first see your examples, then practice using the target language in a guided task themselves gives them a chance to build their confidence before being asked to produce the language themselves.

An additional benefit for you, the teacher, is that students will require less one-on-one assistance to complete tasks done in this sequence. If this is not how your course book is arranged, no problem! It's YOUR class. You can change the order of activities, cut out the useless ones (or assign them for homework, if you are required to use them all), and add ones which will be more effective.

So, What Does a Lesson with Useful Activities Look Like?

There are a number of lesson plan styles; here is an example of a PPP lesson:

Beginning a Lesson

Warm up: In this part of the lesson, you will activate the students' background knowledge on the topic, perhaps with some pictures and/ or questions to get them thinking (in English) about the subject matter being discussed in the lesson.

There is no language teaching here. This is the time to just get the students feeling comfortable and thinking about whatever useful vocabulary they may already know.

For example, if your lesson's target language is comparatives using animal vocabulary, you may begin with a review using flashcards of animals they already know.

Introduce the Target Language

Presentation: Once the students have been oriented to the topic of the lesson, you introduce the target language, whether it is grammar or vocabulary.

Be sure to keep it reasonable: a student may be able to memorize a list of new words, but if you are introducing more than 5-7 new terms at once, memorizing is all they are likely to be doing. Likewise for grammar: only introduce one new form per lesson. This will reduce confusion and give the students more time to focus on each form or vocabulary word.

Guided Practice

Practice: Once you have drawn the students' attention to the target language and given them lots of examples, it's time for the students to practice using the language in a guided way.

To go back to the example of comparatives with animals, you could have pictures of two animals and the students would have to write/ complete sentences comparing the two. These should be quite obvious, such as a giraffe and a horse to practice taller/ shorter, or an elephant and a mouse for bigger/ smaller.

Language Production

Production: Once the students are able to correctly use the target language in guided practice, it is time for them to produce the language more freely. This is where group/ pair work can be very useful.

The students are quite likely much better at speaking than writing. It is also likely that they are more interested in developing their speaking skills than their writing skills, unless they are in a writing class, of course!

So, with this in mind, the production activity should usually involve more speaking than writing. Notice I said "more"-- it can be quite helpful for the students to briefly jot down a few ideas for the speaking activity.

There are any number of tasks which can be used for production, the key is making sure the students use the target language. This is where clear guidelines, comprehension checks, and close monitoring come in.

To get back to our animal comparatives example, the students could each be given an animal flashcard. They could mingle around the classroom comparing theirs to their speaking partner's.

Wrap It Up With a Bow

Wrap-up: This is just the last few minutes of the lesson. At this time, the teacher should give some feedback in the form of error correction ("While you were mingling, I heard X, but actually we say Y") and elicit feedback from the students. If the teacher feels it is necessary, a final review of the target language could also be done at that time.

Putting It All Together

You can see from this example how each part of the lesson smoothly and logically flows from one activity to the next. The lesson goes from the students learning a new language item, then using it in a controlled way before using it more freely.

The goal should always be getting the students to use the language themselves. However, like riding a bike, first they need some training wheels. If you follow this method, it will pay dividends in your students' confidence and abilities.

If you are interested in how to stage a receptive skills (reading and listening) lesson, I will be writing that up in the very near future.


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    • Jenniferteacher profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Seoul

      I haven't faced any discrimination, but I've been here forever, so I haven't taught in a hagwon in a while. Oddly enough, things seem to have become much more EOE over here despite the current glut of teachers compared to ten years ago when teachers basically couldn't get fired because there was no one to replace them. At that time, it was rare to see white-haired and/ or non-Caucasian teachers, but there are plenty these days.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      This is a little off topic, but I saw your profile. And I read that you're 40+. Did you receive any discrimination you think when you applied for a job in Korea?

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      That's a funny picture. I always took yawning as a tip to change something that I am doing in the classroom.


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