Quick Lesson Ideas for Desperate Teaching Assistants (and Other ESL Teachers, Too)

“So… what does the curriculum look like?”

“I’m not really in charge of English.”

“Oh. Who is?”

“Well, you.”

This was the gist of the conversation I had on my first day of work at one of the French elementary schools I taught at. I know an assistant who once arrived at her school to find that no one was expecting her or even knew who she was, so I guess I should be glad I had any conversation at all.

The TAPIF program coordinators strive to provide support for assistants and evaluate the enthusiasm of participating schools, but for a variety of reasons you can expect your role to be neither clear nor consistent with that of other assistants. Many language assistants find themselves having to decide whether they want to be passive, relying on their school to furnish them with classroom tasks (which may never really happen), or active, taking the initiative to fill the creative void left by teachers who don’t want or know how to work with a foreign language assistant. Assistants who choose the former may find themselves feeling useless and bored; those who choose the latter may feel taken advantage of.

There’s not much that assistants or students can gain from passivity, but it can be hard to estimate the amount of time you’ll have with the students or how much their teachers will practice the concepts you introduce. I may post some more detailed lesson ideas at some point, but you can find just a few bare-bones springboard ideas for various age groups below, including university ESL students/adults (all of these can be adapted to accommodate most concepts you’re trying to teach, and adjusted across age groups, as the most advanced students won’t always be the oldest students and the beginners won’t always be the youngest). Many are back-pocket activities that you can stretch or shrink to fit the amount of time you’ve got (carry materials for them at all times in case a lesson you spent hours planning dies a quick and painful death). Note that I can’t take full credit for all of these– I usually get activity inspiration from blogs, websites, coworkers, former teachers, and my own childhood– but they’ve all become go-tos in my classroom.

École maternelle and école primaire (kindergarten and elementary school): 

-Put students into teams and have them organize their bodies into the shapes of letters and numbers on the floor (which is hilaaaaaarious) (for younger kids).

-Simon Says is always a BIG hit (teach them 3-5 actions at a time, call them out progressively faster, and let a kid be Simon for a while to mix things up) (for younger kids).

-Make a stack of colored strips to give to each kid, and have them hold up correct colors when you call them out, or rank their favorites (for younger kids).

-Read storybooks with lovely big pictures that you can question the kids about (ask them to identify colors, shapes, animals, emotions, etc.). Make sure you know how to explain some of the more difficult sentences, or write yourself an alternative version of the story that uses only very simple English (option for older kids: have them draw and write a page for the story themselves and then present it to the class before reading the real ending).

-Put the kids into two teams and scatter some vocabulary image tiles (animals, foods, objects, vehicles, colors, letters, weather, etc.) on the floor, then call each term out loud and have two kids from each team race to grab the right tile.

-Teach them a song with some dance moves (mine loved “I’m a Little Teapot,” and the steaming-teapot dance move I taught them was pretty much the cutest thing I’ve ever seen) (for younger kids).

-Find a storybook with a refrain and have the kids chant along with you, or assign them each a section to practice and recite. One very helpful teacher made cut-outs of the animals and the mitten from The Mitten (picture book by Jan Brett) and we had the kids put the animals in the mitten as they recited a refrain from the book.

-Card games like Go Fish (for older kids).

Collège and lycée (middle and high school): 

-Write a longish sentence on sheets of paper that can’t be seen by any of the students from their desks, split them into pairs, and have each student take a turn running up to their sheet, reading the sentence to themselves, and running back to dictate it to their teammate, with no raised voices allowed (they will probably have to run back and forth a few times, which just makes this funnier for everyone), with the winning team being the first to have a 100% accurate copy of the sentence (this is also a surprisingly fun game for adults).

-Write prepositions/prepositional phrases on post-its and have the kids stick them to things that make the phrases true (for example, a post-it reading “under” would be stuck on the underside of a desk).

-Break students into small groups and have them create, draw, and present a superhero, describing costume, powers, weaknesses, etc.

-Have one student leave the room while the other students change five things, and when he/she returns he/she must state what has changed (this one’s good for adult beginners as well).

-Put an almost-obnoxious amount of vocabulary words and and their definitions on separate post-it notes and stick two sets to the board, then have student teams race to match them all.

-Give the students two choices, one assigned to either side of the room, and have them choose a side and explain their preference (for example, dogs vs. cats, mountains vs. beach, winter vs. summer, etc.).

University students and adults:

-Have them write and perform their own news broadcasts (this is more of a long project than a one-off game, obviously).

-Have them make written or video travel guides (a long project best for advanced students).

-Put an idiom on the board, split the students into groups, and have each group create a definition for it that they think could be correct or that they just think is funny, then collect all the definitions and write them AND the actual definition on the board. Each team votes for the one they think is real (similar to the game Balderdash).

-Have them create their own infomercials (more of a longer project).

-Have students write an alternate script for a silenced movie scene and then record their voices over the scene (kind of like the Bad Lip Reading videos on Youtube) (more of a longer project).

-Break students into pairs and have one student describe a silenced movie scene to the other WHILE the scene plays and their partner blindly takes notes (MUCH harder than it sounds, students are challenged by this but ultimately have a lot of fun).

-Use cartoons, online videos, short articles, and podcasts to facilitate class conversation, interviews, or worksheet completion (xkcd, The Atlantic shorts, Mental Floss, and Humans of New York for example).

-Print these puppies out (for advanced groups you’re REALLY comfortable with).

-Assign students a character and give them multi-round shipwreck scenarios– each round, students vote a fellow classmate off of the “deserted island/raft” after each student does his or her best to convince everyone why their character should get to stay on the deserted island/raft given the scenario (for advanced groups).

-Play Mafia/Werewolf/Murder. There are many variations to this conversation-based game, but ultimately it boils down to choosing one or two students to be secret killers who eliminate their classmates one by one while the rest of the class tries to catch them (the conversation comes out of students having to describe how they met their mysterious demise, accuse others, and give alibis when accused by their classmates).

-Regular Pictionary for beginner students, Telephone Pictionary for more advanced students.

All of the above:

-Give presentations to your class on American traditions and holidays (obviously the depth of the presentation will depend on the English level of your students). Topic examples: Thanksgiving (make sure to talk about the Presidential Turkey Pardon, football, and the food), prom, school spirit, the college application process, and current events and issues in the U.S. (soaring cost of education, education inequality, police brutality, public transportation, the idea of the American Dream, etc.)

-Play Jeopardy (category examples: American Trivia, British/American translations, Idioms, and Pronunciation).

-Give them lists of tongue twisters or phrases practicing minimal pairs (“Betty bought a batch of bitter butter,” for example) to practice out loud.

-Have them create a sport (the restrictions you place on this can vary by language level).

-Debates (a good way to get topic ideas and introductions is via documentary trailers– for example, “How to Die in Oregon” to introduce a “death with dignity”/right to die debate).

-Write word/definition pairs across the whole board, split the students into teams, and have one student from each team come up and try to hit the matches for the words/definitions you call out with a fly swatter (don’t try this with rowdy classes or someone might end up putting an eye out).

-Analyze song lyrics.

-Create a scavenger hunt with fun clues and prizes (if you have free run of a campus or can set students loose on a neighborhood excursion).


matching INFERNO


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