My Favorite Lessons for Low-Level ESL Students, Part II

Today, I’m back with a few more of my favorite lessons and activities for low-level high school ESL students. I’ve only been teaching for a little over two years, so I am by no means an expert at this, but these have been some of my most successful activities; some of the classes that end with students smiling and still talking about the lesson even as I leave the class, or the ones that have really helped improve students’ speaking skills.

  1. Two-Sentence Stories

This activity focuses on: speaking, pronunciation, and vocabulary or grammar (if you choose).

How to play: (10 to 20 minutes)

  1. Write one or two short, silly stories that are each two sentences in length. I try to aim for between 30 and 60 words per story, depending on students’ levels. If you have vocabulary or grammar that you want students to practice, add those words and expressions into the story!! Add a picture to each story to help with understanding. And underline the last word in each story.
  2. Explain that students will read the first story aloud with a partner. However, they have to read in turns. Each person can choose to read 1, 2, or 3 words per turn. The person who says the last word in the story (the underlined word) is the loser!!
  3. Demonstrate with your fellow teacher / with a higher-level student. (This helps students to understand the game, plus it is funny for them to watch.)
  4. If necessary, read the story aloud slowly a second time so students can note pronunciation.
  5. Students find a partner. They rock-paper-scissors to see which partner speaks first.
  6. Students read the story aloud in turns, only saying 1, 2, or 3 words at a time (their choice!). For example, say the first line of a story is “Santa Claus ate a lot of cake and ice cream over the last year, so he has gotten too big for his red Santa suit.” If Student A says “Santa Claus,” then Student B could say “ate” or “ate a” or “ate a lot” and so on.
  7. The student who says the last word (underlined) loses, and writes an X on their paper. The student who wins writes an O on their paper. Both students find a new partner and repeat.
  8. Students should generally play the game 3 or 4 times per story (each time with new partners). After they play with partners 2 or 3 times, tell them to make groups and play! It adds a new dynamic if three or four people are playing!

Why this works: the game is breaking down a chunk of text into 1 – 3 word increments. It’s less intimidating for students who dread speaking aloud. Plus, the challenge aspect (don’t say the underlined word!) adds some fun to speaking. It’s a more interesting way of having students repeatedly pronounce a paragraph / vocabulary words over and over again.

Note: I often use this activity as a warm-up for holidays! It’s a good way of sneaking Christmas / Halloween / summer vocabulary into use. It’s also a good activity for English clubs. After 20 minutes of them reading stories aloud with each other, you can challenge them to write their own two sentence stories!

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My Favorite Lessons for Low-Level ESL Students, Part I

I work at 4 low-level high schools here in Japan, and in the first few months of my time here, I really struggled to come up with lessons that work for low-level (low-English and low-motivation) students. Looking back, I’m a little embarrassed by the lessons that I first cooked up—most were simply way beyond my students’ comprehension and interest.

You see, prior to the JET Program, my teaching experience had been limited to 6 months of teaching high-level college students in France, many of whom could hold a decent conversation on politics if you coerced them… and then I arrived in Ibaraki to find classes of students who struggled to write their name in English letters and didn’t care about much beyond music, friends, and sports. It was quite the learning curve.

Online resources were helpful, but a lot of basic ESL lessons are made with elementary students in mind. Singing “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” with a class of 40 bored teenagers…. well, you can probably imagine their reactions.

So here are a few of my all-time favorite lessons and activities that have worked in my various low-level schools. For any current or future ESL teachers, perhaps this will be of interest!

  1. Where’s Wally? (for Americans, Where’s Waldo?)

This lesson focuses on: listening (part I), writing (part II), grammar

How to Play PART I, about 20 minutes

  1. Split students into pairs. Have them sit together. Give each pair a LAMINATED A-3 sized Where’s Wally picture (with their team number written in the corner). I use Where’s Wally at the Beach. You can easily find pictures online.
  2. Explain that you will describe people in the picture. Students have to find the person you are describing. When they find the person, one student from each pair will bring their Where’s Wally picture to the teacher and show them.
  3. The first 5 pairs to find the correct person will win a point for their team. Announce that the question is finished and point out the person you described. Then, describe a new person, and repeat. I have 15 – 20 questions for each picture.
  4. The grammar rule I use is attributive verbs. Examples of the questions I ask include: “Where is the man wearing 12 hats?” “Where is the woman taking a picture?” and “Where is the person buried in the sand?” It’s possible to use the game for other grammar rules though—for example, for present progressive, you could rephrase questions like “A man is wearing 12 hats. Where is he?”

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