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!

  1. Speed Dating

This lesson focuses on: speaking, listening for information, question structures, a little writing.

How to play (full 50 minute lesson):

  1. Give students the worksheet. Tell students to fill in their worksheet with ANY answer they like…. EXCEPT the truth. So they can’t write their own name, they can’t write that they are 17 years old, they can’t write that they live in Ibaraki, Japan. They have to be creative!
  2. Demonstrate with your fellow teacher, or with a high-level student (give them a worksheet that already has answers filled in, if demonstrating with a student!)
  3. For the demonstration – Teacher A asks a question: “May I ask your name?” and Teacher B answers, “My name is Anpanman.” Teacher B follows up with the same question, “May I ask your name?” and Teacher A responds: “My name is Beyoncé!” then Teacher A moves on to the next question, “Where do you live?” It’s a back-and-forth conversation where both parties reveal their answers before moving on to the next question.
  4. Give students 10 – 15 minutes to fill in their new profiles. Walk around and help them come up with answers (Do you want to live in Tokyo? Okinawa? Korea? Hawaii?”) (“Do you want to be 25 years old? 100 years old? 3 years old?”).
  5. After students have finished – Have students get into pairs, desks facing each other. Explain that you will give them 2 minutes to ask each other as many questions as they can. Remind them that this is back and forth questioning – they should NOT have one student ask all the questions first, then switch. Remind them that this is ONLY SPEAKING. NO WRITING.
  6. After the 2 minutes, tell everyone to stop. They have to flip over their worksheet and write down all the information that they remember about their partner. NO SPEAKING, ONLY WRITING. Give them 1 minute to do this.
  7. Now, have everyone switch partners. This is speed dating, after al! Repeat steps 5 and 6.
  8. The goal is that students can speed date 3 to 6 times before class ends. This way, they are practicing asking all the questions and saying their answers over and over again until they become familiar question/answer structures.

Why this works: Students can be so amazingly creative in their profiles. I’ve had students who wrote that they were 100,000 years old, living on Neptune, and they were the President of Neptune. I’ve had students who claimed they were Nemo, 3 years old, living in the sea, and their job was a sushi chef. I’ve had students who named themselves Leaf, they lived in the forest, and their hobby was “being in sun.” It’s a really fun lesson for classes who like each other, who like to talk to each other, and who are creative.

Warning: this lesson works really well in my more motivated classes, and it kind of bombs in my difficult classes. This probably isn’t a great lesson for students who are difficult to control or hate English with every bone in their body.

  1. Number Games

This activity focuses on: numbers — listening (part I), speaking and listening (part II), speaking (part III)

How to play, Part I (10 minutes)

  1. Students are in pairs, desks together. Give each pair a set of number cards (numbers 1 – 10).
  2. Explain the game: you will read out the numbers in a certain order. Students must listen carefully and arrange the number cards in the order said.
  3. Give an easy example : 3,5,2,1,8. Students must listen and move the number cards on their desks to make 3 – 5 – 2 – 1 – 8.
  4. Now, read out a set of all 10 numbers, relatively fast. (Example: 5,1,8,9,3,6,4,10,2,7) Students listen carefully and arrange the numbers. You will probably have to read the numbers out 2 or 3 times until students are confident they have the numbers in the correct order.
  5. Ask for a volunteer pair who is confident they have the numbers. One student of the pair reads their numbers aloud (in English) and the other student in the pair writes the numbers on the blackboard, so the whole class can check the answer.
  6. Repeat steps 4 and 5. I usually do it five times.

How to play, Part II (about 10 – 15 minutes)

  1. Students stay in their pairs, and they keep their set of number cards.
  2. Explain how to read big numbers in English – for example 210,587. Practice with the class.
  3. In each pair – give one student Number List A, and the other student Number List B. They cannot show their partner. These Number Lists each have 10 numbers listed, starting small (519) and ending large (183,465).
  4. Student A reads the first number on their list (ex—519) aloud. Student B then uses the number cards to arrange 5 – 1 – 9 on their desk to make 519.
  5. Then, Student B reads the first number on their list (ex—107) aloud, and Student A uses the number cards to arrange 10 – 7 on their desk to make 107.
  6. In their pairs, students keep switching, reading numbers aloud to each other and arranging number cards until they have both finished their lists.

How to play, Part III “The Price is Right” (about 20 – 30 minutes)

  1. Students are in groups of 4 people. Give each group a letter (ex- team A, team B, etc.)
  2. Explain that you will hold up a picture of something students can buy. In their groups, students must guess how much the item costs. The team closest to the real price (WITHOUT going over) wins a point for their team. Exact guesses – win 2 points.
  3. Show a picture of an item (for example – Nike sneakers)
  4. Each group guesses a price aloud and a teacher writes their guess on the board under their team letter. OR, if you have too many groups, one student from each group goes to the front and writes their guess on the board under their team letter. All guesses must be different.
  5. After all teams have a guessed price written down, reveal the real price of the Nike sneakers (9,890 yen!). Give points.
  6. Repeat with a new picture.
  7. Items that work well for me – Nike sneakers, Sony headphones, a soccer ball, a Harujuku strawberry crepe, a pack of 10 colorful Pilot pens, two tickets to a local movie theater, a bullet train ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto, a large Domino’s pizza. Look some items up on Amazon for prices!

Why this works: Part I is a good little listening challenge and students love the competition. Part II is the real speaking practice, but students seem to like the tactile component of moving the numbers, so it runs smoothly. And Part III is the game, and students love trying to guess the prices of different things. It’s fun for everyone, especially when students are so far off. Bonus educational points – high school students are generally unaware of how much things cost, so they guess way too low for things like a bullet train ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto, and they are amazed at the real price.

Warnings: For Part III “The Price is Right,” choose items that aren’t easy to find priced online. Some students cheat and use smartphones to look up the prices. I used to use the new iphone 7, 32GB as one of the items, but teams would google it and guess the exact price. And since all teams’ guesses have to be different, the other teams wouldn’t try for that round, because anything they guessed would be wrong.

  1. Quick Recognition Board Games

This activity focuses on: speaking, quick recognition vocabulary (like time or numbers or dates)

How to play (about 15 minutes)

  1. Get students into groups of about 3 or 4.
  2. Give each group a board game and a foreign coin. Tell every student to find a game piece of some sort (small erasers, or even just a small scrap of paper with their initials on it works)
  3. Explain the game and Heads/Tails (I drew coins on the board to demonstrate). If the student flips Heads, then they move forward 3 spaces on the board. If they flip Tails, they move forward 1 space. When they land on a space, they must read the thing aloud. (For example – with Telling Time Board Game, they must read the time aloud. “It’s 11:30.” Or “It’s 5:42”). Then the student passes the coin to the next student.
  4. BUT, if a student reads something aloud incorrectly, or if they take too long (30 seconds or so) they have to go back to the Start space! (Other team members will be the judge if it is incorrect or not).
  5. The first person to reach Finish wins the game! Easy, and the students start saying these quick recognition vocabulary much faster.

Why this works: It’s a board game! It’s easy to understand and the competition makes students more eager to play.

Notes: I use this board game format to practice – DATES (put 11/20/2017 so students have to read “November 20th, 2017” aloud), BIG NUMBERS (put 150,000 on the board, so students have to read “one hundred fifty thousand,” aloud), and TIME (put clocks on the board, like in the picture).

Yep, those were 4 more of my favorite lessons / activities. I probably won’t make a Part III unless people request it. I just came back from Ibaraki’s annual SDC (Skills and Development Conference), which is what sparked the motivation to share more of my lessons in the first place.

For my fellow low-level high school ESL teachers, I hope this helps! And I encourage you to share your lesson ideas too!


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