Tag Archives: ESL

Ball Toss

This game has many variations. One variation I have used with great success is writing questions on a beach ball. I use a whiteboard marker to write on the ball, but let it dry thoroughly before class, so it doesn’t smudge but it can be washed clean and reused with different questions later.

Students gently toss the ball to one another and read aloud and answer the question under their right thumb. To make the activity more challenging, have Student A read/ask the question, and toss the ball to Student B. Student  B answers that question, then asks the question under their right thumb, and tosses the ball to Student C, who answers Student B’s question.

If it’s a “getting to know you” activity, use questions to elicit name, age, and basic information. Otherwise, it can be used to practice likes/dislikes, 5 W/H-questions, etc. It is quite a versatile activity and can be used with just about anything that you’re studying.

If you don’t have a ball handy, you can crumple up a piece of paper to use as a ball. Ask a question and toss the ball to a student. That student must answer and ask a question (the same question for true beginners or a related question, if higher level), then toss the “ball” to the next student.

If you want the students to ask different questions, you should give them a topic (daily routine, hobbies, etc.) or grammar pattern to use.
If you want to make sure all students have equal turns, have students sit down after catching the ball.

If you have more than 10-12 students in your class, you may want to divide them into groups, each with their own ball, so students aren’t waiting long periods between turns. This will also increase student talking time.

You can wrap up the activity by asking students questions about other students’ answers. Let students know before they begin that they need to listen closely to each other’s answers. This will make them more likely to pay attention between their own turns and, of course, provide additional listening and speaking practice.

Generally, this activity can be used with all ages. You can even use it with younger students as long as their ability is high enough to answer the questions. The same for class size: you can use it for larger classes, as long as their level is move advanced, simply because they will be better suited to working in small groups with less attention needed from you.

If you have a class of 30 beginners, you might want to simply toss the ball and ask a question, rather than require them to read it, and have each student repeat the same question as they toss the ball. After 10-12 students have asked and answered the same question, take the ball and toss it to a different student, asking a new question.

Name 5 Things

This is an excellent warm-up activity at the beginning of class to review vocabulary words from the previous class. Put students into pairs. They’ll need one piece of paper and one pen. Tell them to name five _____. The category will depend on the level and age of students.

For beginners, you could do easy things like animals, colors, fruits, etc. For higher-level students, you could use things that move, animals with four legs, things that can fly, breakfast foods, etc.

The first team to write down their five things raises their hands and you can check to make sure all the answers are appropriate. If you want to name one group a winner, you can choose the first group to finish or  the team with the most unique answers. Whether you want a “winner”or not, you can finish the activity by having each group share their answers.

Review Race


Do your students tend to look at each lesson as a discrete unit, forgetting that they are parts of a whole? This activity gets them using what they have learned. It’s a great warm-up activity; I’ve also used it before a test, both to boost their confidence and to give them one last bit of review time.

To play, divide students into groups of 4-5 and give each group at least one marker. If you are not using the whiteboard, also give each group one piece of A3 or butcher (sugar) paper. Set a time limit of 2-3 minutes to list all of the vocabulary words they can remember from the previous lesson. The shorter the time, the more they will have to be engaged and hustle.

With higher-level classes, you can have students add a synonym, antonym, or brief definition to increase the challenge. When time is up, the group with the most correct words wins. Easy peasy low prep activity!

Character Problems and Solutions

Character Solutions
I love to kill two birds with one stone, and this activity fits that bill. I use this as a post-reading activity to include in a novel study or use with a short story. Choose a problem a character faced in the story. Discuss the problem and how the character solved it.

Then, have your students brainstorm other ways the problem could have been dealt with. This is where the lesson does double duty with a sneaky grammar lesson. You can teach modals of regret (could/should/would have done, etc.) without getting too personal with your students.

If your students are lower level, you may want to begin with a complete grammar lesson with scaffolded practice, such as worksheets, for the students to get some more focused practice.

Vocabulary Brainstorm Race

"I remember everything!"
“I remember everything!”

This is an activity I like to use in the next lesson after introducing new vocabulary and definitions. To play, divide students into groups of 4-5 and give each group at least one Whiteboard marker. If you are not using the whiteboard, also give each group one piece of A3 or butcher paper. With some classes, I always use paper, or everyone will wait for everyone else to write their answers on the board. Kids. 🙂

I give students a time limit of 2-3 minutes to list all of the vocabulary words they can remember from the previous lesson. To create a sense of urgency and excitement, I play the Mission: Impossible music for the last 30 seconds or so. With higher-level classes, have students add a synonym, antonym, or brief definition. The group with the most correct words wins.

Scaffolded Writing Prompts


I have often been required to have students write beyond their actual level. The fastest way I’ve found to get them from where they are to where you are required to take them is to provide scaffolded writing prompts. The level of scaffolding will depend on their level and the level of writing expected.

For your lowest-level students, this will look a lot like MadLibs. You provide the bulk of the text and have your students make additions from choices you also provide. For test prep or more academic writing, you can provide example test essays with connectors and hedges removed, so they can practice using those correctly. For a greater challenge, you could provide the first sentence of each paragraph in an essay, and have the students complete the essay.

For a greater challenge, you could provide the first sentence of each paragraph in an essay, and have the students complete the essay.
A basic high-beginner scaffolded writing activity I do is give students a journal prompt with a mind map which I have started for them.

Depending on the prompt, I will create several lists on the mind map and fill in at least one example on each list. For example, for a narrative prompt, I may ask them to list five memories related to the topic. After listing five, they will then choose one and answer the basic 5W and H questions about that memory.  I may also include a list of useful words related to the topic.

Students begin by filling in their mind map, then write their journal. This helps them think through what they want to say and helps them create a cohesive, understandable journal entry.

I haven’t used this for poetry writing, but you can read about that here at the Writer’s Corner blog.

Part of Speech Review

Circle the nouns

Regular recycling of language and skills is vital to your students’ language development. To that end, you should periodically return to the basics including parts of speech.

Give the students several sentences and have them do one of the following: identify the part of speech of underlined words; circle (nouns/verbs/adjectives…); or add a word of the correct part of speech (fill in or multiple choice).

Scaffold with an example of the activity done correctly as well as examples of the part of speech being focused on, such as a list of 5-6 nouns they know.

For an example of this activity, using possessive pronouns, check this out. Of course, I love to use task cards for this activity, but I love task cards for just about everything.

Vocabulary Square

Vocabulary Square

Vocabulary Squares is a class activity which facilitates both self-study and dictionary skills. These days, my students seem to rely more and more on their electronic dictionaries or phone apps for translations and don’t develop their English- English dictionary skills. They also tend to not realize the benefits of flashcards for vocabulary self-study. Regular repetition of exposure to new words is necessary to commit them to working memory.

The reality is, regular repetition of exposure to new words is necessary to recognize them, much less commit them to working memory. Fortunately, for us, Vocabulary Square is an easy activity to set up. One lesson in advance, let students know they need to bring index cards with them. They will need one card per word, so you should already know how many words you want them to practice.

Vocabulary Square
Vocabulary Square


Begin by completing a few examples together,  “thinking” out loud to show students to restate the definitions in their own words rather than mindlessly copying them. A PowerPoint of a completed index card will also help students more easily understand the task. You could also draw an example on the whiteboard. Don’t forget to have some extra index cards or paper cut into eighths for those students who forget to bring their own.

Have students divide their index into four corners:
1. Write the meaning in their own words.
2. Write at least one synonym and one antonym.
3. Write an example sentence.
4. Draw an image representing the term.
Remind students to review the flashcards at least once a day.


I’m an Alien

I'm an Alien
Like most teachers, I love a no-prep, no-materials activity, and students generally enjoy this one. You begin class by telling the students you are an alien. The scenario is you landed just a few minutes earlier, right outside the school. Since you are new here, you don’t know a lot of words, and you need some help.

You can create a mission scenario, and elicit vocabulary that will help you. Maybe you want to send a letter telling your mother you have arrived safely. You can elicit pen, paper, stamp, envelope, post office. Maybe you need to meet someone in another part of the school, such as the cafeteria. You can elicit types of rooms in a school (hall, bathroom, library, etc.) as well as direction words.

The game can go on as long as you like– simply adjust the mission to the length of time. Once you have played the alien, you can have students work in small groups. One student will take the role of the alien and the rest of the group are helpful humans. If your students are lower level, it may be helpful to give them a card with a scenario.

Have you played I’m an Alien with your students? What is your go-to mission?



I know just about everyone has played telephone before, but sometimes you forget about the games you played as child, or don’t think of how familiar games can be repurposed for ESL. Telephone is a fun way to get students to listen carefully and make logical guesses to fill in any gaps.

To play, line your students up in two or more rows (teams) starting from the front and going to the back. The student at the front of each team is given a sentence.

You need to consider the level of the students carefully when choosing your sentence– make sure the lead students can all understand it really easily. It can work well to take something that you’ve been studying from the textbook and adjust it slightly. They whisper the sentence

The lead students whisper the sentence one time to the next student in their line. That student whispers it to the person in front of them, etc. The last person to hear the sentence must correctly state what they have heard. The team with the closest phrase is the winner.

You may need to explicitly forbid students from using their L1. It is usually pretty obvious if someone has translated along the way, because the ending sentence has the same meaning as the original but uses synonyms.

You can either give each group the same sentence or use different ones. I like to take the team leaders into the hall, give each a different sentence and allow them the chance to have it repeated before we begin. Then, the students return together and the game begins.

Keep the teams to about 8-10 students or fewer in order to increase speaking time. Remember that students will only say one sentence each per round. Remind students that even if they didn’t hear the sentence clearly, they need to make their best guess and tell something to the next person instead of nothing.