My top 10 ESL activities

I just got back from seven months as a teaching assistant at French public schools. While I was there, I spent many a long night scouring the internet for good ESL activities. I thought I could help save some future assistants some time, by putting all of my favourite activities together.

Please note I am not an ESL expert. This is solely my personal experience. I worked with a (mostly) charming group of 11 to 15 year-olds, so the activities listed below are geared to that age group.

The program that sent me to France is led by the French government and its designed to expose French students to native English speakers. If you’re interested in applying to it, you can find more information here.

1. Nursery Rhymes

Particularly with the younger classes, I noticed that they really loved hearing me say “eeny, meeny, miny, mo.” I taught this to them so they can chant along when I’m picking a student for whatever reason. I also made an activity where groups of three students would work together to memorize a nursery rhyme. Then, they translate the nursery rhyme into French. Hearing them sing ‘Brother John’ (which is based on ‘Frère Jacques’) was one of my favourite moments in the classroom.

2. Running Dictation

If you asked my students, I think this would be their favourite activity. I use it to teach songs or a long text. I split the class into groups of four. I taped different verses of a song or different sections of a text to the board at the front of the class. The students sit at the back of the class in their groups. There is one runner, one writer and two spellcheckers. The runner has to run to the text, memorize it and then run back and tell it to the writer. Each group does a different section of the text. The first group that copies their text with absolutely no spelling mistakes wins.

3. Yearbook

Yearbooks aren’t popular in France. My students had never heard of them. They loved learning about what school is like for kids their age in North America. I showed the students an example yearbook from Canada. Then, I got them to write little biographies about themselves yearbook-style. This became a full-blown yearbook with some of my classes.

4. Lucky Number 7

This is a short activity, but it’s effective for practising numbers. Each student has to say a number, starting from one, in order. When they get to seven, or a number that includes seven like 17, they have to say “lucky” before the number. If they forget to say lucky or if a student doesn’t say the right number in order, they are eliminated. I usually see how many students can make it to 100 and call them the winners.

5. Family Feud

This is great for practising question words. I wrote 5-10 easy questions on the board like “What is your favourite movie?” “How many brothers do you have?” The students all wrote down their answers secretly. Then, I took all of the answers and figured out what the most popular answer was to each question (ideally while the teacher lead another activity). Then, I split the class into two groups. The students had to guess what the most popular answer to each question was. They get a point for every answer they guess right. The team with the most points wins.

6. Thanksgiving Turkey Hand

thanksgiving turkey
Surprisingly one of my most popular activities! Clearly not based on my own artistic skills.

This is a very popular activity in North America and you can find examples online. Essentially, students trace their hands to make a turkey shape. Then, they write what they are thankful for on the turkey’s feathers.

7. Oronyms

This activity really gets the students thinking about vowel sounds. I divided the class into two teams. I put oronyms on the board (two words that sound similar, but are actually pronounced differently like ‘hit’ and ‘heat’). I say one of the two words. The teams have to guess which one I said. A representative from the team circles the word they think I said. Whichever team gets the most words right wins.

8. Guess the celebrity

This is another great activity to practise question words and an excuse to talk about pop culture, which my students always loved. I wrote down the basic information on five celebrities beforehand – date of birth, marriage status, nationality. I get the students to ask me questions about the celebrities and I write the questions and the answers on the board. They have to guess who the celebrity is. The student who gets it right wins. This can also be modified to talk about movies, although I found the students didn’t usually know the English names for the movies (Le seigneur des anneaux anyone?). You can also flip it and let one of the students come to the board, think of a celebrity and answer the others’ questions.

9. Simon Says

This is an obvious one to practice commands and body parts, but I found the younger students really enjoyed it. In the French school system, the students don’t get a lot of opportunities to leave their desks, so activities that get them moving can be quite effective.

10. Sentence Game

This can be modified to suit different age groups. For the older classes, you write down a verb and a tense on the board, like to sit + simple past tense. They work in two teams to make a sentence with at least five words using the proper verb and tense. The sentence has to be completely correct for them to get the point. For the younger classes, you can do a subject and a verb, like he + to be, to practise the present tense. You can also make it easier by only requiring three words instead of five.

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