ESL exercises are the core of every English lesson. Every teacher has a rich portfolio of their favourite go-to activities, some requiring no prep, others demanding as much behind-the-scenes preparation as it takes to perform them in the classroom.
But the thing with relying on only a handful of exercises is that they get old pretty quickly. It’s a part of every English teacher’s job to go every once in a while into the trouble of searching the web in order to expand their exercises database.
Most of us don’t get paid for it, which is annoying, so to save you some of the hassle we’ve compiled this list of the most effective activities that will take only a little time to prepare for.
Level: A2 and above
Prep time: 30 seconds to grab the dice
What you’ll need: 2-10 dice pieces
1. Divide the class into groups of 2-5 people.
2. Instruct each person to create a list of 6 random words. Tell them to number them 1 to 6. Each student should then have their own list of unique words.
3. Distribute the dice to all groups.
Note: Each group should have at least 1 dice piece, however, I found it easier for students to have more dice per group.
Variation 1: duel
4. Two people throw the dice and enter a duel. For example Student A threw 4 which is ‘4. Ice cream’ on her list, whereas Student B threw 2 which is ‘2. Airplane’ on his list.
5. Now each person needs to create a scenario that involves both words, i.e. I never ate ice cream on an airplane!, I once was eating ice cream and a plane flew and scared me and I dropped it!
6. This could be enough or the whole group could vote on the best answer which would encourage students to be more creative.
Variation 2: story
4. The whole group casts the dice and then they have to create a story from all the words they got.
5. Next, all groups present their stories to the rest of the class. In my experience, due to the randomness of the words, most of the stories end up quite hilarious and students have a lot of fun during this exercise.
Variation 3: link
4. Only two students cast the dice, however the whole group participates.
For example, the words drawn are ‘animal’ and ‘house’.
5. Now the whole group has to figure out a one-word connection between these two i.e. ‘pet’ or ‘nest’ or ‘jungle’.
Note: Some connections might be so vague that they will require an explanation from the author which encourages conversation.
Level: A1 and above
This one’s great for reviewing vocabulary in an incredibly fun way.
Prep time: unclear
What you’ll need: a bunch of cheap white t-shirts, one for each student. White board makers.
1. Distribute the white t-shirts and ask your students to put them on.
2. Give your students the markers and tell them to write the vocabulary they’ve recently learned on their friends. As much as possible of course.
3. At the end do a ‘fashion catwalk’ presentation of their new Ts.
Level: A1 and above
What you’ll need: 1 sticky ball
1. Draw a large circle on the black board. Next draw 2 or 3 smaller circles inside, creating a crude version of the ‘dart board’.
2. Toss the sticky ball to one student and ask them a question (perhaps one relating to the lesson).
I.e. What’s a synonym to ‘fantastic’?
3. If student answers correctly they get to throw the sticky ball at the board and see how many points they score.
Write down their name and score on the board next to the circles and toss the ball to the next student.
Level: A1 and above
This one is great to practice vocabulary.
Prep time: 5 mins, make the crown.
What you’ll need: crown for the king. Best made from 2 pieces of yellow paper taped together. Use your own head for measurement reference.
1. First, ask your students to come to the blackboard (all at once) and write as much vocabulary words as possible. The whole board filled with words is perfect.
2. Second, set up 2 chairs facing away from the board.
3. Pick one student to become the King. Sit them down on one of the chairs and put the crown on their head.
4. Now ask Who wants to challenge the King? Pick one person and position them on the other chair, next to the King.
5. Stand behind them and point to one word.
6. The rest of the class gives the two students suggestions as to what this word is.
If the King is the first one to guess the Challenger leaves and someone else takes their place
If the Challenger guesses 2 words in a row they become the new King.
Level: A2 and above
This is a very effective exercise to get your students talking. While it does work on the Upper Beginner level, I find it the most effective for the higher levels.
Prep time: 5-10 min to find and print out the pictures.
What you need: a handful of pictures
For this to work best you need to divide students into a handful of (precisely measured) groups.
Start with the Leaders Group, these should be your most extroverted and gregarious pupils.
1. Ask them all to form one group and stand on the side, waiting for further instructions.
2. Then move the desks and chairs around to arrange a precise number of ‘Speaking Stations’ around the classroom. The number of Stations corresponds with the number of students in the Leaders Group.
3. Each member of the Leaders Group will position themselves at their own Speaking Station behind the desk.
Next, arrange the rest of the class into pairs or groups of 3 (but not more than that!)
So for example if your classroom has 21 students then:
Leaders Group: 7 people
Speaking Stations: 7
7 pairs of students
If the classroom is 12 people then:
Leaders Group: 4
Speaking Stations: 4
4 pairs of students
1. Give each Leader one photo as they sit at their station. On the other side of the desk there should be two chairs for the pairs to sit, facing the leader.
2. Instruct all pairs to go and sit at one of the stations.
3. Put 3-5 minutes on the timer, in that time the Leader is going to ask them questions about their photo and the pairs will answer the questions.
Note: It should look a lot like a speaking test which was the inspiration for this exercise.
4. After 3-5 min tell the pairs to switch stations. Best to rotate all pairs one station to the right or left, otherwise it will be hard to keep track of them.
5. Do this until every pair had a chance to speak to every Leader.
Note: I found it helpful to change the photos Leaders have to make it more engaging for them.
Level: B1 and above
Prep time: 2 min, preload the links (below) before the lesson.
What you’ll need: clips from various famous films. Computer and projector.
1. Put your students into pairs. One person will always be facing the screen, the other will face the opposite direction. Make sure that the latter have no way of seeing what’s on the screen.
2. Play the clips without sound.
3. The student seeing the screen is describing what’s happening on the screen.
Note: They aren’t supposed to give away any names or definitive clues but simply describe the action of the clip.
4. The other student listens to their partner’s description and tries to guess the movie.
First pair to guess gets 1 point.
Harry Potter: http://bit.ly/2wBYivC (Harry vs Draco duel)
Pirates of the Caribbean: http://bit.ly/2EQR0sr (opening scene)
Jurassic Park: http://bit.ly/2WcEfOv (first dinosaur sighting)
Incredibles 2: http://bit.ly/316Mlfh (Jack Jack vs Raccoon)
Shrek 2: http://bit.ly/2MpRkEF (Shrek turns human)
Avengers: http://bit.ly/2JRmWRm (Thor finds Loki)
Terminator 2: http://bit.ly/316Mort (T-800 vs T-1000)
Level: B1 and above
Simple idea but students absolutely love it.
Prep time: 15 min
What you need: small paper slips with countries’ names. As many as possible!
1. Put them into groups.
2. Shuffle the paper slips on a flat surface in the middle of the classroom.
3. One team representative goes to the front and has 2 minutes to score as many countries as possible. The country is scored when their team guesses the name of the country.
4. Everything is allowed: explaining, drawing, miming – except mentioning the name of the country as a noun or an adjective, i.e. England, English.
Note: to make it more fun, add some ‘fake’ countries in the mix such as: Narnia, Mordor, Mars, the Internet, Atlantis, Shire, Matrix, Westeros, Antarctica, etc.
Example of 65 Countries:
England, Scotland, Ireland, China, Japan, Italy, France, USA, Canada, North Korea, Australia, Egypt, South Korea, Germany, Spain, Brazil, Mexico, Vatican, Russia, Mongolia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore, Indonasia, Papua New Guinea, South Africa, Congo, Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Jamaica, Cuba, Bermuda, Caribbean, Monaco, Poland, Czechia, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, India, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, South Sudan, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Kazakhstan, Greece, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Morocco, Portugal, Chile, Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, Panama, Venezuela.
Level: B2 and above
This exercise is based on the ever so popular TV program the Shark Tank. The original show features a panel of business moguls (the Sharks) who patiently listen to presentations by aspiring entrepreneurs of their million dollar ideas. If any of the Sharks likes a particular idea they may decide to invest their money into it.
Adopting this as an ESL exercise will enable your students to practice giving convincing presentations as well as giving feedback.
Prep time: 5-10 min to make fake money
What you’ll need: fake money
1. Put students into groups. Provide a general theme: making an exhibition, organising an event, creating a new product, futuristic technology, making a film, etc.
2. Assign distinct roles to each group member, for example, in the case of making a film:
The Producer – responsible for organising the shoot
The Director – responsible for the film, how it looks and for work with the actors
The Writer – responsible for the story and characters
Animator/Music Composer/Special Effects – responsible for the final look of the project
Note: this should take at least 10 minutes with every group preparing for presenting their idea. Begin the Shark Tank exercise only when every group is well prepared.
3. After the groups are all ready arrange the desks so that you have long rows of desks (like a press conference panel), or if that’s too tricky then at least rows of chairs.
Note: Numbers of rows should be half of the number of groups. So if you have 4 groups then arrange 2 rows. If you have 8 groups then arrange 4 rows.
What’s important in the roles is that everyone has their own part of the project they can focus on.
4. Now one group of students will sit at the rows acting as the Sharks while the other will stand in front of them presenting their idea. The Sharks all have money (limited amount each) which they may or may not grant to the presenting team.
5. After that they’ll swap roles.The groups who have initially presented their ideas can now retaliate by being Sharks while the first sharks will present their ideas.
6. In the end the group with the most amount of money wins.
Note: make sure that the students understand to ask specific questions to specific roles. For instance to the producer: How much would it cost? What locations will you use? etc.
Level: B1 and above
This game is hugely popular among my students of B1 level and above. Generally, the higher the level the more engaged the students tend to be. I once prepared for only 20 min, however students liked it so much we ended up playing it for the entirety of the 90 min lesson.
Prep time: 10 mins.
What you’ll need: Prepare a lot of identical slips of paper (100 is a safe number). Write 6-10 words AND THEIR DEFINITIONS from the lists below on the slips, keep the rest blank. Make sure to keep the definitions as simple and general as possible.
1. Divide the class into groups of 2-4 students.
2. Distribute the stacks of blank paper slips amongst the groups.
3. Pick one word from your pile, i.e.
(shouting out loud when someone’s angry)
4. Write this word on the board.
5. Instruct the groups to come up with their own definitions for this word. If you only have 2-4 groups playing I found it more exciting if each group comes up with 2 definitions.
6. Collect all definitions from the students, add the real one and shuffle the paper slips.
7. Read out loud all the definitions. (TIP: keep a poker face at all time and repeat the word before each definition).
8. Now the groups vote on which definition they think is correct. They do it by writing the chosen definition on YET ANOTHER slip of paper. This game really doesn’t work if you let them vote out loud.
9. Collect the votes and read them out loud.
10. Award the points.
You get 2 points if another team voted for your definitions.
You get 1 point if you’ve voted for the correct definition.
Level: B2 and above
Prep time: 30 seconds to grab the deck of cards (+5 mins to write the rules on the board)
What you’ll need: Deck of cards (or even better – two)
1. Put students into groups of minimum 4 people. I found 6 or 7 to be the perfect number for this game.
2. Instruct the groups to cut many small slips of blank paper and write any vocabulary words – 1 per slip of paper. This is perfect to review the vocabulary from the previous lessons.
3. While your students are busy with the cutting and words, write the game rules (clearly) on the board. (alternatively you can use our downloadable resources at the bottom of this article).
2 – SYNONYMS (give 2 synonyms to your word)
3 – DEFINITION (define the word)
4 – ASSOCIATIONS (provide 4 words that associate with the one you drew)
5 – DEFINE OR DANCE (choose between either defining the word or doing a short dance)
6 – PARTY (explain the word in the context of a party)
7 – HEAVEN – everybody points towards heaven (the last person needs to say the definition)
8 – MATE (choose a friend to copy everything you do)
9 – FOOD (explain the word in the context of food)
10 – COUNT (you have to count from 10 to 1 while the rest is trying to disturb you, if you fail you must define the word)
Jack – PICK A DIFFERENT WORD (you may choose to define the word you picked or draw another word and define that one instead)
Queen – I’M A QUEEEEN (you don’t have to do anything until the next queen comes up)
King – BOW TO KING (from now on everyone before doing anything must first bow to the King)
Ace – EVERYBODY DEFINES (everybody says the word definition at the same time)
Note: These are all subject to change depending on your esl needs.
1. The first person picks a word from the pile of vocabulary.
2. Next, they pick a card to see their action.
3. They perform the action as indicated by the card.
4. The next person picks another word.
The used cards go to the used cards pile (expect current Queen and King cards)
Note: it’s better if students draw their cards (vocab and deck) only when it’s their turn.
8 – MATE card is valid for the entire game, whoever is chosen to be somebody’s mate has to do everything their primary is doing; if their primary is currently a Queen they still have to do the actions even though the Queen doesn’t have to. Someone’s MATE can have their own MATE, there’s no limit here.