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One of My Favorite ESL Activities

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If you’ve been teaching for any amount of time, you have probably run into that class that you just weren’t prepared for. Either you got behind in prep or you didn’t have any book, and your mind was blank. I’ve been there and I’ve spent countless hours scouring the web and coming up with some ESL activity that looked great, but in the end, just didn’t pan out.

I’ve spent the last 20 years plus sweating in front of students and trying out all sorts of ideas that either flipped or flopped, so you don’t have to. I’m sorting through my treasure trove of exciting and fun ESL activities and sharing them with all of my fellow teachers. Let’s start with my personal favorite.

Class English Level: Intermediate on up. Size: groups of 3 to 5

Never Fail Great Class Activity

I personally have never had this one fail on me. There have been countless other classes that sometimes worked and sometimes did not. I put intermediate for the level because of the grammar involved. You might be able to do this with a lower level class, but you will just have to work on correcting their grammar a little more.

If you are in a pinch, this can also be a great ice-breaker. It really warms them up and gets them talking but if they don’t really know each other, you might want to stay away from this ESL activity. I usually used this in adult classes.

When Was the Last Time You…? (the Set-Up)

I usually find a student who is pretty good under pressure and maybe a little more fluent than the others as my guinea pig. You simply ask them a question like this, “When was the last time you used a cell phone?” Usually, they will answer right before class or they may even blush and sheepishly say during class. You then proceed to ask them the following questions:

  • Was it a personal or business call?
  • How long was the call?
  • How long do you usually talk on the phone?
  • What’s the longest call you’ve ever made?
  • What’s the shortest call you’ve ever made?
  • And on and on until you think you have given enough examples.

When was the last time you…?

Now you write that phrase on the board and proceed to go around the room asking students to give you general actions that people do regularly. I then write those on the board as the students give them to me until I have a good list. Here are some good sample questions: (Try to correct their grammar if they say the question incorrectly)

  • made someone laugh/ laughed out loud
  • made someone angry/ got angry
  • cried/ made someone cry
  • went shopping
  • read a book
  • shook someone’s hand
  • watched a movie
  • went drinking
  • told a lie/ were lied to

Now you want to break them into groups and have them take turns asking each student in the small group one of these questions. Depending on the group, you might have to do more modeling for them or give them some ideas before they break into groups. For example, you can tell Billy to ask Sue the opening question. “When was the last time you read a book?” Then Jimmy asks, “What was it about?” Marie then might ask, “How many books do you read a month?” They can continue around the group depending on the size for a couple of rotations, so everyone has a chance to ask at least one or two questions based on the lead, “When was the last time you…?”

Extensions for This Idea

You can also extend this lesson by having students report back on things they learned about their partner. Also, depending on the level of the class, you might want to have them review Wh- questions the day before or you can do a quick review before this activity.

There are other extensions that I can’t think of at the moment. If you use this and have any ideas on a variation, please leave yours in the comment section below.

Make This part of Your ESL Activity Book

Another thing I started doing was keeping a book with all of my surefire classes and ideas that could go with certain chapters of the book I was teaching. This one is great because all you really need is a whiteboard and you are set. Other classes might need a handout or a cheat sheet for yourself to remember the steps of the activity. It is always nice to have that on hand if you are in a pinch.

This ESL Activity is great to review certain question forms, verb tenses, and just as an all around activity that keeps them talking. I hope all of your ESL classes are fun and educational. If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comment section below.

And always remember, Teaching English is Fun!


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4 thoughts on “One of My Favorite ESL Activities

  1. This is a great idea! I am substituting for an English class for the first time in a long time. I was looking for a way to connect with kids when I came across this activity. I can see how this ESL activity will get the kids talking and how it will allow me to connect with children. And since I am going to be in this class for a while, I feel like it is essential that I make that connection. Do you have any other advice for an ESL newbie?

    1. I will definitely look through my book of ESL Activities and find something just for you. I think I have a really great one that can be adapted to many different situations and English levels. Check back in another couple of days and I will have it posted. It is a mixture of roleplay and ESL discussion that can fit a high or low-level class and it’s fun!
      Thank you for the comments and good luck in your ESL class!

  2. This is a great activity – one format, but endless variations based on the action that is being discussed. I taught English overseas for a year in my twenties; I wish I had thought of something like this back then!

    My niece is going to start teaching ESL this semester and I’m sure she’ll be looking for activities, so I’ll pass this along to her – thanks.

    1. Pass this one along and tell her to check back here often. My aim is to post at least 3 times a week with all that I have learned over the last 20 years. I am not working over there now but I thought it was high time I wrote everything down before I forget it all.
      And thanks for the kind comments. I know that I spent all my free time searching for and creating ideas. I’ll have a great one out in another day or so. If your niece has any questions before she starts teaching, have her post them here and I’ll answer them on my site.


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