Useful Time-filling Activities in the ESL Classroom


Teaching English Can Be Challenging

The nature of being an ESL teacher comes with it inherent challenges not associated with teachers of other subjects. The “barrier” that can exist between students and teachers envelops much more than language – but also cultural and social differences. The core curriculum for ESL classes themselves can be difficult to adhere to, as well as keep pace with what was originally planned – it must be flexible in some ways to be truly effective. As with any subject – but with ESL classes especially because of “barriers” – the minds of the students will begin to wander under the sheer amount of information they must process, and especially the amount of time they have been studying intently. This is where “time-filling” activities should be implemented that not only stimulate the students’ want to learn, but are also informative and useful to both students and teachers in speaking, writing, communications, as well as shedding light on important things such as different cultural or social norms while abroad.

Student Participation is Key

There are various exercises a teacher can do to teach and command attention simultaneously, while allowing students to enjoy the experience. For practical reasons, these exercises can also be used to educate the teacher about their students simultaneously – making the overall learning process much easier. In fact, when teaching an ESL class abroad, these “time-fillers” can prove to be one of the most important factors determining how the teachers connect with their students. These exercises can immensely help an instructor become more informed about the society and culture of their students.

The nature of the individual activities also depends on the age of the children being taught. If the exercises are either above or below the age-group of the students, they will be infinitely less engaged and the exercise will be a failure. The idea of these exercises is to seemingly give the students a break from traditional learning – giving them a break, but continuing to stimulate their minds. For example, there are a few very simple activities that work very well with children in this respect. First, break students into small groups of three or four. If age-appropriate, allow the students to choose their own group members. The group dynamic is very important in this respect because it forces students to speak English to each other while allowing them a larger opportunity to grow. Just splitting students into groups allows the opportunity to do things such as delegating questions, or smaller subjects to individual groups. For example, group one would do questions 1-3, while group two does numbers 4 and 5, and so on. Make each group explain their questions or subjects to the class out loud, adding or correcting where necessary.

Once the students are in groups, activities become limitless. A very useful activity that students will enjoy is a “game show” type of atmosphere; this creates a natural want to excel and participate by way of competition. An easy way to do this is to read a question aloud (good things to use in an ESL classroom are vocabulary words), and simply call on the first hand in the air to answer the question–allow a small amount of time for group deliberation to foster social skills in the English language. A good prize to award is a few extra points on the next test or quiz for the winning team, and perhaps a couple for second place as well. Make sure the children are not dejected by losing, but instead motivated to do their best next time.

The groups of children can be switched as frequently as the teacher likes, but it is favorable to keep the same groups together for extended periods of time. This ensures the students will become more comfortable with their direct group members–fostering sociability in students that may be quiet by nature. A great way to foster not only ESL learning, but also social skills and creativity, is the story activity. It is also very easy to implement, needing nothing besides a pen and paper. One group member starts with a couple sheets of paper, and begins to write a story. At regular intervals of time, the story is passed between group members, forcing students’ to pick up where their group member left off, even if it is mid-sentence. This will improve the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of the students in a fun and creative way.

Very often these stories end up being funny, with a few different minds working towards a story, often they stray very far from the original paragraph, and sometimes make no sense at all by the end. Obviously this is not the point of the writing exercise, so the subject matters very little. Perhaps the most important “time-filling exercise” is forcing the students to read these stories out loud. Not only does this take the student away from their own comfort zone, it fosters public speaking skills in a place the student is least likely to be self-conscious and comfortable amongst peers.

Finally, the stories themselves are an exercise for the teacher as well. Listen intently to students, better yet, collect the stories while paying very close attention to patterns in subject matter, dialogue, as well as actual content. This is useful for the teacher abroad because it can illuminate parts of a society or culture that it is helpful for the teacher to know. Due to the creative nature of the story exercise, the embedded values and morals of the larger society will be reflected within. This can then be used by the teacher to better understand their students, fostering a relationship much more conducive for learning.

Teaching ESL abroad is a very challenging, but a rewarding career opportunity. Both students and teachers benefit from the experience. By implementing simple “time-filling” activities in the classroom, students learn more effectively, and teachers become more efficient – symbiotic and interlocked as only an ESL classroom could be.




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