Making the transition to teaching ESL/EFL online can be challenging, especially if you’re working with young learners where we know physical contact and interactive play are key to the learning.
In this blog we’ve put together a list of the 12 no-prep/low-prep ESL/EFL activities that we’ve been using successfully with our primary learners. We hope they’ll be of benefit to anyone looking for extra ideas and inspiration, as they get to grips with teaching ESL/EFL online.
We’ve added links at the end of the article for those looking specifically for free training or technology tools for teaching ESL/EFL online.
1. Show and Tell
Ask children to bring a favourite item to share in the next class session, e.g. toy, something they’ve made, picture they’ve drawn, photo, book, video game. With older children you can specify object/experience/book/film and ask them to write a short piece about it ahead of class. They then take turns to show their item, describe it and tell the group why they chose it. Obviously with younger children you can prompt them and suggest descriptive words like colours, size, shape, etc. You can also use the opportunity to introduce other vocabulary, such as prepositions of place, e.g. My teddy is on the table. Show and Tell is a fun way to practise and improve speaking and listening skills, build confidence and connect with peers in new ways.
2. Scavenger Hunt
This can work in so many ways, depending on the age of your groups. With very young learners it can be as simple as sending them off to find something by colour, shape, quantity or size. We Are Teachers has some super ideas.
With older learners you can increase the challenge by giving them a list of things to find or creating riddles or clues for the items you want them to find. Ask them to take photos of the items that are not moveable! You can also create digital scavenger hunts, where learners scan resources online for the information they need to complete the hunt. There are many pre-made scavenger hunts available online, if you don’t have time to create your own, for example Education World.
This can be played in the traditional way, where children take turns to choose an object visible to them and other players (i.e. on the screen): I-Spy with my little eye, something beginning with (initial letter). The child to correctly guess the item takes the next turn. (Younger children, who don’t yet know the letter names, can use colours instead of letters.) To focus on specific vocabulary, you can display an image with the items in it (or email the picture to children ahead of the lesson). For older students there are some great online ‘Hidden Objects’ games, for example Hidden Pictures.
4. Treasure Box
We often use this in class as a way to make vocabulary learning more fun, but it can be easily adapted for online classes too. The more exotic the box the better! Simply put flashcards or objects in the box and slowly reveal them, one at a time, for children to name and describe. Having a glamorous puppet assistant makes this even more fun! For older children you can have several items in the box and students can ask yes/no questions to try and guess what the mystery items are. Children also enjoy creating their own boxes at home, with treasures inside, to test the others in the group.
5. Wear and Share
This is similar to Show and Tell but involves dressing up – and who doesn’t love dressing up! Ahead of the class, ask children to wear their favourite (hat, scarf, T-shirt…) and the class can guess the items and describe them. Older children can find a photo or magazine image of, for example, a favourite fashion outfit to share and describe. Ask them to give reasons for their choices.
You can create and send Bingo boards to your students ahead of the class, using words, pictures or a combination of both for your chosen topic. Alternatively, ask children to create their own boards beforehand. Children love taking turns to be ‘the caller’. The boards can be reused multiple times if the students use pieces of paper/counters/pasta to cover the squares!
7. Fortune Tellers/Cootie Catchers
These are great fun to use with younger learners to practise basic vocabulary, like colours and numbers. For older children, they can be topic-focused and include more in-depth questions to improve speaking and listening skills. Email the templates ahead of the class. Children can use pre-made templates or create their own. Here are three free sheets from Osito ESL to get you started.
Action songs and rhymes work well whether in the classroom or online and are one of the best ways for young learners to learn and remember vocabulary and phrases. If your singing skills are as bad as ours, use online resources to back you up! Our favourite YouTube channels for fun English songs include: Oxford University Press ELT (songs), Maple Leaf Learning, Super Simple Songs, Easy ESL Games, The Singing Walrus and Fun Kids English.
9. Spot the Difference
Either by displaying two pictures on your screen, or emailing them ahead of the class, children enjoy the challenge of spotting the differences. With younger learners, you’ll need to pre-teach the key vocabulary they need to describe their findings (such as size, quantities, colours, etc). Older students can use chunks to share their findings, e.g. On the left there’s a _____, but on the right there are _____. Here are two free sheets from Osito ESL to get you started.
10. Story Time
Online lessons provide a great opportunity to share picture books with your young learners. They will really enjoy listening as you tell them a story. Encourage them to interact with you and discuss the pictures and characters. Top 10 books for very young ESL/EFL learners and recommended picture books for older learners. Many of these books have free activities/colouring sheets available if you search online, which can be emailed for a fun homework task. Students might enjoy creating their own picture books to share with each other too!
11. Simon Says
Once they can recall most of the words in a topic set, i.e. transport, use them to play a game of ‘Simon Says…’. For example, ‘Simon Says … ride a bike / sail a boat / drive a car…’. Children repeat the words and do the actions (unless you don’t say ‘Simon Says…’). They can sit down if they are ‘out’ and help monitor the rest of the class. Play until you are left with one winner. Alternatively, the class can play against you, so each time they are correct they win a point and each time they make a mistake, you get a point. This action game works well with most vocabulary sets, for example:
Clothes: Simon Says put on your hat / shoes / coat / gloves, etc.
Food: Simon Says eat an ice-cream / hamburger / yoghurt / pizza, etc.
Animals: Simon Says be an elephant / snake / monkey / crocodile, etc.
12. Flashcard Games
Flashcards can be used to create an endless variety of games to play when teaching ESL/EFL online to young learners. Use them to introduce, practise, recycle and extend vocabulary in fun ways. Read our blog for more ideas on using flashcards effectively with young learners in the classroom, online and at home.
We hope these ideas are beneficial, as you learn to master teaching ESL/EFL online. If you’ve had success with other activities and games with young learners, please share them in the comments below. Let’s support each other as we learn and develop skills together.
Teaching ESL/EFL online – training and technology tools
Future Learn has free online courses for teachers, including How to teach English online.
UNESCO has published an updated list of educational applications, platforms and resources to help parents, teachers, schools and school administrators facilitate student learning and provide social care and interaction during periods of school closure.
TeachingEnglish – British Council has a free booklet, to help you develop your digital literacy and learn about online platforms and tools.
FluentU 10 English Teacher Apps for the 21st-Century Teacher, including the immensely popular game-based learning app Kahoot.
An Ultimate Guide This is a really helpful blog covering the best equipment, props, and resources online teachers can benefit from when setting up at home.