Teach Abroad

11 Essential ESL Teaching Tools

11 Essential ESL Teaching Tools

It’s a familiar situation: your empty suitcase is open on the floor and your room is a whirlwind. Sure, you've found your ideal teach abroad program and you've snagged your TEFL certification. Packing for travel can be tough, but what about when you’re planning for life abroad as an ESL teacher? What extra items should you bring along to ensure your classroom presence is a success?

Sometimes, your new school will supply you with all the materials you need. But if your school just provides textbooks, it’s up to you to bring in some flair. Luckily, teaching resources and tips abound. There are many things teachers regret not bringing from home, or that can’t be found online. Here’s a checklist of must-haves for your new ESL classroom.

1. Music

It’s the most surefire way to grab students’ attention. Check if your classroom has a way to play music, and then load up your phone or Spotify account with a classroom playlist, and perhaps pack a small bluetooth speaker if you have one on hand. When you first arrive, survey your students to find out their favorite songs or bands. You can use this information to find songs they’ll like that will teach different concepts. For instance, Bruno Mars’ “Count on Me” is a great way to practice “if” phrases in the 1st conditional tense.

Lesson plan idea: Music helps students practice listening comprehension, so pick a song and create worksheets with missing lyrics. Divide the class into teams and play the song a few times, giving them time to fill-in the missing words. Make sure to explain any special phrases - for instance, how “shoulda” really means “should have.” To add some competitive incentive, give a small prize to the group that gets the most words correct.

2. Videos

From celebrities to breaking news, visual images and recognizable faces draw us in. You can use video clips to introduce a lesson or as the entire day’s activity. Since over 70 percent of communication is non-verbal, videos help students learn and understand English through body language and facial expressions.

Lesson plan idea: For an activity on describing people, moods, and personalities, show several clips from famous movies - I recommend Pirates of the Caribbean, Ratatouille, and Harry Potter. Have each group brainstorm as many accurate adjectives as possible to describe the character and scene. This activity can help students to understand the subtleties between different words, like “angry” and “frustrated.”

3. Newspapers and Magazines

11 Essential ESL Teaching Tools: Newspapers and Magazines

Who says print is dead? If you’re teaching in a rural school or don’t have reliable internet access, articles from your home paper can come in handy. Pack up a copy of the The New York Times and make copies of articles once you arrive in-country.

Lesson plan idea: There are tons of useful activities involving newspapers and magazines, from creating collages and “mood” boards to holding debate competitions on timely topics and world events. If you do have internet connection, take advantage of captivating online slideshows like the Boston Globe’s “Big Picture”. A picture is worth a thousand words, and this slideshow can help you start conversations about current events and introduce new topics to your students.

4. Radio and Podcasts

Radio has been a popular teaching tool for decades, especially in rural areas where internet access is limited. Newscasters voices allow students to practice their listening skills and are generally easier for beginning students to understand. Podcasts can also be a great way to expose students to topical and timely matters, and you may even be able to find some that are designing for English Language Learners.

Lesson plan idea: “Information gathering” activities are popular for radio lessons. Have students order the sequences of events or write down answers to questions about the story’s content. If you have a recorder, allow students to create their own radio stories with a partner.

5. Menus

Before leaving home, take a trip around your town and pick up different take-out menus from coffee shops, diners, and restaurants.

Lesson plan idea: Learning how to order at a restaurant is a classic language-learning activity. Divide your class into groups and give them time to rehearse their dialogue and restaurant vocabulary. To spice things up, assign different scenarios for each group.

6. Stickers with English Phrases

11 Essential ESL Teaching Tools: Stickers

If you’re teaching small children, make sure to stock up on stickers before leaving home! A little competition in the ESL classroom is good, and you can hand out stickers to teams or individual students when they accomplish something epic or win a game.

7. Basic Arts and Crafts Supplies

Simple things like colored markers and construction paper can be life-savers, no matter what grade you’re teaching. Depending on your school, these luxuries might not be available, but you’ll likely be able to buy them in your local town or city.

Lesson plan idea: The ideas are endless. One great project is to have students teach you about their home country. Have each group create a poster representing their country’s culture and language. Each student will be in charge of presenting one topic, like slang phrases, food, or music.

8. Food

We're all curious about food from other countries, and your students will be no exception. Bring a couple packets of your favorite candy to hand out as rewards, or take photos of a home-cooked meal that you can show your class.

Lesson plan idea: Put a unique spin on the kid-favorite “Duck Duck Goose” game. Instead of using words for poultry, swap out with words for different types of food. Your students will giggle (“Milk...Milk….Cookies!”), increasing their likelihood of committing the terms to memory. Plus, it is an engaging game that serves as a good back up when you have downtime before the bell rings.

9. Another School

11 Essential ESL Teaching Tools: Another School

Interacting with a school from your hometown can actually be an amazing opportunity. Try arranging a pen-pal exchange between your ESL students and your home country. It will give your students a chance to practice English and make real connections with their foreign peers. Or, even better, create a blog and have each school upload photos and videos from their classrooms. Creating a partnership with a school abroad is a great way for your students to make connections with other cultures.

10. Tech 2.0 Tools

Right now, all around the world, we’re seeing the first generation of true “digital natives,” kids who are growing up with technology from a very young age. With iPads and other tech tools integrating into classrooms around the world, what better way to engage your students? Check out the British Council’s website for a variety of free podcasts, games, lesson plans, and tips on teaching children and teenagers.

11. A Solid Lesson Plan

At the end of the day, this is your ultimate tool. No matter how many props, videos, or songs you incorporate into your lessons, if you don’t have a smart way of using them then everything else will collapse. It’s wise to consider getting TEFL-certified which will give you a grounding in the best teaching practices. You will learn the finer points of English grammar and learn how to craft detailed lesson plans and resolve classroom conflicts.

Read more: How to Create the Perfect ESL Lesson Plan

When considering what resources to use when teaching abroad, think back to those language classes you took in high school or college. What activities put you to sleep, and which ones sparked your interest? Learning a language is far more than just remembering grammar. It’s learning about another culture and the world. No matter how young or old your students are, if you can make the lessons fun then you’ll keep their attention and really spark their curiosity for learning.

This post was originally published in September 2013, and it was updated in January 2021.