5 Creative New Ways to Teach English as a Second Language

As a volunteer ESL instructor and tutor, my methods have frequently been grounded in traditional worksheet and conversation exercises. Often, my older students are working towards dual fluency in English and technology, while my younger students are “native users” of computers and smartphones. English mastery—and more importantly, confidence—is still built on a solid foundation of speaking, speaking, speaking, but I relish the opportunity to introduce technology into my lessons.

Why? Well, it shakes things up and adds to the fun! Most significantly, using technology can help bridge demographic gaps between students and target the classroom work and skill acquisition I value: personally customized instruction, engaging group work, and lessons that keep the class on-track.

Here we’ve collected some ideas that add energy, current events, and technological fluency into the mix for ESL students.

Image used under Flickr Creative Commons 2.0 by presidioofmonterey

Image used under Flickr Creative Commons 2.0 by presidioofmonterey

1. Learning Through TED Talks

Many conversational scenarios in the ESL classroom rely on common sense conversational set-ups: asking for directions or introducing oneself and giving pertinent biographical details.

TED, through its new partnership with National Geographic and Cengage Learning, provides learning scenarios that do something more: encourage students to discuss ideas. The three organizations have teamed up to design three different curricula that address basic language skills, reading (including charts and graphics), and business English. Combining online materials and complementary workbooks, the programs foster the same skills as traditional instruction, including grammar, listening, speaking, and writing.

However, these programs look beyond the classroom setting to engage students with the world itself. For instance, in these cool examples, a talk about an interspecies internet gets turned into a lesson on naming the senses, and students can brainstorm their own ideas about community engagement after being inspired by stories of TED talkers doing the same. All in all, the TED approach reminds us that English language learning is a 24/7 practice, and is not restricted to nuts and bolts.

2. Pocketing Learning With Targeted Language Apps Like Duolingo

The benefits of using apps to teach ESL are manifold. For one thing, many of them are free, and for another, a number of your students already own a smartphone: they’re carrying around a portable learning tool and they don’t even know it!

Of course, there are many apps vying for the “Best Language Learning App” crown—of these, Duolingo is currently the one with the most buzz. Racking up an astounding 20 million active users since its launch, the app relies on a set of game-like lessons that “unlock” new skills in a series of escalating difficulty. The app also gathers data about users as they go, assessing their patterns of error and acquisition. In an interesting twist, it crowd sources translations—that’s how the service remains free. With some promising studies that reveal users completing a college semester’s worth of coursework in a speedy 34 hours, Duolingo appears to be more than just a fad—it dangles real incentives to keep logging on.

Recently, Duolingo launched Duolingo Schools, which offers the potential for ESL instructors to track the data on their students in real time via a dashboard. While not a substitute for a full curriculum, the free program can be assigned as homework or extra credit to particularly invested students.

3. Using Social Media…For Good

According to the IACP Center for Social Media, a mind-boggling 1.3 billion active users check Facebook on a daily basis. And Twitter? 2012 stats record an average of 175 million tweets per day. There’s no doubt that social media is a global phenomena that touches on all countries and languages. Make this work for your students.

We’ve already noted that social media can be a great tool for creating classroom community and avenues of communication. In my own ESL classrooms, one of my favorite daily icebreaker lessons is a simple “Idiom of the Day” lesson. Adding in popular social media and texting acronyms like “GTG” and “BTW” is an amusing way to create a relaxed atmosphere and solicit input from students on what they’ve been noticing (or puzzled by) in interactions with English-speaking friends and family.

If you like to address technology fluency with language fluency in your lesson plans, setting up a simple blogging interface can help with typing and web skills, all while crafting basic phrases or longer paragraphs related to writing prompts. In addition, drafting emails and instant messages blends verbal with written language, providing real-world writing application.

4. Smartboards Are a Smart Choice.

In a setting where ESL students may feel inhibited about speaking up or being called on—sometimes lacking the “right” words—interactive blackboards allow for pointing, drawing, and much more. They are a great solution to inject vitality and teamwork into games and exercises that involve matching, such as grouping verb tenses or parts of speech. I like Smartboards both for groupwork—using teams, for example—and because they prove more stimulating than rote memorization and repetition.

Unlike a traditional whiteboard, smartboards allow you, the teacher, to track responses and learning. Not to mention, syncing your lessons with images, sound clips, and video clips is a great way to model pronunciation, inflection, and real life language scenarios. The boards are also multisensory, incorporating touch, sound, and visual elements—a magic combination that has been shown to increase retention by up to 38%.

5. Utilize online library and reading tools

The internet can be one giant text, if you let it, and lots of savvy sites exist to provide quality interactive content for ELL. This is a perfect opportunity to target autonomous classroom work as well. Young learners can read free, animated stories at Story Time For Me. Intermediate and advanced readers can listen and read along for free to a range of stories and short reports, while another site, Voxy, prides itself on delivering relevant reading choices (i.e. not “The banana is on the table”) tailored to each learner.

Using the internet as a vocabulary building tool is also an effective strategy. An online picture dictionary delivers the perfect place to explore, while sparing use of Google Translate can be a good spot for your students to check their own work or satisfy their curiosity. Of course, as with any translation tool, you’ll want to emphasize that Translate cannot possibly express the many nuances of human speech.

In Short

It can be almost dizzying to keep up with the new resources that continuously flood the technology marketplace, but we’ve uncovered some good resources that compile useful and peer-approved ESL teaching tools. Edudemic also reviews great apps so you don’t have to—check back here for the latest and greatest!


  1. XDuceInfotech

    February 17, 2015 at 1:42 am

    Great blog!! Thank you :)

  2. Deborah Lynn

    February 19, 2015 at 12:00 pm

    Similar to #1, my ESL students have also enjoyed and and found success using NPR audio to build their listening and speaking skills. http://listencurrent.com/lessons is a terrific resource for this.

  3. Chun Tan

    February 25, 2015 at 3:23 am

    The article is very nice. I was looking for such type of information about learning English. It’ll help the students to score well. I’m Also a teacher of H1 economics Tuition and I think student were going to have a good deal to gain from this article.

  4. Mary Jenkins

    February 26, 2015 at 6:50 pm

    The articles are what I needed as a Mentor teacher.