My 5 Favorite ESL Activities For High School

I have found many ESL games and sample lesson plans through my extensive online searching; however, many of them are catered towards the primary and middle school levels and I struggled to come up with things that would keep a bunch of rowdy fifteen-year-olds entertained. I couldn’t exactly break out the Red Rover and Heads-Up Seven-Up.

Here are the most productive and engaging activities I have used with my students, ages 14 to 17, première to terminale.

1. Scattergories

I have used this game for all that its worth. 

Seriously, because I had so many classes and only saw certain ones every two weeks or so, I made this game last for about two months. It’s also a game that can be adapted for all levels, so it’s like the Holy Grail of ESL activities. 

The rules are pretty simple. Think of some categories, make a blank chart, and then pick a letter. H was my favorite letter to use because it’s practically nonexistent for them. They would all groan and go “no Alleh, pleazze. Itzz too difficult.”

No, my name is Haley, not Alleh. That is why we are doing this.

While it’s a vocab exercise, it also feels like a competition. Adding a timer and a few interesting rules (2 points for writing an original answer like crocodile instead of the other 10 groups who put cat) keeps the students interested. Sometimes I played this at the end of class, but I’ve also made it go on for almost an hour.

An hour of Scattergories?? Second language classes don’t move as fast as others, so activities always tend to take twice the amount of time you think they will.

Though I will admit, I don’t ever want to play Scattergories again for a very, very long time.

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2. Share Your Culture

You’re about as familiar to them as the fuzzy Ewoks from Endor. The only thing my students knew about Americans came from pop culture movies and those blasted (but of course sometimes true) stereotypes.

No we aren’t all rich, yes fraternities do exist, no I don’t ride a horse, yes I do own cowboy boots, no I don’t actually eat McDonalds every day (the French are hypocrites. They like it more than Americans do!) . . . the list goes on and on. 

I talked about the Texas State Fair, showed them some of my favorite American bands, and described recipes for the craziest foods (donut burgers, anyone??) At the start of the year I had them fill out a blank map of the United States. Some of the answers were mildly entertaining, but most of them knew nothing other than California and Florida. After that they would put Mexico and Canada. (They drew those in, they weren’t even on the map.)

“How many states are in the United States?”

“52!! 48!! 17!!”

Come on, really? 17??

Sharing your culture doesn’t even feel like an actual lesson plan. It’s fun, interesting, and they’ll finally get information from a source other than Mean Girls.

3. Listening Comprehension (a.k.a. movie time!)

Usually movie time means the professor just doesn’t want to teach that day. Which yeah, is true, but when you’re teaching to a bunch of kids in a second language, it’s really just like any other lesson plan. Usually I’ll make guides to go with the film because, while their listening skills aren’t bad, I don’t talk to them as fast as they do in films. 

However, listening skills and lesson plans aside, it’s still a great way to immerse them in English. This year we have been working on the 1985 film The Goonies. It’s old enough that only one or two of my students have seen it and strange enough with pirates, buried treasure, and car chases to keep their attention. Plus, I get paid to watch The Goonies and then discuss it, so I’m excited every time I put it on.

Pick a movie you won’t get tired of though, especially if you’re going to have to watch the same 30 minutes four or five times in one day.

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4. American versus British English

I’m used to getting a lot of blank stares. Heck, I do it back to them, so it’s just a never-ending cycle of confusion.

But I would get blank stares even when I thought I was using words they would know. Turns out they do know the words, I was just using lingo from the other side of the pond. Duh.

I made a list of the American words I used regularly and their British equivalent. Many examples included: elevator instead of lift, French fries instead of chips, and ‘I saw a movie’ instead of ‘I saw a film’ . . . you can do anything with this. There are so many things Americans say differently.

My students loved this. “Now you can speak the cooler, better English,” I’d say. They all just laugh.

5. Short Dialogues

Basically, it’s an easy (and sometimes amusing) way to get your students to talk through role-playing. Even though, I’ll admit I hated my teachers whenever they decided to throw this at me. Oh well. Now I understand. 

In groups, have them pick a conversation topic from a list of examples and create a dialogue. Some of them even came up with their own topics, which was fine by me.

Since many of my students tend to nit-pick for hours and hound me with intricate translation questions, I had them present at the end of class to put on the pressure. Focus on what you can say rather than what you can’t. And I’ve had a lot of luck with this, with all of my levels.

Some of the topics cover getting lost in the countryside, discussing what movie you would like to see, who’s turn is it to wash the dishes, which teacher at school is your favorite (or not), and even asking your boyfriend/girlfriend to marry you. That one has gotten many laughs.

What are some ESL activities that have worked well for you?

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