The use of technology in the ESL class can be a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, it can be incredibly useful. It can make the teacher’s life a whole lot easier and make the students happy as they often love anything techy.
But on the other hand, it can be a pain in the neck. Things don’t quite link up, computers fail to cooperate or the really fancy app you have used at home with ease just doesn’t work on the school’s computer system.
Then there is the curse of modern-day ESL classes — the Smartphone.
They can be great in the class when used well and efficiently.
Terrible when the students are just staring absent-mindedly at their screens ignoring everything you are trying to do.
That said, the benefits of the correct use of tech in the class are clear.
The students have a higher motivation to learn and are much more engaged. So if used in the right way, technology can be a great asset to the ESL teacher.
Technology can encourage independent learning. The students start to find out things by themselves via the use of apps and the internet.
And technology can save a ton of time for you in the classroom.
There might be some fear from older teachers in using technology but generally, you can ask the students to help. You will find they know how to use whatever app or piece of equipment you are trying to fire up.
In fact, you can make this part of your English lesson.
For example, How to use Skype in the classroom could become a lesson plan in its own right.
In the following pages, I have outlined some ways that technology can be used in your class today.
Become familiar with it and start using it.
Any time you give your students the chance to watch a movie in class they will love you for it.
Be careful how often you pull this out as a lesson plan though. It is often used by hungover teachers as a last resort when they have nothing else planned. Or as an excuse to just sit back while the whole class watches Transformers 6 for the nth time.
That said, if done right, you can use video to your advantage in the ESL classroom.
I wrote a great article about how to study English by watching movies just here. Please take the time to look and see how to use movies for studying English.
There is also a ton of movie lessons available on the internet.
I found the following sites that have movie lesson plans that you can use in conjunction with a movie you have watched in class.
Lessons on Movies – this is a great resource that uses dozens of movies. You will easily find a movie that resonates with all your students here. Then go through the exercises. Really great stuff in my opinion.
ESL PartyTown – there are a few lesson plans on movies here too. Well thought out questions for class discussions. Plus some listening and vocabulary exercises.
As with all lesson plans though, it is best to make your own.
Find a movie that all your class wants to watch and create the plan from there.
You can follow some of the activities I outlined in my article here or create your own vocabulary and listening exercises based on the movie the class chooses.
If done well a movie lesson plan can be great.
You will need a projector that you can hook up to your computer. Make sure you have the movie file downloaded too — no point in a movie class without the movie.
And VLC is a great media player where you can turn subtitles on or off — or delay them altogether. You can also slow the speed of the movie down so students can follow dialogue more carefully.
Lots of great documentaries to use in your lessons.
Virtual Field Trips
Virtual Field Trips are becoming extremely popular in all classrooms now and are an absolute goldmine for the ESL teacher.
The use of real locations and realia is a great exercise in any English class but also requires that you leave the class and take all your students somewhere to do it.
This can be difficult if you have a stubborn headmaster who refuses to let you leave the class and also to monitor a large class of teenagers all running amok in the local supermarket as you go through the vocabulary for fruit and vegetables.
There are now sites that you can use to recreate any environment you need for your class.
For example, using the supermarket lesson idea, I found this site that features a 360° photograph of a supermarket in New York.
Imagine you are teaching a class full of teenagers in Korea and you are able to take them to a supermarket in New York.
But there are also panoramic sites of cities too.
Visit London – this is a site I found where you can do a complete virtual tour of London.
You can then click on one of the landmark sites and see inside the building.
I clicked on The Royal Albert Hall and found myself inside the great music hall.
Google Earth and Google Maps can be used to great effect in any ESL class. On Google Maps you can use the little orange man and place him wherever you would like to be. You are immediately transported to a virtual view of that exact location.
In a few seconds, I placed myself in this bustling street in Hong Kong.
If used correctly this is a great resource and can really captivate the entire class.
You could devote an entire class to looking at one particular city or place, providing real views of that location. This can be much better than the same old boring — and often out-of-date — pictures in many ESL books.
Many overseas students love to know about their foreign English teacher’s hometown.
What better way than by using Google Earth and Google Maps?
Take them on a real tour of your own town. Take them to the street where you grew up.
Listening comprehension lessons can be dull as a rock.
This is mostly in part because of the tired old cassette recordings that many ESL teachers are forced to use in their classes. Recordings that seemed to be made when Reagan was still president.
The conversations are fake and they all seem to use that same, tired old ESL English.
Completely unrealistic and uninspiring.
Fortunately, we live in an age where there are thousands of podcasts to listen to online.
There are many podcast hosts to be found. Here is a short list to start with:
With some podcast hosts, you have to download their app to use it. This can be quite clunky at times (Hello iTunes) but there seems to be no way around this.
There are also podcasts strictly designed for the ESL class. Such as:
Podcasts in English The podcasts are free on this site but for an additional fee, you can get all the worksheets and exercises added.
Then there are all of these sites too:
This American Life Features on real-life Americana. The podcast explores different American lives with real Americans. Great for coming to terms with different American accents and life in America in general.
Global News – BBC This is produced by the BBC World Service. This is a podcast of global news and the presenters all speak with the standard cut-glass British BBC accent. This is especially useful for beginner students who need to hear a standard English accent.
NPR NPR is a public radio network that features the news and other programmes. Some of their content is available on podcasts.
Of course, you cannot just go into class and press play on any old podcast and expect the students to listen.
It has to be part of a designed lesson plan.
Prepare what you want the students to listen to and create exercises around that to help them.
Another great way to use podcasts in the class is to make a podcast with the students. This could be in the form of interviews or a radio show. You could create a news program or a weather report.
It can be a lot of fun for the students to do and even better if you can share your finished podcast with another class for listening practice.
Virtual Pen Pals
How many times have your students been asked to write an imaginary letter?
This is a common exercise found in ESL books.
Imagine you are writing a letter to the man in the article above.
What would you say?
How could you write it?
It often fails because the student has no idea how to place themselves in the context. They are removed from it because they are not writing about themselves or anything about their own life.
And because they are not writing to a real person.
The letter is just imaginary.
So why not let them find a real pen pal online?
There are now many sites to link students and help them communicate with each other online.
Check out the following:
All of the sites have filtering systems so you can block out any unwanted visitors. Essential if you are teaching in a middle school or high school.
But apart from filtering what age range, you can also select countries and subjects you are interested in.
The students can then connect with online pen pals and start writing to each other.
This is great for practising both their reading and writing skills.
When I was at school our French teacher went to great pains to find a sister school in France for all of the students to write letters to. We sent our letters off then had to wait a couple of weeks until we got a reply and then responded to that.
It was a good experience but rather slow.
I think having a pen pal that you can connect with via email is much faster and more convenient.
Make use of one of the sites above and see how it works out for your class.
WebQuests are very popular in education today.
This is an inquiry-based activity, done in groups usually and in the classroom, to collect information on a determined subject by the teacher.
Quite often if students have to do any kind of research it is usually a case of them gathering a pile of information to read and then throwing it all up onto paper.
Dull and no fun at all.
With WebQuests, the students are more engaged with the subject matter as they have to explore the topic at hand and find out answers to problems. There is a bit of detective work and fishing for the right answers.
It is more creative and so becomes more fun for the students.
This is a great site to find and create your own WebQuests for your English class.
Take a look at this example from their website on the topic of Homelessness.
The introduction gives a clear mission for the students to fulfil. They have to ask the public and return with feedback to the class.
I have done some lessons on the topic of homelessness but I didn’t have this at hand at the time. I wish I did. Usually, any serious topic, such as the plight of the homeless, is often covered in a very simple and shallow way in ESL books.
WebQuest is a great resource for allowing the students to do their own research and get into the topic at a much deeper level.
Most of the time ESL teachers are desperately trying to get their students to not play games in class on their Smartphone.
So imagine their faces when you tell them that the next class they will do exactly that.
And then imagine their relief when they find it’s not another one-hour session playing Hangman.
There are many games that can be utilised in the ESL classroom and I am going to outline the best ones and where to find them.
The most obvious game to play in the class is Scrabble.
This is a very standard board game where players have to come up with words from an assortment of given letters. The rules vary somewhat but generally speaking any English word is allowed as long as it appears in the dictionary.
The game is only for four players so you can’t really bring the board game into class and let only four of your students play while the rest gaze on. But there are online versions available.
You can separate your class into teams and play that way.
Check out these sites for online Scrabble:
Ideally, you would need a projector or a large screen to show the online game to the entire class.
Another thing you could do is elect one or two students to check all the teams’ words using a dictionary.
GrammarUp is a game to test students English grammar.
You can set up the game for your students and then you assign them exercises to do. They can do this individually or in teams.
The thing you have to look out for is that if you assign this individually then you could have some students just goofing off. It might be better to put them in teams where you can keep an eye on them in class.
However, you could assign the exercises as homework.
There is a time limit on the game for one minute which may be a little too long. You can change the time to suit your class level.
Online Games Sites
As well as the above there are many online game sites. These sites often have word games, spelling games and games where the player has to listen for information.
These are worth checking out. Here are some that I think are good:
Fun Brain lots of games and a big selection of reading games too. The site is split into different school grades up to grade 8.
As long as you are discreet you can often use these kinds of game sites with adults. It can be a great way to test vocabulary or reading skills.
StarFall This is for much younger students. But has a decent selection of games to play.
When playing any game such as the above you will need access to a computer, a projector or a large screen.
You could engineer the games so that they are part of your overall lesson plans. Instead of having a vocabulary test and assigning the students the standard multiple-choice format you could let them do the test via a game.
They will love you for it.
I don’t know why blogging isn’t used more often in the ESL class.
It’s a great way to help students with their English writing and in a format that they all understand and know.
If you are teaching teenagers you couldn’t have an easier job with this. What teenager does not like to talk about themselves and their innermost thoughts online?
The following platforms are all free and easy to set up:
Get your class to set up their blogs and then assign them writing tasks every week.
Depending on your requirements and circumstances you could ask the students to share their blogs with the class for peer assessment. Or if they prefer, have some levels of privacy.
The students can write about their daily lives but they will probably run out of steam so you need to provide them with some inspiration.
Try these links here for a list of blogging prompts to help them:
Some of the blog ideas may be more adult-themed.
Try here for teenage students.
There are quite literally thousands of topics to write about.
The point is to get your students writing on a regular basis. Once they start to do that then they will see improvement.
You could have Blog Reading Classes where students read each other’s blogs out in class and discuss what their classmates write about.
Make a Class Website
I mentioned WordPress above in the Blogging section.
While this is great for personal blogs it can also be used as a class blog. All the students then contribute and add necessary content to build the blog.
This can then be used to display any ongoing projects with your students which the students’ parents can also view at home.
Ever since Skype has been around it has helped people to communicate all around the world with friends and family — and at a very reasonable rate too.
No more expensive long-distance phone calls.
Skype has the added advantage of face to face video calls too.
You can use this to your advantage with your students.
They can practice their English in a real-life conversation. Not under the conditions of an English class but with someone speaking English.
If you don’t have Skype already (and what kind of person does not?) then you can download the app here.
It would be a little unfair to just tell your students to download Skype and find people to chat with online. You need to orchestrate this so that they have to do very little.
You could make Skype calls with your own friends and family back home and introduce them to your students. If you are brave enough. Prepare yourself for much hysterics and hilarity if you do this though.
Or you could make Skype calls from your English class to your colleague’s English class just down the corridor. Ensure that you have both been working towards this — that is, preparing students with the necessary English skills to make calls and talk about something online for a few minutes.
Another thing you can do is find similarly aged students in your own country and arrange a joint call between two classes there.
Your class in whichever country you are in — China, Oman or Mexico — talking to a group of students in Canada, Scotland or New Zealand.
Your students could take turns in introducing themselves or something about their country.
Lastly, I think it is vital to mention Skype in The Classroom. This program set up by Microsoft joins classes around the world to share experiences together and talk with each other.
In this program, you can find virtual field trips, Skype lessons and Skype collaborations. You can also arrange classroom to classroom connections.
This is an absolute godsend for any ESL teacher. As long as your school can agree to download the Skype app you are good to go.
Another useful organisation is Around the World with 80 Schools.
The people behind this are trying to join schools from around the world. They have set up a challenge for each member to join with 80 other schools around the world.
This is another very useful Skype-based project that could be fantastic in your ESL class.
Give it a try.
What kind of ESL teacher does not use PowerPoint anyway?
I have used this countless times in the classroom. Most classrooms these days have a projector and a screen and then all you need is a USB drive with all your lesson plans.
No need to use dreary ESL books. You can just create your own and allow the entire class to see without printing off 200 copies of everything.
For any teacher, PowerPoint is great in the classroom.
But not just for the teacher.
I have set presentation assignments for students and asked them to use PowerPoint in front of the class.
I have not encountered a student that doesn’t know how to use it and they usually just dive in and create their presentations with ease.
You can also find dozens of PowerPoint ESL lesson plans online.
Check here and here for 1000’s of PowerPoint presentations to use in your class. It’s probably a good idea to do some editing with any PowerPoint you download so that it is more suited for your lessons.
PowerPoint can also be used to create games for the ESL class.
Games such as Jeopardy and Taboo can be made into PowerPoint presentations easily. To find some pre-made games check here.
I use Google Calendar all the time to schedule writing for this blog and any other things going on in my life.
It is quite simply a great app to use.
You can also use it for your work as an ESL teacher. You can set up a calendar for each of your English classes. Allow students — and their parents if they wish — to join the calendar then you can make sure everyone is aware of lessons, schedules, homework and other projects.
By having this great app there is then no excuse from anyone to say they forgot or they didn’t know.
It is all right there on the calendar.
Google Translate is worth mentioning.
It is a great app and I use it on a daily basis. But you should not rely on using this at all times in the classroom.
I always say that in the ESL class the teacher should try not to use translation apps or dictionaries too freely. Generally speaking, it is up to the teacher to bring understanding into the classroom and help the students understand by talking around difficult words or phrases.
It is too easy to just tap something into our Smartphone and find the word in L1 for the class.
That said there are times when needs must.
For those times use Google Translate.
Evernote was brought to my attention by one of my former students.
“I hate Evernote,” she said with a sneer. I went home, downloaded the app to my computer and my phone and I was hooked.
I use it all the time.
Apart from being a great personal organiser, note-taking app and all-round fantastic piece of tech it can also be used for ESL.
Glad you asked.
You can set up a public shared notebook for your class where all the students join.
This can then be used to hand out homework, reading assignments and class schedules.
In turn, the students can send their written work to you. They can also use it to display their ongoing work for any projects you give them.
Groups of students can get together and use a separate notebook of their own that they then share with you.
You and all the students can send pictures to each other and voice recordings.
Evernote is just a great time-saving app. One of those things that once you start using it you will not be able to stop.
Unlike other things I have mentioned above, it can’t be used as part of a lesson plan. But in terms of classroom logistics, it is mighty useful.
I have heard of some ESL teachers using Twitter with their students.
Useful for handing out class information and especially useful to get students to summarise your lessons using only 140 characters.
Online Grading & Attendance
It is just tiresome for any teacher to have to carry around separate registers and grade books for each class.
What you need is a virtual grading and attendance book to do it all for you.
That’s why you need an online grading system!
Okay, enough of the second-hand car salesman act.
Check out some of these online grading apps:
Seriously, these are very useful little apps for any teacher to use in their class.
Now you have every attendance sheet for every class throughout the day.
Plus all their test grades and project grades and every other grade all together in your phone.
Easy-peezy, lemon squeezy.
I have used technology in English classes to great effect.
I could not have done many of the classes without PowerPoint or using video in the classroom. These became essential parts of the lesson.
The key thing to remember is that the technology should serve you in your class. The technology revolves around the lesson plan you have created not the other way round.
There are of course many ESL teachers who have the generic ‘movie class’ and just let the students watch a movie while the teacher snores at the back of the class.
Not really helpful to the students.
And for listening classes, you can’t just select a podcast and press play.
All of these things have to be part of a plan and used in conjunction with each other.
But if done well it could make the classes much more interesting. Especially for students in school who for most of their classes have to endure the standard chalk and talk method.
If you come into the class and introduce a Skype call to another country or a virtual tour of Paris it could blow their minds.