Until recently, I’ve considered ESL (English as a Second Language) teaching a great mystery. I studied Secondary English in college, and though I took an ESL class and an applied linguistics class, I’ve never been able to wrap my head around how exactly one might teach ESL. A new job at a small international school here in Bangkok gave me the opportunity to finally figure it out.

I’m currently teaching ESL to first grade, third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade and sixth grade students. My classes are quite small: in first grade, I have five students; third grade, six; fourth grade, one; fifth grade, two and sixth grade, three. Twice a week, my fourth grade and fifth grade classes are combined. I see all of my students for 45 minutes every day. My students are from Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, South Korea, Turkey and Honduras.

When I started this position, the objectives were the only thing that didn’t need to be considered: teaching ESL means focusing on speaking, listening, reading and writing. What I did need to decide was how to distribute these tasks into a five-day schedule. I first decided that I would do the same thing each day of the week, so Monday would be vocabulary/spelling; Tuesday would be listening or grammar; Wednesday, speaking; Thursday, reading and Friday, writing. This hasn’t always worked out, but I’ve found it to be a helpful framework.

After figuring out the schedule, I then began gathering resources. This is my 13th year of teaching, so I already have lots of great resources and know where to find them. It’s important to note that there is no textbook that covers everything when you’re teaching a language. Language teachers have to compile books, instructional materials, good worksheets, activities, games, etc.

Now that I’ve been in this position for about nine months, I finally feel like I know what I’m doing. I’ve got my pattern, I’ve got my resources and I now, after 12 years of teaching, have some flexibility. I’ve worked hard to find the best resources for teaching speaking, listening, reading and writing to my students and have made a list grouped by task, though most resources involve multiple tasks.

Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening

Spotlight English

I learned about Spotlight English here in Bangkok when I was given the opportunity to teach English to refugees at a Christian library. Spotlight English is a free audio program — think podcasts — for people who are learning English. Spotlight’s podcasts come in 2 levels — regular and advanced — and I’ve found that the advanced level is appropriate for my fourth, fifth and sixth grade students, who listen to a 10-minute episode every week. We’ve recently listened to episodes about bucket lists, skin whitening and a blind professional surfer.

My students take notes while listening to the podcast on YouTube. After, students summarize the podcast in one sentence using the Who?/What?/When/Where?Why? framework and then answer five questions in preparation for a discussion: 

  • Why do you think I chose this story?
  • Was this story interesting? Why or why not?
  • What did you learn from this story?
  • Personally respond to the story. What do you think about the person/people in the story?
  • What questions do you have about the story?

My students don’t have much experience with discussions, so it will take some time for them to become comfortable participating, but I think it’s important for them to express their thoughts and hear and respond respectfully to those of their classmates.


A current colleague told me about Newsela, which is a website that adapts news articles from respected publications for K-12 students. There is a paid component to this website, but the news articles — at five reading levels — are free. Every two weeks, my fourth, fifth and sixth grade students read an article of their choice; identify the title, author, source and date; summarize the article and then answer these questions:

  • Why did you choose this article?
  • Is this good news or bad news? Why?
  • What questions do you have about what you read?

For the presentation, students read the first section of the article to the class and then share the above information. The rest of the class is then invited to ask questions.

I use Newela with my students to encourage them to be aware of what’s going on in the world. The only drawback of this website is that the articles are US-centric, so quite a few of them are not relevant to my students. 

ESL Vocabulary Bundle from The Measured Mom

The Measured Mom is one of the first websites I found when I started looking for resources for younger children. I’m on the email list, so I was so excited to see this new bundle, as I’d been looking for materials to teach basic English vocabulary for a while. This bundle includes the following 12 sets:

  • School commands
  • School supplies
  • Actions
  • Parts of the body
  • Large animals
  • Small animals
  • Household objects
  • Fruit
  • Vegetables
  • Food
  • Clothing
  • Transportation

Each set comes with lots of activities. I first use the Google Slides pictures to see if the students know the words, and then the visual dictionary page so students can divide the words into syllables and study them. I also use the matching game, both for matching the word to the picture and for a cover-up game students play with a partner. If we take household objects as an example, the first student will say, “This is for sleeping,” and the other student will say, “bed” and will cover the picture of the bed. Lastly, I use the Google Slides pictures to test the students’ knowledge of the words and their spelling.

This bundle is $59, but The Measured Mom has several 20-25% off sales each year.

4 Following Directions Activities

I just did this free activity with my third grade students and, no surprise, they loved it. The students individually made a list of ten directions — so they’re also working on imperative sentences — beginning with the verbs color, draw, write and circle. They then read these directions to their partner, giving their partner time to follow each direction before moving to the next one.

Next, I’m going to have my third graders draw their own picture and then make a list of directions for a partner. I’m also going to have them draw a picture and then direct their partner to draw the same picture.

Reading, Speaking, Listening

Mystery Problem Solving Activities from The Measured Mom

This resource is one of my all-time favorites. Students work in partners, using the clues to determine the mystery animal, boy, girl, etc. Students read the clues out loud and then discuss which animals/boys/girls, etc. needs to be covered until they are down to one.

These activities are $20, but as I mentioned above, The Measured Mom has several 20-25% off sales each year.

Speaking and Listening

1 Sequencing Activities

I bought this $3 activity when I saw it on sale on Teachers Pay Teachers and only later realized it would be a perfect speaking and listening activity for my first grade and third grade students. Students work in partners, order the pictures and then describe the pictures to their partner. Here’s an example: “First, you have a pizza crust. Then, you put sauce on the crust. Last, you add pepperoni.”

2 Highlights Hidden Pictures

Remember Highlights? I found a year’s worth of 2012 copies in the school library and quickly had them scanned and laminated. Students again work in partners. Partner one says, “The fish is on one of the dinosaurs,” and partner two finds the fish. I also want to use Highlights’ Spot the Difference (which are hard to find) and their What’s Wrong? activities, which are on the back cover of the 2012 copies.


1 Alphabiography

Several years ago, I started reading a book that was written in the form of an alphabiography: one piece of writing for each letter of the alphabet. I did this with middle and high school students and figured it would also work with my third through sixth graders. When I was in the Writing Project, I learned that lots of low-stakes writing is better than a little bit of high-stakes writing and I think the alphabiography fits this well.

Students write down the alphabet and then write something down for each letter. My abbreviated list looks like this:

  • B: Books
  • E: English
  • F: Fiji
  • G: Guitar
  • W: Worchihan

The alphabiography allows students to write about what’s important to them. I do not influence their choice at all (unless every letter is used for a game). I’ve taught my students how to plan before they write using either a list or a mind map and then how to organize their ideas. The alphabiography approach engages students well because the students are writing about what they want to write about and they are writing for themselves.

So here’s where I am right now. I use a lot of other resources, but I feel like these are the best ones for the tasks of ESL. If you teach ESL, how do you approach it? What resources do you use? I would love to find out! Please leave a comment below.

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