Teacher Nicholas McKay writing for Hello Teacher!

Updated November 16, 2018
By Nicholas McKay

teaching overseas

Now that Semester 2 has started in China, ESL teachers would have been introduced to their classes, getting into the swing of teaching and trying to build connections with their students.

Sometimes this can be done with a letter to the teacher, as I have previously discussed. Some of these formative tasks can offer students authentic scenarios they will encounter in real life.

Others can be small activities that break up the traditionally monotonous classroom learning environment.

Not all work needs to be marked

For some, this statement might seem strange. If a student does the work, obviously it needs to be corrected, right?

No, it does not. This is called the Free Writing Activity.

Students are provided a small book at the beginning of the semester. For 15 minutes (give or take) students write about themselves, their weekend, and their thoughts.

The teacher, after collecting the booklets, can respond. This does not include making assessments on grammar.

As an example: if a student says they went to a festival on the weekend, the teacher could ask how it was – did they enjoy themselves? Where was the festival?

These follow-up questions show the teacher’s interest in the student’s life. Moreover, students don’t need to look at their writing, in fear of being harassed by lots of red pen.

What’s more, this form of communication can indefinitely continue, allowing students to naturally experiment with their writing.

Combing adjectives with their identities

When first meeting a class, the teacher can play ‘My Name Is’.

This is a game where the student introduces themselves, and describes their personality, by using an adjective beginning with the same letter as their name.

As an example: My name is Feng, and I’m fantastic.

Once all the students have introduced themselves, step two can commence. This involves learners introducing the students who came before them.

As an example: This is Fan and she’s funny; this is Meng and he’s magnificent; this is Hu and she’s happy; I’m Li and I’m lucky.

Students can discover who their classmates are

Alternatively, students can be provided with a sheet of paper, asking them a series of questions.

These can include; who owns a bike? Who walked to school? Who owns a pet? Who has been to Beijing in the last five years? Who saw the most recent Star Wars film?  Who does not own a smart phone?

Students go around the room, asking their classmates these questions, finding one student for each.

At the end, the teacher can ask for students to identify who has/does what, to indicate the variety of similar and different experiences.

Help your ESL students discover their classmates in this fun activity.

Students can discover who their classmates are in this fun and engaging activity.

Family matters

In this activity, cards are placed upside down at the front of the room.

Each card has an English name. For example, Hamish Middleton.

Accompanying the name is an image. This can include a baby, a child, an adult or an elderly person.

Students walk around the room, introducing themselves as the person on their card.

Example: ‘Hello, I am Hamish Middleton’. Their first objective is to find the other members of their family.

Once they have found their entire family, the second objective is to identify what role they have in said family, using the pictures.

Once students have worked out who they are, one member of the family introduces everyone in the group to the rest of the class.

The building blocks of learning

Asking clarifying questions, and communicating instructions, are two important techniques students can learn. This can be undertaken over a small tub of LEGO.

Working in pairs, one student can create something using a few pieces of LEGO. Their partner cannot see what they make.

Once complete, the student who made the small construction is required to give instructions to their partner.

Their objective is to make a replica, based solely on the instructions given to them. They can ask clarifying questions (‘This piece?’ or ‘Does this look alright?’) in order to make something as close to their partner’s as possible.

In some cases, a student may not be able to make exactly what their partner created, so will need to improvise.

Once complete, the students can reflect on the experience.

Before doing this activity, students can, in order to find a partner, undertake another exercise. At the front of the room, a collection of cards are placed upside down.

These contain pictures of various items (an apple tree, a green apple, a red apple, a red dog, a black dog, purple grapes, a table, a chair, etc) all in various locations.

Students are required to walk around the room, asking questions.

Example: ‘Do you have a red dog? You do? Is the red dog under the green tree?’ In doing so, students will narrow down who their partner is.

Finding your way

Asking for directions is a relevant activity that students will experience sometime whilst out on the street.

For this activity, again, a collection of cards are placed upside down at the front of the room.

Some of these cards have a picture of a landmark, and its name. For example, the Statue of Liberty (it’s good to use resources from target-language countries the teacher is familiar with to imbed students into the world).

Other cards contain maps. There is one map for every landmark students have.

Students with landmark cards are required to walk around the room, asking those with maps for directions. Those who do not know the way can say ‘I’m sorry’ or another similar response.

Once students find their partner, the student with the map provides them with the simplest route to their destination. Those with the landmark can ask clarifying questions.

Upon completion, students may reflect on the experience of asking directions and giving instructions, while discussing what changes could be made to improve the experience.


These are just a handful of activities I have used in my classroom. There are always others, and in no way am I saying teachers have to use these suggestions.

However, these activities have in the past worked for me, and I hope that these can be of assistance to other teachers in the future.

Though some of these activities require resources to be developed, sometimes, this is one of the most fun experiences of being a teacher.

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