Another ESL Biography Lesson

Last year, I gave you a great lesson plan on how to get your ESL students writing famous people’s biographies. I used Steve Jobs, Barack Obama, and Martin Luther King as examples. The lesson went down pretty well with my students and I was going to use it again this year with a new group, but I decided to take a different focus and include some different people. I the reason I used Obama and King were because Chinese people know them well, but this year I thought it would be better to introduce some people that aren’t well known. So I taught the lesson again with Steve Jobs followed by Bob Dylan and Dr. Dre.

Steve Jobs

I began the lesson the same as last year. You can find last year’s lesson plan here.

Bob Dylan

After the Steve Jobs biography section, I pull out an old Dylan t-shirt that I have had for many years. It’s great to use stuff like this in class instead of just pictures off the internet. It helps build rapport with the students. I ask them who the man on the t-shirt is, and as Chinese people don’t really know Dylan, I then tell them the answer.

Next, I played Subterranean Homesick Blues. I chose this because it’s short and fun. My students seemed to get a kick out of it.

Then I do a little listening practice. I play them the beginning of this video and give them a gap-fill exercise:

Born in 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, Robert Zimmerman began ____1____ as a teenager. He briefly gave college a try, but began concentrating on music, performing at ____2____ under the name Bob Dylan, taken from the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas. In 1961, the young singer-songwriting moved to New York City’s Greenwich Village, where his ____3____ helped him quickly gain a ____4____ around the vibrant Village folk scene.

By 1964, his songs “Blowing in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changing” became anthems for the rising ____5_____ and anti-war movements. He instantly became the _____6______ during a turbulent time in America.


  1. writing songs
  2. coffeehouses
  3. talent
  4. reputation
  5. Civil Rights
  6. voice of a generation

When going over the answers, I draw attention to how the biography is structured. I look at verbs and other language use. Then I watch the rest of the video while my students make notes. You can have them do other listening exercises or summarize the video if you like.

Dr. Dre

Next up, I introduce Dr. Dre. This is a bit of a jump from Bob Dylan! You can use pictures, songs, etc to introduce the artists, but I went straight into the activity. This time I had my students watch the biography and do a gap-fill more related to verb use. After explaining the answers, I draw attention to how they indicate time. I compared this with Dylan’s and Jobs’ biographies.

Some Freer Practice

Now that your students have heard three biographies, you will want them to write something of their own. I recommend telling them to choose someone they admire, and write a biography similar to the examples you have given them. You could, however, assign a figure to write about. If your students aren’t up to it, put them in pairs for this activity. I like to walk around and help them with some corrections, before choosing the best answers to read aloud to the class.

Head Teacher
I'm the founder and editor of Beatdom Literary Journal, author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the 'Weird Cult' and World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller. I'm also a teacher and operate the popular website, TED-IELTS.

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