Delivering a great ESL lesson requires preparation, and putting together a good lesson plan is probably the most important thing you can do. However, experienced teachers usually have a few tricks up their sleeves to improve a lesson on-the-go. This can help perk up a dull class, kill some unexpected downtime, or motivate uninspired students. Read on to find out some easy little things you can do to get the most out of your ESL students.

The Most Important Word is “Why”

If you are running a speaking class, you may find that your students don’t have that much to say. You want them to speak more, but they just spit out a few words. Perhaps the problem is your line of questioning. If you ask, “Do you…?” then you might have student say “Yes” or “No” and nothing else. While it’s best to avoid closed questions like that, you can also consider throwing in the all-important follow up: “Why?”

Asking “Why?” is so important in ESL lessons for intermediate and above students. You are challenging them to go beyond the easy answer and explain their line of thought. This requires them to think more and say more in English, which should be a goal in any speaking lesson.

While you can have “Why?” built into your question from the beginning, sometimes you may decide it’s worthwhile (or even necessary) to throw it unexpectedly into a conversation. It’s a very easy thing to remember and to implement, but it can add so much value to a speaking activity.

Positive or Negative?

Sometimes when teaching vocabulary, it is worthwhile to add a short, simple exercise between controlled and freer practice activities. I sometimes ask my students to categorize their new vocabulary items as positive, negative, or neutral. This helps add an extra dimension of understanding to the lesson, and can sometimes be quite important.

Think about personality adjectives. A student may understand the meaning of “assertive” and “forceful” and “bossy”, but can they recognize which ones are appropriate to use? Your textbook may outline the meaning of these words quite well, but sometimes there are subtle differences in English that a native speaker implicitly recognizes as positive or negative.

This sort of exercise is not always possible, but it is often worthwhile. If you are teaching vocabulary, ask yourself whether some words have positive or negative meanings. If they do, it is definitely worthwhile asking your students to categorize them.


This is something that should be in every ESL teacher’s arsenal: “Can you give me an example, please?”

Imagine you ask a student a question. She gives you a one- or two-sentence reply, but you feel she could say more. She is perhaps being shy or fearful of making a mistake. You want to encourage her to say more because you know she is capable. In this situation, ask for an example. It is very similar in purpose to my first piece of advice: “Why?” You are prompting a student to give more information and use more English. You are also, in most cases, asking them to think on the spot, rather than give a prepared answer.

This doesn’t have to be just a speaking answer. You can use it with fast-finishers in many other instances. It can be part of a writing task, for example.

Let’s Talk Feelings

If you want your students to say a little more, but you know that they aren’t likely to give a developed answer to “Why?” and they may not be able to produce a good example, then ask them how they feel about something. It works with students of all levels.

The reason this is such an effective question is that you are bringing the student into the lesson on a more personal level. Many English students want to share but they are – for various reasons – reluctant to do so. Yet actually using language for communicative purposes is essential to the learning process. Giving students that chance to express themselves is so important.

At the lower levels, you may just invite a word or two: “I’m happy,” or “I don’t really agree with it.” However, at higher levels you may encourage the student to open up and give a detailed and passionate insight into the issue.

Checking Answers with a Partner

This may seem like a strange thing to do, and perhaps a waste of time. After most individual exercises, it’s a good idea to give students half a minute to check their answers with a partner. The reason for this simple: they may have different answers and thus further explore the problem, thereby coming to a better understanding.

Typically, if you give students an individual exercise to do, they will puzzle over it and come to what they think is the right answer. Later, you tell them whether they are right or wrong. In a large class, some students may note down the correct answer after you tell them, but they are unsure why. Having students discuss the problem between them gives them a better chance of coming to a full understanding.