Finding Supplementary Materials to Use in ESL Lessons

One of the big challenges for new ESL teachers is finding supplementary materials to use in their lessons. Of course, in the beginning you’re probably just sticking to the textbook… but hopefully you soon realize that it’s not the best way of teaching. In fact, textbooks can often be dull or inappropriately assigned by some schools. Most experienced teachers have worked in a place where the textbook is just utterly useless for either of those reasons.

In any case, you soon realize that you need to find extra materials to use in your lesson. Perhaps it is something to pad out a dull textbook, or maybe you want to create a whole lesson around it. Maybe you want to bring a little excitement to the lesson, or perhaps you have realized that your students have a strong interest in something, and you want to use that to liven up the lesson.

So where can you go to find supplementary ESL materials? Well, the world is your oyster, to use an old cliché. But in this article, I’m going to share with you some of the best places to find them.

Note: It should go without saying, but obviously all of this is dependent upon your students’ level, as well as issues like cultural norms. Use these ideas at your own discretion.

1.     Humans of New York

Humans of New York is an ongoing photo project by Brandon Stanton, a New York-based photographer. It’s become an internet sensation, and I guess most of you have probably already heard of it. It began with Stanton photographing people in the street, but soon he began interviewing them. Eventually, he moved beyond New York and now travels the world, taking photos of people and listening to their stories in lots of different countries. I follow him on Tumblr as an easy way to get frequent updates, and whenever one strikes my eye, I save it to a file on my computer and then incorporate it into a lesson at a later date.

So how can you use this?

The possibilities, I suppose, are endless. I like to use the pictures to spark discussion, and then pick out bits of language from the text that comes beneath. You could also use it is a model for telling a story, or as an introduction to a particular topic. You could blank out certain words and have students try to fill them in – for example, removing adjectives from the story.

Here are two lessons I created that involve Humans of New York in some way:

2.     TED Talks

TED Talks are great for so many reasons.  They tackle issues that affect people all over the world, and usually they are presented in language that is intended for the whole world to understand. They are typically engaging, relevant, and – importantly – short. That makes them perfect for ESL lessons.

No matter what the topic of your lesson is, you can probably find a TED Talk to match it. Just look at this screenshot of the TED.com website:

ted website
The TED homepage

Those topics look like a list of the ones you need to teach your students for IELTS: technology, society, environment, health, etc.

How can you use these videos in your lessons?

I recommend finding short videos (ideally, 5-10 minutes) and using them to spark discussion or challenge your students’ listening skills. You can either have them take notes, or use the videos as inspiration prior to a debate. You could also pick particular chunks of the video and play them as listening practice – perhaps filling gaps, answering multiple choice questions, or completing a summary. It’s also a good idea to give students a list of numbers and then have them write down what those numbers mean while listening to the talk.

Here are some pre-made lessons for TED videos at the TED-IELTS website:

3.     Realia (real-life materials)

In the world of teaching ESL, “realia” means real-life object – ie things that you wouldn’t normally bring into the classroom. Perhaps you are teaching a lesson on sports and you want your students to learn the names of different sports equipment. Sure, you could show a video or a picture… but sometimes it is more interesting to actually bring something into the classroom. It livens up the atmosphere, even amongst older students! This is particularly true of less common objects, such as ones that are a bit alien to your students’ culture.

Many experienced ESL teachers bring realia into the classroom to spark interest at the very beginning of a lesson, to hook their students and get attention focused. In my previous example of sports equipment, you could take a baseball into a Chinese classroom and get the students to handle it. I’d be surprised if any of them had actually held one before, so it would surely get their interest piqued!

It doesn’t have to be the teacher bringing in an object. Why not have your students bring something in, and try running a “show and tell” activity?

A few years ago, I had a great lesson by using my GoPro. I wanted to talk about gadgets with my students, so I brought it into the room and let them play with it. (It’s hard to break a GoPro, so I wasn’t worried!) After teaching some vocabulary, I would use the GoPro as a prop and the students could act as salespeople, pitching it to customers.

Again, the possibilities are nearly endless when it comes to bringing realia into an ESL or IELTS classroom. Use your imagination, and share part of your life with your students.

There’s a very subtle and effective use of realia in this ESL lesson:

4.     BBC News Articles

Talking about current events in ESL lessons is really important because your students will be most engaged when they have an opinion on a topic, or if it otherwise affects their life. Chances are, too, that whatever you pick from the news will also be in the news in their own language, and so they will be informed about it.

This is something that will obviously be better with older students, and as such it is perfect for IELTS. However, it works for a wide range of ESL students, too.

I would recommend printing out an interesting BBC article. I suggest BBC because their articles nowadays are written in pretty simple English, with very short paragraphs. If the language is inappropriate, I alter it for my students, but you may find that it’s better to keep it as-is.

Here is an example of a lesson I made with a BBC News article. The topic is education, which is obviously more appropriate than some of the depressing or controversial issues that crop up frequently in the news:

There are a million and one ways that you could utilize a news article like this, but the obvious ideas are practicing reading skills like matching headings or finding answers in a close reading exercise. If you want something similar but with less work for the teacher, check out BreakingNewsEnglish. I’ve used their materials many times in the past with great success.

5.     PowerPoint Presentations

I know, I know, I know… You’re rolling your eyes here, thinking that I have run out of good ideas. But PPTs don’t have to be boring! If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you will know that I often use PPTs in my lessons. I certainly don’t stick a densely-packed slide of boring material on the screen and waffle on for an hour and a half… No, my PowerPoint presentations are interactive.

When I plan a lesson for my university classes, I like to structure it around a PPT. I don’t expect (or want) the students to be looking at it for the whole time, but rather I have it there to support me. If I have a quiz, it’ll be on the PPT. If I show a picture, it’s on the PPT. If I need to talk, I have some notes on the PPT. Even when I give my students an activity, I put instructions up on the PPT.

The advantages should be obvious. The PPT is non-intrusive, yet it allows information to appear for a while so that weaker students have a chance to follow along. It saves me having to write information on a blackboard or whiteboard… and it saves my students struggling to read my awful handwriting. It allows me to make surprise reveals, to incorporate multimedia, to give short tests with where the answers appear filled on the screen, and to have a solid lesson structure that even includes reminders for me as a teacher.

If you still think PPTs mean boring lessons, check out some of these lesson ideas that I have put together over the years. These are three out of hundreds:

Others

There are many more ways to incorporate supplementary materials into your ESL or IELTS lessons. I find that these sometimes just come to me in daily life, or sometimes you can check out Pinterest or other websites for ideas.

The obvious one is YouTube! Whenever I see an interesting and relevant video on YouTube, I download it to my computer and then work on a way of incorporating it into a future lesson. Slideshare is another great place to find materials – this time, another teacher probably created it for you! Sometimes you can use podcasts in a lesson, but to be honest I’ve had limited success as I don’t like anything that takes up too much time. I find these make for better homework assignments. Speaking of which, books are another great resource that can be used. For higher level students, why not get them working on a short novel? When it comes to teaching referencing, I sometimes bring in a collection of my own books and have students find something interesting, then reference it, and then others can try to find the citation.

As I’ve said before, there are millions of ideas, and you’re limited only by your creativity and of course time. It’s always quicker and easier using a textbook, but if you can spare the time to incorporate supplementary materials, your ESL lessons will benefit greatly.

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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