The Emergency Toolbox: 6 Great Ideas for Your ESL Substitute

The Emergency Toolbox
6 Great Ideas for Your ESL Substitute

Graham Dixon
by Graham Dixon 36,317 views

We’ve all woken up for a busy day of teaching and discovered that we feel terrible.

There’s nothing worse than teaching all day with a sore throat or a headache, and heading into school just spreads your germs around. But while you’re nursing yourself back to health with chicken soup, somebody is going to be teaching your class. I’ve learned to make this easy for everyone by putting together a folder of ‘go-to’ activities which give my substitute the best possible start.

Why should we take the time to do this? One reason is that you won’t always know who your substitute is going to be. They could be a veteran of many years, but they could equally be a very inexperienced teacher whose well-meaning but unsuccessful work with your class might compromise the students’ enthusiasm and focus, hard-won attributes on which you depend. Instead of risking such an outcome, the Emergency Folder gives your substitute meaningful and interesting work with which to occupy your class. After all, there’s no reason that the learning process needs to stop, just because you’re sick. This is also a nice opportunity for you to create zero-preparation exercises and fun activities with which to reward your students.

I sometimes think of these as my chance to extend a kind of apology for my not being there.


You may sometimes be able to forward a lesson plan for the class you intended to teach; in this case, you’re trusting your substitute to follow the plan as closely as possible, and to contact you after the class with a brief report on what happened. If that’s not a reasonable expectation, however, the Emergency Toolbox will come in very handy.

Keep it Simple and Fun

The contents of the folder will reflect the need not to place undue pressure on your substitute. I’ve worked in schools where the sub was often actually a member of the administrative staff, so it makes sense to unburden the teacher as much as possible. With this in mind, the guidelines would be:

  • The content should require minimal (preferably close to zero) preparation time
  • It should also require very little Teacher Talking Time (so probably very little completely new material)
  • It should be entertaining, while still practicing relevant language and skills
  • It should be relevant to any day of the year
  • The content should occupy the full duration of the class (plus 10% for safety)
  • Your plan should be clear enough for anyone to understand (keep away from abbreviations which might be unfamiliar, for example, and ensure that, if the plan is hand-written, it’s not encoded in your personal hieroglyphics!)
  • Include a class list and perhaps notes on potential problems (e.g. who should be separated because they always speak L1 together; who might be in danger of acting up when they get bored, etc).
  • Include information about any electronics (computers, projectors, CD players) or materials (worksheets, textbooks, homework assignments) your sub will need.

Fill Your Folder Using These Ideas

  1. A mix of games and engaging, generic practice activities works best. These could include:

  2. 1


    A short-ish reading task on a topic everyone will find interesting, followed by comprehension exercises and perhaps a debate. You could write this yourself or find something in a textbook.

  3. 2


    A writing task based on the reading, or on another topic. This could lead to peer-editing (where students read and correct each other’s work). Good topics might include the imaginative or speculative:

    • If I were the President of my country / the USA / the World, I would…
    • If I could spend today in any way I chose, I would…
    • Imagine that a certain historical event had happened differently, or had not happened at all. How would the world be different today?
    • Describe your predictions for the world in 2020 / 2050 / 3000.
  4. 3


    Games are always well received, particularly if the students don’t notice that they’re actually working pretty hard! Puzzles, crosswords, word-searches and the like are generally very popular and are useful for practicing vocabulary and spelling. Make these into team games; give the students a time limit; award points to teams, and tally the points at the end.

  5. 4


    I’m a huge fan of adapting Jeopardy for the ESL classroom. It’s competitive, well paced and can be varied limitlessly. Give your sub a set of questions and answers in different categories. I’ve seen a really good Jeopardy game occupy a whole hour-long class, with quick rounds of hangman or guessing games between each Jeopardy round.

  6. 5


    Watching a short movie, TED talk or other video can be a good way to use the time, but only provided that there is an educational objective. Include listening questions, discussion points and potential homework exercises which could be research into the topic, writing an opinion article or preparing for a debate.

  7. 6


    Use the textbook. If all else fails, most textbooks have review quizzes at the end of each chapter, or several chapters. You could simply ask your sub to check with the students which of these they have done, and then ask them to guide the class through a quiz they haven’t yet completed. This will feel more like hard work, but if it’s genuine review, it’s valuable.

It’s an easier decision - and always a wise one - to take a sick day when you’re genuinely unwell, if you know your students will be well catered for and kept usefully busy in your absence.

I update the folder about once a week - it’s no great hassle once the basics are in place - so that, if I wake up feeling dreadful, I know my students will be in good hands.

P.S. If you enjoyed this article, please help spread it by clicking one of those sharing buttons below. And if you are interested in more, you should follow our Facebook page where we share more about creative, non-boring ways to teach English.

Like us!
Related Categories

Entire BusyTeacher Library
Get the Entire BusyTeacher Library:
Dramatically Improve the Way You Teach
Save hours of lesson preparation time with the Entire BusyTeacher Library. Includes the best of BusyTeacher: all 80 of our PDF e-books. That's 4,036 pages filled with thousands of practical activities and tips that you can start using today. 30-day money back guarantee.
Learn more

Popular articles like this

Ive Got the Book, but Now What? How to Take Grammar from the Textbook Pages into the Classroom

0 18,215 0

When You Feel Like a Million Cents
How to Teach When Youre Sick

0 30,427 0

Getting Ready for Your Best Year Ever
Start Now to Make a Difference Once School Starts

0 9,421 0

Ready for Action
How to Be Completely Prepared for Your ESL Class

0 11,065 0

Blessed Are the Flexible
Five Productive Activities for Unprepared Students

0 18,070 0

When the Book Is Not Enough
6 Simple Ways to Supplement Your Textbook Lesson Plans

0 28,661 0