Blessed Are the Flexible: Five Productive Activities for Unprepared Students

Blessed Are the Flexible
Five Productive Activities for Unprepared Students

Susan Verner
by Susan Verner 18,701 views

Teaching ESL isn’t your average, everyday teaching kind of gig.

When someone is a math teacher, for example, you probably picture them in front of a classroom full of twenty to thirty students. And in most cases, you would probably be right. It doesn’t much matter exactly where they teach. Teacher to student ratios don’t vary all that much, and that is true for teachers in most subject areas. But teaching ESL…that’s different. Yes, you sometimes find yourself in front of a class of students, though fifteen to twenty is probably a more typical number. But ESL teachers find themselves in not so typical “classrooms”, too. It is not at all uncommon for ESL teachers to teach smaller classes of students, five to ten or so, even smaller groups than that (I once taught beginning ESL to a class of three), or even one on one.

A lot of teaching ESL is the same whether you have one student or twenty. And you encounter many of the same struggles, one of which being students unprepared for class. In a class of twenty, an unprepared student doesn’t make much difference to the day’s plan, but in a class of one? That’s an entirely different story.

The reason I’m talking about this today is because I have worked with many students one on one as they studied English. Those private classes, or perhaps you prefer to call them tutoring sessions, were some of my all-time favorite teaching opportunities. They were also sometimes the most challenging, for example when a student was unprepared. When your entire class has not done the assigned work for the day, even if it is not a class of one, you can’t exactly go on with the lesson as planned. You have to be flexible. (Have you heard that saying that blessed are the flexible for they shall not be bent out of shape?) But just because your student is unprepared doesn’t mean you have to be unprepared. There are actually plenty of useful ways to spend your time even when students haven’t done their assignments.

5 Productive Activities for Unprepared Students

  1. 1

    Do the Homework with Them

    This one is probably an obvious option. Do what they were supposed to do for homework. It’s an easy way to spend your class time, but the drawback of this as your only go to time filler for unprepared students is your student may feel you are giving him or her permission to skip out on homework in future lessons. Don’t get the homework done? I’ll just do it in class, and I’ll have help then, too. Probably not the precedent you want to set for class. So it’s important to have some other tools in your back pocket for those days when you have to be a little more flexible than others.

  2. 2

    Have Games Available.

    If you have your own classroom or storage space in the room you use, keep some games on hand. My first experience teaching ESL was in a tutoring center. Every student in the university ESL program had two mandatory hours of tutoring time each week. It was very beneficial to the students because it gave them some individualized attention and a chance to ask questions without getting embarrassed in front of the whole class. The policy for those tutoring sessions was that each student was to bring something to work on with the tutor. Some brought homework. Others collected questions throughout the week. But every so often a student would come for their session with nothing prepared. That’s when the stack of games in the back of the room was super handy. We had scrabble, Scattergories, and other English language centered games designed for native speakers. Scrabble was the top choice when it came to students, and we would modify the game for our nonnative speaking students by not keeping score and letting everyone use a dictionary. It was a great way to teach vocabulary that students wouldn’t normally encounter in the classroom. And it was fun. There are plenty of games you can play with ESL students both in traditional ways and nontraditional ways. Keep some of these on hand and you will be ready to engage unprepared students, let them have some fun, and still get some valuable English learning time in.

  3. 3

    Read a Magazine.

    No, I’m not talking about reading one on your own while your student does his or her makeup homework, but you didn’t really think that’s what I meant, did you? No, magazines are great to keep on hand to use with unprepared students. They are especially great if you meet in a coffee shop or other public area and don’t have any classroom space to call your own. It doesn’t take much to toss a magazine in your bag in case you need it. In my tutoring center, we had a subscription to Time and Newsweek, so we always had plenty of interesting articles to read. Another advantage to these type of magazines is they usually had several one paragraph news bits that were good for short sessions or filling a few free minutes. If you can, keep one or two magazines that might interest your students in your bag that you can pull out whenever you need to fill a small slice of time. You can have students read out loud to work on pronunciation, have them note any vocabulary they don’t know and then try to guess the meaning from context before looking up the definition, have students read out loud and write some simple comprehension questions for them to answer once they finish, or have students read a longer article and write a summary of what they read. Don’t like any of those options, I always enjoy using the pictures in magazines as writing prompts or conversation prompts, and your students probably will too. In addition, you probably have tons of favorite activities to do with magazines, so have a few ready in your back pocket in case the need arises.

  4. 4

    Get Online

    I don’t know if it is even possible to count all the resources that are available for ESL teachers and students online today. If you have a few go to websites for ESL quizzes, listening comprehension, or other valuable activities, bookmark them on your tablet or smart phone to pull out at a moment’s notice. What’s nice about doing these type of activities with your student is you can get a good feeling of what they know and don’t know, and you can teach different points as needed as you go through the activity. If you are looking for some good go to websites for ESL students, check out this article for some great resources.

  5. 5

    Have an Open Question Period

    Have you ever taken time to just ask your students for any and all questions they have about the English language? If you have, you know they can come up with some stumpers. But as hard as it can be for us teachers to be put on the spot, explaining the finer nuances of the English language, taking time to answer the questions your students have can be extremely valuable to you. A couple of tips for successfully navigating an open question time from students: it is okay to say you don’t know and will get back to them. If you get the kind of questions I’ve gotten, you’re probably going to have to. But the second tip is this: the more often you do this the easier it will become for you to answer your students’ questions. So even if your first time opening up for any and all questions is a bit stressful, you can be assured that it will be easier each successive time you do it.

These activities are particularly useful if you are teaching one on one and your student fails to prepare, but don’t think that if you have a class full of students you can’t do these same activities with them.

Sometimes it is good to take a break from the normal schedule and change things up, even when your students do all their homework, and these are activities you can do with your class as well. Make copies, have students work in pairs, put them in groups with different games to play, tell everyone to get out a smart phone…you can do all these activities with a full classroom if you use just a little creativity and determination.

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