Back to School: Easy, No Prep Activities for Your First Week

Back to School Lesson Plans
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Back to School
in the ESL Classroom

Easy, No Prep Activities for Your First Week

Even experienced teacher’s get first day of school jitters when starting a new gig. Not only do you have to meet a dozen or more new colleagues (in your second language!), you also have to introduce yourself to hundreds of new students… who may or may not understand anything you’re saying 👩‍🏫.

There’s the usual balancing act of being friendly but not too soft, firm but not too hard, and in general establishing the atmosphere and relationship you want in your classroom ⚖️.

Many Language Assistants and ESL teachers may tell you to rock the standard “About Me” presentation 😴😴, but I’m a serious proponent of cutting out the tired old PowerPoints 😴😴 and switching toward more interactive activities so that students get up, get thinking and get speaking, even despite limited language skills.

Here are my favorite tried and true first week of school activities for everyone from the 18-year-olds who are too cool for school down to the little pre-school kiddos.

1. Guess Who Said It

* Can be adapted to fit Covid safety procedures.

Guess Who Said It
Designed by Freepik

Best for: 12 – 18 years (In Spain, this is 1º ESO – 2º bachillerato)

Objective:  Vocabulary related to personal information, hobbies, likes & dislikes

You Need: Scratch paper, a timer and a chalkboard/whiteboard for keeping score

Get Set Up

  1. As a class, brainstorm a few questions one might ask when getting to know someone.
    1. For low level students, simple Qs like What´s your favourite type of music? and What´s your favourite film?
    2. For higher level students, questions like What is your favourite film genre? or What is your dream holiday destination?
  2. In small groups, give students 3 minutes to brainstorm minimum 5 questions. Encourage them to be creative and ask level-appropriate questions. To adhere to Covid safety procedures that don´t permit group or pair work, this can be (A) in electronic groups if your students have tablets, Chrome books, etc, or (B) done independently.
  3. Ask 2 or 3 volunteers to come up to the front of the classroom. If there’s another teacher in the classroom with you, get them involved too! To maintain social distancing, volunteers should (A) remain in their seats if they have access to tablets, or (B) only choose students from the front two rows if no tablet access.
  4. Explain that the class is going to ask their questions and the 2 or 3 volunteers are going to answer them on the sly. Then, the the class has to guess whose answer is whose. The concept might be confusing at first, but they will understand once you get started so don’t waste too much time explaining. Jump on in! For Covid safety, students can (A) send their responses via tablet to the teacher, or (B) discretely hold up their answers to show the teacher if sitting in the front of the room. 

Get Started

  1. Select a group to ask a question.
  2. The 2-3 people up front (volunteers) secretly jot down their answers and show them to the teacher who writes them on the board, mixing up the order (see picture above).
  3. The remaining groups have to guess which person said which answer, ie: “I think Maria likes listening to reggaeton, Javier likes listening to trap, Ana like listening to pop and the teacher likes listening to rock & reggae.”
  4. Groups get a point for each correct answer. You can continue soliciting responses & giving points until someone gets all answers correct, using deductive reasoning to find out who said what.
  5. After every one or two questions, bring up different students to answer with you.

Why It Works

  1. Relevant Vocabulary: The first unit of most language books practices asking and answering personal information questions.
  2. Building Confidence: Most students at this age have practiced this vocabulary for many years. I like to start every course off “easy” by activating prior knowledge and building confidence, otherwise they’ll learn early on to tune you right out.
  3. Engaging: This game represents my preferred teaching style – having fun while still focusing on content, correcting structures as needed and engaging students through a points system and interest in their classmates.

2. Two Truths & a Lie

* Adheres to Covid safety procedures.

Best for: 14 – 18 years (In Spain, 2º ESO -2º bachillerato)

Objective:  Vocabulary related to holidays, hobbies and summer activities

You Need: Scratch paper, a timer and a chalkboard/whiteboard for keeping score

Get Set Up

Start off with a personal example, IE:

  1. During summer vacation, I went surfing in Morocco 🏄‍♀️.
  2. During summer vacation, I ate lots of sushi in Japan 🍣.
  3. During summer vacation, I learnt to play the ukulele 🎶.

Two of the statements are true, and one is lie. The class has to guess which is the lie, and can ask you questions to try to trip you up. “What songs can you play on the ukulele?” “How long was the flight to Japan?”

Get Started

Once they’ve guessed your lies and understand the concept, give them 3-5 minutes to jot down their own 3 phrases. Make sure they don’t show their friends and encourage them to use 3 different verbs, as opposed to “I went…, I went…, I went…”

One at a time, have them come to the front, read their 3 sentences and have the class guess which is the lie. *To adhere to your school´s Covid protocool, students may simply read from their desk instead of coming to the front.

Why It Works

  1. Relevant Vocabulary: They’ve just come back from summer holidays, so the information is fresh in their minds. They likely studied summer vocabulary in the last unit prior to holidays.
  2. Past Tense Refresh: A fun refresh of the simple past tense.
  3. Building Confidence:  Activating prior knowledge with an easy verb tense and easy vocabulary.
  4. Engaging: This game is fun while still focusing on content and structure, and engaging students through a points system and interest in their classmates. Besides, what teen doesn’t like to lie to their teacher?

3. Ask Me Anything

Ask Me Anything
Designed by Freepik

* Adheres to Covid safety procedures.

Best for: 8 – 13 years (In Spain, this is 3rd to 6th of primary and 1st ESO)

Objective: Practicing asking & answering questions related to personal information, hobbies, likes & dislikes

You Need: A chalkboard/whiteboard

Get Set Up

Write several pieces of information about yourself on the board, such as your name, favorite animal, favorite sports, instruments you play, etc.

Get Started

  1. Students must form correct questions for the informations you’ve provided on the board, IE “What is your favorite color?” Each group that asks a question gets a point.
  2. You model the correct response – “My favorite color is green. What’s your favorite color?” and select several volunteers to also answer using the full response (not just “Green.”)
  3. Once you’ve gone through all of these responses, invite students to ask you whatever questions they like, and allow several students to answer the questions as well.

Why It Works

  1. Relevant Vocabulary: The first unit of most language books practices asking and answering questions about personal information.
  2. Building Confidence: Even low level students should know these basic question & answer structures. Starting off with vocabulary they know will help them build confidence and feel comfortable with you.
  3. Showing Off: Little dudes love talking about themselves and showing off what they know, so they’ll be eager to tell you about their favorites.

4. Show Off For Me

Back to School
Designed by Freepik

* Adheres to Covid safety procedures.

Best for: 4 – 7 years (In Spain, this is the two higher levels of infantíl and 1st  to 2nd of primary)

Objective: Find out what your students know by allowing them to show off for you. Focus on basic vocabulary such as colors, numbers, days of the week, etc.

You Need: A chalkboard is helpful, but not necessary.

Get Set Up

Kids at this age often understand more than they can say, so build confidence by focusing on basic vocabulary that they already know. At this level, kids aim to please and want to participate, so there’s nothing wrong with letting everyone tell you their favorites.

Get Started

This is pretty much a free for all, so just go with the flow and feed off of your classes energy. Here are some tried and true questions to get you started:

  • Days of the week (ask them if they know a song about the days of the week).
  • Favorite animals (let them mime their favorite animal and the other students have to guess).
  • Favorite colors (and point to something of that color in the classroom).
  • Body parts (have them point to parts of the body).
  • Family (brothers, sisters, pets, etc).
  • Alphabet & numbers (ABC’s, counting to 10, etc.)
  • Sing the ABC song

Why It Works

Keeping it simple helps to build their confidence and makes them feel proud of what they know. Exaggerate your pronunciation and body movements to help them understand and big smiles help shy students feel confident.

Good Luck Out There!

Will you get bored? Absolutely. Will it feel like a Tinder date from hell answering and asking the most boring questions imaginable, over and over? At times. But you have to start somewhere, and coming in with an interactive game as opposed to a boring  PowerPoint will definitely be in your favor!

If you’re planning ahead for the autumn, don’t forget to check out some of these relevant posts:

🎃 Halloween Fun in the ESL Classroom
💀 Day of the Dead Lesson Plans & Activities
🦃 T.G.I.Thanksgiving in the ESL Classroom
🥁 Celebrating Native American History Month

How to Teach English in Spain

Wondering how I got started teaching English in Spain? Check out these bad boys:

Ultimate Guide to the BEDA Language Assistant Program
Teaching English in Spain as an Auxiliar de Conversación

Moving to Spain

Already moving to Spain as a language assistant and getting settled in? These ones might help ya out as well:

Language Assistants: Getting Ready for the Big Move
Packing Dos & Don’ts for a Year Abroad
The Shelter Games: Apartment Hunting in Spain
Finding a Flat in Spain 101: The Basics
No One Says Apartamento: A Piso Glossary for Spain

Expat Life

11 Ways to Overcome Homesickness While Living Abroad
Six Years in Spain: Reflections of a Life Abroad

✌️💙, Erica

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Hey girl, I used the guess who game three times so far this week and it worked great, thank you so much this was a lifesaver!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Erica says:

      That is so great to hear!! It’s always a big hit with mine too 😉 What age groups did you use it with?


  2. M says:

    So helpful!! Thank you


    1. Erica says:

      Glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for reading!


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