5th December 2017

All I want for Christmas is a Christmas tree: ESL Christmas activities in Asia

By Ryan Robbie

Teaching in Asia is full of surprises. One of the most surprising things I found is how many students write “Christmas tree” at the top of their Christmas wish list. This helped me understand just how different our cultures are from East to West.

Even though Christmas may not be celebrated at home in many parts of Asia, young learners still have a huge amount of curiosity about it. I found great satisfaction in watching my students go home on the last day of school before the Christmas break singing their favourite Christmas carols.

There is so much to love about Christmas and with a full package of activities based around this theme, you can expect to see a huge jump in confidence and competence with your learners.
In a moment we will take a look at my six favourite activities, but first I’d just like to address the question of celebrating all faiths and beliefs over the winter holidays. The reality is that in ESL more than any other profession, we come into contact with people from a whole range of cultures and backgrounds, some of which may celebrate Christmas and others which may not. I have met parents of non-Christian faiths in some countries who prefer it if Christmas is not mentioned in class, whilst on the other hand, I have had learners in East Asia who may not be religious, but who enjoy the commercial, gift-giving aspects of Christmas. My advice when deciding whether to do Christmas activities is to always consider your learners’ backgrounds and if in doubt, ask your Director of Studies or the parents what they feel comfortable with. In some cases you may be able to change Christmas themed lessons to make them more inclusive of other religions, such as making ‘Happy Holiday’ cards instead of ‘Merry Christmas’ cards, or singing this lovely ‘Snowflake’ song, which is a generic ‘winter time’ song as opposed to a Christmas song. Without further ado, here are my six favourite Christmas activities:

Christmas presents

Buying Christmas presents for your class could be a very expensive exercise, especially if you’re a teacher who teaches over 100+ students in a week. My workaround sounds cruel but the students really loved it. Instead of buying them presents, I created my own flashcards with a Christmas present design on the back. The cards are cut in different shapes and colours. Each card has a present drawn on one side. My students really loved these cards and there were so many activities we were able to do with them. While playing a lucky dip activity, learners love to test their luck to see if they will get a toy guitar, a computer or an apple. At the same time we are helping to reinforce their language awareness of size, shape, colour etc. Later they can take their ‘present’ home to show their parents.

Wish lists

Start on the whiteboard by brainstorming with the class about what gifts they would like to receive for Christmas. Students can then choose their favourite ideas to put on their own wish list. This activity can help boost student’s vocabulary and the best thing is they will be eager to take the list home and read it out to their parents. Who knows, they might get a Christmas tree after all.

Convincing students that Santa is real

Trying to convince students in Asia that Santa is real is a very tough challenge. Most Asian students are told by their parents and teachers at a very young age that Santa isn’t real. Challenging students on this can really provoke a strong response. The learners suddenly feel a sense of authority where they have the knowledge that must be explained to correct the teacher. The more you try to convince them that Santa is real, the harder they will try to express themselves and push their language abilities to the limit and convince you otherwise. I took this debate to new levels after I played CCTV footage of Santa delivering presents on Youtube. The students would try their best to explain to me that the video was fake. I was then able to introduce new vocabulary such as “pretending” and “acting”.

Christmas carols

Christmas carols are one of the most captivating things about Christmas for young learners. Singing is an obvious activity but you can also break down the lyrics in order to understand the story line of the song. One of my most memorable activities was introducing and asking students to rate and even describe the emotions that various Christmas carols create. Jingle Bells may make them want to dance whereas Silver Bells will make them want to sleep.

Drama

The value of learning through drama is second to none. Christmas time gives students the opportunity to perform a variety of Christmas-themed plays. It can be as simple as Santa delivering presents and children opening them on Christmas morning. Or if your school agrees, you could perform a more traditional nativity themed play. The power of drama is often overlooked. Studies show that drama is one of the best tools a teacher can use to promote knowledge retention among students.

Christmas cards

Christmas cards are an iconic part of Christmas and the simple act of writing a Christmas card is an effective way of promoting language in the classroom. Cards can be written to family members, classmates, teachers or they could even be sent to other students around the world.

As I mentioned before, a lot of families in Asia won’t hold a traditional Christmas. Most of your students won’t have a Christmas tree at home and many won’t be unwrapping any presents on December 25th. Many families in Asia treat Christmas like a European family would treat Chinese New Year, so don’t be disappointed if students don’t celebrate Christmas the same way that you may celebrate it. That isn’t what we are here for. You can be confident that the novelty factor will mean that your learners’ language abilities move forward in leaps and bounds over the Christmas season and into the New Year.

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Ryan Robbie is a guest blogger for English for Asia. He has 10 years of early years teaching experience across a diverse range of schools in Hong Kong. He is passionate about building language skills through creative activities that young learners will remember for life.