Back to school activities for the EFL/ESL classroom

Sadly the summer holidays are almost over and the next couple of weeks mark the return of the school year. During the first week of classes it can be difficult to know what to do with your students, as it is often a busy time where you need to communicate rules and expectations to your learners, perhaps get your bearings yourself in a new job and new surroundings, and above all else, get to know the students, their learning needs and their personalities.

How to choose a first lesson activity

In the first lesson you may know very little about your students. The first tasks that you give them therefore should be quite open ones, where you can listen to them speaking freely or get some type of free writing from them to later decide what their level is. At this stage, your feedback should be more on content rather than accuracy, as it is too early to start formal assessment, and you want to foster that sense of trust between learner and teacher, that they can speak freely rather than worry about making mistakes. Activities where you can learn what learners’ passions and interests are can help you with subsequent course planning, and tailoring content to their preferences to create engagement.
While it may be too early to start your scheme of work or syllabus, it’s a good idea to get learners on board with whatever they might be learning for that year. If your learners are teens or older primaries, you can talk to them about the learning objectives so that they know what to expect from the course. Learners can even be involved in the course planning, which we will talk about in more detail below.

Top 5 easy back to school activities

1) Name game: who moved?

Learners all say their names so that everyone can hear, or alternatively, they can write their names on name cards and put them on the table, taking a moment to memorize them. One student goes just outside the door (with a teaching assistant if possible so that they are not left alone). While that student is outside, the teacher instructs two students to change places. When the student outside comes back in, that student has to say who has moved. As the game progresses, the number of students who change seats should get bigger and bigger. Finally, I like to make everyone move, just to see the look on the student’s face when they realized that everyone in the class has moved. This game helps learners to learn each other’s name, and also helps you as the teacher to learn names, which is fundamental from the first lesson.

2) Class survey with letter to the teacher.

Students conduct a survey of each other to find out about their interests and likes / dislikes. Higher levels can write their own questions, lower levels can be supplied with questions. Post-survey, the students work together in small groups to collaboratively write a letter to you, introducing themselves and telling you a bit about each person. This activity allows them to get to know each other, and for you to get to know them, as well as providing you with chances to see their writing and listen to their speaking.

3) KWL charts based on the curriculum.

The KWL chart was devised by Ogle (1986) and looks like this:

What I already know (K) What I want to know (W) What I learned (L)
The names of jungle animals in English.

How to ask about the colour of different animals.
To tell a story about jungle animals.

To find out about food chains in the jungle.

Originally devised as a tool for engaging learners in reading, the chart has since been used to get learners involved in course planning. Learners fill in what they already know at the beginning of the course to avoid being retaught these things. They decide what they do want to learn about a topic and fill that in the ‘What I want to know’ column. The final column is left blank until after the points in the second column are covered, providing a reflection on the learning experience. I used to give out my scheme of work to my teen classes on the first day of term and they would divide the things on the scheme of work into the first two columns. This avoided wasting time on content that learners already know and also meant that I could take their preferences about learning into account, you may also be surprised with the quantity of extra ideas they can supply you with for course planning that you had never even thought of.

4) Needs analysis

It may sound more like something that we would do for a business English class instead of a young learner class, but doing a needs analysis can provide insight into the learners’ preferences about learning. Questions should be appropriately graded, if you ask a primary learner ‘What areas of your English do you need to improve?’ or ‘What do you use English for in real life?’ They are unlikely to answer, unless they have a very high level of self-awareness. Some of the best needs analyses I have seen for young learner classes have included child-friendly questions such as ‘Do you prefer working as a group or working alone?’ ‘I like English classes because……’ and ‘I don’t like English classes because….’. Make it child friendly with large font writing and some images and give it to learners to complete in the first class.

5) Family tree / Picture of home

This is good for kindergarten learners or young primary learners. Learners make a family tree by either sticking real photos on the tree or by drawing pictures of different people in their family and writing their names. These can be displayed on the wall and students can present their charts to each other. This is great idea for very young learners because as a teacher you also need to be aware of what might be going on in children’s home lives and who the person is that is picking them up after school. Knowing this information may help you to better relate to parents.

Whatever activities you choose to do, remember that the first week should allow the students to get to know you too, so don’t be afraid to share a little about yourself with them and to respond to any information that they share with you in a positive manner, showing them that you take an interest in their lives and their learning.


Ogle, D.M. (1986). "K-W-L: A teaching model that develops active reading of expository text." Reading Teacher, 39, 564-570.

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About the Author

Eve Conway

Eve has worked in Hong Kong, Spain, Vietnam and Mexico as both a teacher and CertTESOL and TYLEC trainer, and on shorter projects in the UK, Italy, Azerbaijan and Peru. She worked for the British Council for over six years, where she discovered a love for working with children, particularly Early Years learners. Eve holds a bachelor’s degree in English language as well as an MA in Applied Linguistics and a Trinity DipTESOL. Having always loved languages, she is a fluent Spanish speaker and is keen to learn more languages. Eve is a keen conference speaker and occasional writer for ELT magazines and publications.

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