Ten Essential ESL Filler Activities

Every teacher has, at some point in their career, experienced that deer-in-the-headlights moment when you realize that you’re completely out of lesson material with twenty minutes left in class.  For those of us who aren’t improvisational geniuses, having a solid repertoire of “filler” activities is crucial for those moments.

Brooke O'BrienThe important thing with all of these activities is that they are simple, easy to do on the spot, require almost no materials or prep, and instantly turn potential dead-time in class into a chance for your students to have so much fun they don’t even realize they’re learning.

Get familiar with these ten essential ESL activities, so that you can always have them on hand to keep the class moving in any situation.

1. Spelling Race

Divide the class into two teams, or play in pairs for this fun, high-energy race.  Have them line up at the board, with one marker per group.  As soon as you say a spelling word, the first student will write one letter, then pass the marker to the next student to write the second letter, and so on.

The first team or pair to correctly spell the word is the winner.

2. Hangman

A simple, classic, and versatile game, Hangman lets you practice spelling, vocabulary, and sentences, it reinforces the parts of the body, and it’s a lot of fun. [contextly_sidebar id=”HIMhzEwSDCNX5jd3mKCkuZbDeKXgqlRI”] Students love guessing letters, and they love even more when you let them come up to the board and pick a word or phrase themselves.

If you are letting students write the word or sentence, it’s a good idea to have them write it on a piece of paper for you first so that you can double-check grammar and spelling.

3. Word Searches

It might seem like a little bit of a cop-out to just hand out a worksheet to occupy your students for those extra ten or fifteen minutes.  Word searches, however, are great for letter recognition, spelling, and reviewing old vocab words.

To really give your students a challenge, list definitions or descriptions instead of the actual word. Challenge them to see who can find all of the words first, who can find the most words in ten minutes, or what words they can find that aren’t on the list.

Word searches are also a great way to keep faster students busy while they are waiting for the rest of the class to finish a worksheet or activity.

There are plenty of online sites that help you create word searches in a few minutes.  Check out Puzzlemaker, which is a great tool for creating word searches, crossword puzzles, and various other activities.

You only need a few minutes to create them and print them out, and having a stack of them in your teaching materials can be a lifesaver.

4. Pictionary

Chances are your students love to doodle, so go ahead and encourage it for a little while.  Split the class into two teams.  Give one person on the team a word or phrase to draw, while the rest of the team tries to guess what it is.  This is another great way to throw in some random vocabulary words and see what they remember.

This is another great way to throw in some random vocabulary words and see what they remember.

5. Taboo

This is a great game to practice understanding as well as spelling of vocabulary words.  Have a student sit at the front of the class with his back to the board.  Write a recent or old vocabulary word on the board behind him, and have his teammates give hints to help him guess what it is.

You can set whatever “taboos” will work for your class – a list of certain words that they can’t use in their hints, or something as simple as “no rhymes,” “no saying letters,” or “no reading the definition from the vocabulary sheet.”  Quick, easy, no materials needed, and a great chance for students to use language creatively.

Bonus: If the student at the board can correctly spell the word after guessing it, give his or her team an extra point.

6. Telephone

The classic game of gibberish.  Have your students line up, and whisper a sentence to the first student, who will whisper it to the second and so on down the line.  Each person is only allowed to say it one time.  By the time it reaches the end, the sentence is always comically garbled up.

Pick a sentence that is a little bit strange to begin with.  Something like “I had pizza for dinner last night” is probably going to get through the line pretty well, whereas “Two monkeys ate my pizza and stole my shoes” is going to be much more entertaining.

If you have a larger class, you might want to split them up into two groups. If there are too many students in one “telephone” line, especially if they are younger, they’ll start to get restless waiting for the message to get to them.

7. Corrections

Write a sentence on the board that’s full of errors – spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and grammar are all fair game.  You can either have students come up to the board one at a time to make corrections or have them work in teams or individually to write the correct sentence down on a piece of paper.

Either way, it’s a fun and engaging way to get them thinking about all of the different aspects of written language.

8. Word Scramble

Have your students work individually or in pairs to unscramble words that you write on the board.  Don’t just use their current vocab words – throw in some old vocab words, or some common words that will be a little more of a challenge for them.

9. Anagrams

You’d be amazed how many different words you can come up with that all use the same five or six letters.  Write a set of letters on the board, set a five-minute time limit, and see how many words your students can come up with, either as a class or individually.

You’ll have to take a few minutes during your prep time to find a list of good letter combinations and anagrams.  Once you find them, keep the list handy in your teaching materials and mark off the ones you’ve already used.

10. Twenty Questions/I Spy

For more advanced classes, twenty questions is a classic.  You (or a student) pick a person, place, animal, or object, and the class gets to ask you twenty yes/no questions to figure out what it is.

For beginner classes, I Spy is a great simpler alternative.  It uses a lot of colors and descriptive words, as well reinforces basic grammar patterns.  You pick an object, and tell the class, “I see something…(red/little/flat)” They then guess: “Is it a… ?”

Do you have any filler activities you would like to add? Please let us know in the comments below. 

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