Lightening Up and Going Mats-less: Techniques for Teaching English out of your Backpack

One of the most challenging things about teaching for SIDAS Language School is that the nature of the Active English Weeks Program makes any classroom activity that relies on extensive worksheets, readings, or individual materials in general a bit of a problem. Of course, in my experience, any lesson plan that relies excessively on worksheets is a bit of a problem anyway, but teaching engaging and focused lessons with minimal materials is definitely one way to challenge everything you think you know about teaching English.

So, after two years in the ESL classroom, and my few months teaching on the road for SIDAS Language School, I’d just like to share some fundamental approaches for teaching English (or any language really) without relying on extensive pre-designed and individually-printed materials.

Fundamental 1: Channel Students’ Focus … by Any Means Necessary

Even when you do have a worksheet or book to keep your students attention, the board should still be your #1 best-friend, wing-man, got-your-back buddy. A good old chalkboard is the easiest way to consolidate the language covered in the lesson, and to provide a point of focus for the class as a whole.

But you don’t need fancy videos, “interactive” white boards with bells and whistles, or even a board at all if you know how to channel your students’ attention. One of my favorite activities to do with classes in the 12-15 year old range is a variation on the running dictation, where students work in groups to reconstruct a short text that has been broken up and positioned throughout the room. Not only does it get students moving in addition to paying attention to the details of written English, it also provides a fun and engaging way of providing a “reading” to the students, which can then be exploited for grammar points, comprehension, and whatever else you would use a traditionally-printed reading for–no photocopies needed.

Plus, you’ve got to love having the power to make a bunch of thirteen-year-olds crawl under their tables muwahahahahaha
Similarly, live listenings and story-telling work wonders in a material-light classroom, where they can provide a less “polished” and therefore much more “real” model for students to aspire to in their own speaking.

Fundamental 2: Student-Generated Language +1

In general, your students, no matter their level, will know at least one or two things in English that you would never expect them to know. Use this to your advantage. When introducing a topic, elicit as much as possible–and then add  to the knowledge your students already have. This is where mind maps, word associations, and collocations all come in useful. It’s much more useful to show students a new way of conceptualizing the vocabulary they already have before adding to that vocabulary than it is to re-teach things that they already “know.”

In general, any vocabulary that I pre-teach before the main task of a lesson, I will pre-teach by connecting to words that I’ve elicited from the class first. So, for example, in the lesson that I do around the old EFL past-tenses standby, ALIBI, I usually start by eliciting and expanding on students’ crime vocabulary–students will usually know the basics: robbery, theives, murder. But they’ll usually need me to clarify the differences between burglary and robbery, and also the fact that each crime has a different term for the criminal involved, as well as for the verb related to commiting the crime(assasination vs. assassin vs. assassinate).

So, what ends up on my board is something like this:



Fundamental 3: Mix Things up to Get Them Talking

Right up there with your board, flashcards are your best friend. But, while it’s useful to have a couple standard decks for common vocabulary groups and chunks, there’s really no need to keep and sort through hundreds of flashcards when all you want to do is play a game of pictionary with your kids. There’s a much easier and simpler solution:

Get your kids to write the cards for you.

This goes hand in hand with utilizing and reinforcing student-generated vocabulary, and used correctly (and with the right amount of nudging toward the students’ creative sides), can produce unexpected amusement in even a simple game of pictionary. One thing I’ve started doing on the first day of class is getting students to write cards for me describing “something you’ve never seen before.” The answers are always hilarious, and provide some fun additions to any rounds of pictionary, charades, or articulate that we might play throughout the week.

And finally, definitely do not forget the power of using real examples and real objects in the classroom, whether it’s getting kids to dig through their bags for examples of what you’re talking about, making them navigate an obstacle course formed by the desks, or taking their phones so that they’re forced to describe them to get them back. It might be impossible to print out a sheet with pictures and words for every piece of clothing that your 11 year old A1’s should know, but chances are, if you get Anna, Simca, and Vlad to stand up in the front of the class, they’re wearing all of it anyway.

So, travelers, teachers, adventurers, and my linguistic-leaning friends: what’s your favorite way to lighten up the materials for your lesson plans? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments!

Published by thatexpatgirl

Traveler, Reader, Writer, Scribbler. Go ahead and email me at

7 thoughts on “Lightening Up and Going Mats-less: Techniques for Teaching English out of your Backpack

  1. My teacher always got us to do role plays or create songs or dances to learn the basics. To this day I can still remember the French days of the week that I learnt when I was 12 but if I sing them to the song “smile” by Lily Allen haha!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely! I rely a LOT on role plays in the classroom, and songs are a great way to help younger learners memorize… well, basically everything! I even remember seeing one video on YouTube where a teacher raps the irregular verb forms with his class, and I only wish I could be that cool 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi there!

    I absolutely love this idea. Some of my intermediate classes were completely buried in useless material from their old books and workbooks, and when I first arrived, I was having a little trouble connecting why conversation class had very little conversation. The kids hadn’t been speaking out loud or creating their own discussions.

    My favorite way to lighten up materials is a) to get silly with my little ones and never let their L1 into the classroom. The silly brightens them up and then their silly is forced to come out in English and b) ask only open ended questions with my older students how, what, why and list 2-3 reasons for that to get them to dig deeper than what’s simply on the page

    “Get your kids to write the cards for you” This is so great with my little ones! I have some genuinely artistic students, and then when my other students finish so quickly (with their indecipherable, chicken scratch) we have a little time to work on pronunciation or something they might need a little extra help in.

    I’m really gonna focus more on collocations and mind maps, what a great visual and could be a great opening to a difficult topic! Thanks for sharing the teacher love, 😀


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment, Kat! I can totally relate to the “buried in worksheets” methods that a lot of public schools seem to enjoy! Speaking of artistic students though, I have to finish up some of my activity posts, because there is one game that I’ve come to absolutely love for its ability to push younger students’ art skills and vocabulary–plus it requires nothing but four pieces of paper, drawing supplies, and a room with corners.

      And I totally agree with you that collocations are really super important–as is putting vocabulary in context and connecting new words with previous knowledge. I’ve been working really hard on developing my vocabulary-teaching methods, so I definitely hope to share more of what’s been working for me here soon 🙂 Do you happen have a favorite activity to use with your little ones?


  3. My youngest boys loved “pass the marker” or basically, learn a word or phrase, say it, pass it on, last kid writes it on the board (well, they’re young, they usually copy what I’ve written)

    I don’t know how that managed to last for 5-7 minutes, but they love it!

    They’re so naughty that they’ll try to mix up the words if the next student isn’t paying attention so he’ll copy them and make a mistake. It gets competitive!

    I love the game because the kids aren’t too fussed about pronouncing each letter, which some students get into the bad habit of when only reading, so they rely solely on my pronunciation and intonation to say it quickly and pass it on.

    My online students, since it’s harder to physically play or do activities love when I sing/chant with them. “Rain, rain, go away” during the weather lesson, Einey, Meaney, Miney, Mo (Spelling?! haha) for laughs.

    Have a wonderful weekend, and I hope your week ended on a better note than it began!



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