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In the vast majority of ESL/EFL schools you’ll teach at and classrooms you’ll teach in, there will be a syllabus or curriculum to follow with at least one key textbook. And this textbook will provide the bulk of the learning materials you’ll use to instruct your students.

But even the best textbooks won’t cover everything that you’ll need for your class – because individual finite written materials can’t be expected to address the infinite number of learning issues that you can potentially face in English language teaching.

Some of these learning issues include:

  1. You need a 10 – 15 minute ‘filler’ because you’ve run out of material for the lesson.
  2. You concurrently have students in your class at both the higher end and lower end of the level you’re teaching. You need to give the faster students something useful to do while you’re helping the slower students.
  3. A student asks a question and your textbook either doesn’t cover the topic at all, or doesn’t cover it enough.  
  4. Because most textbooks have exercises that are accuracy-focused, you want to focus more on fluency.

TESOL Resourses create or search

In all of these cases, you’ll need supplementary materials to augment what is outlined in the syllabus – either ready-made ones (generally found online) or resources you create yourself. 

Either way, teachers who truly want to give their students every opportunity to reach their potential get in the habit of preparing supplementary materials on a regular basis.

Online Resources

Whether you’re a new or experienced teacher, this option at first glance would appear to be the optimal choice. It’s common sense, isn’t it? Why spend a lot of hours creating something from scratch when there are hundreds of excellent choices online? 

While it’s true that the search-and-print method will give you access to teaching ideas that you haven’t seen before and you may never have thought of on your own, there are definitely pitfalls to avoid. 

Let’s take a look at what makes an off-the-shelf option a GOOD option. I’ve compiled a checklist that I’ve found works really well for me – and I’ve included it below.

Checklist For Online Supplementary Materials

Any materials you find online should be:

well-developed – you might be surprised how many times I’ve seen supplementary materials with spelling and grammar mistakes, learning steps that don’t follow a logical progression, or elements that are incomplete in some way.

suitable for your class level and/or age group – if materials are too hard or too easy, your students will quickly lose interest. Also, it’s highly unprofessional to teach adult topics to children – and extremely condescending to teach childish topics to adults.

culturally sensitive / appropriate – for example, it’s unwise to attempt to discuss the China situation with a class that includes students from mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

time-friendly – I’ve seen some teachers get in the habit of trying to find what they think are ‘whiz-bang’, ‘X-factor’ exercises online – but then spend ages ‘learning’ how to teach them. It’s very easy to get burnt out if you have poor time-management skills.

DIY Resources

I’ve found that as a general rule, more often than not it is better to create your own materials than to try to find something online.


Because when you teach a class of students, all classroom learning materials should meet the specific needs of that particular cohort. And only you know what they are. Online materials usually only tick some or most of the boxes you need to tick – not all of them.

Dealing with Learning Issues

Previously in this article, I referred to four common learning issues. I’ve included example materials that I’ve successfully used in my classes on multiple occasions that address each issue.

  • 10 – 15 minute filler

One of the best options is having a discussion in small groups of 3 or 4 about a topic that the all the students like and understand. A very ‘safe’ topic is ‘Movies’.


Movie Genres:

romantic comedy
martial arts
tear jerker
human drama
science fiction

Discussion Questions:

  1. What kind of movies do you like best? Explain why with comparisons to other genres.
  2. Who is your favorite actor or actress? List his or her qualities.
  3. Do you prefer movies from your country or Hollywood movies?
  4. Would you like to act in or direct a movie? Describe what you think the experience would be like.
  5. Some people think that there is too much sex and violence in movies these days. Do you agree?
  •  Concurrently teaching faster and slower students

Do you have a problem with higher and lower level students being in the same class? One solution that works is to add an extra dimension to a textbook exercise.

For example, when you’re helping your slower students complete a reading comprehension exercise, ask your faster students to complete one or more of these activities.


Additional Activities

  1. Would you want to be friends with the main character in the story/article? Give at least three reasons why or why not.
  2. Find five words that you don’t know the meaning of or are not sure of the meaning. Write a grammatically correct sentence for each one.
  3. Choose one paragraph in the story/article. Rewrite the paragraph so that its meaning is completely opposite to the original.
  4. Write an alternative ending to the story/article.
  5. Write five additional questions for the reading comprehension exercise, with their answers.
  • Student questions

Most experienced teachers agree that the area of English that textbooks often don’t cover sufficiently is grammar.

Let’s say a learner asks about the difference between an adjective and an adverb. I would suggest making a chart with vocabulary used during that week (highlighted) and then adding the relating nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs.

After going through the definitions of each word category, using the chart as a visual aid, ask students to write 16 grammatically correct sentences using the 8 adjectives and 8 adverbs.

Nouns, Verbs, Adjectives and Adverbs

Nouns Verbs Adjectives Adverbs
strength strengthen strong strongly
reliability rely reliable reliably
decision decide decisive decisively
success succeed successful successfully
beauty beautify beautiful beautifully
action act active actively
sadness sadden sad sadly
distraction distract distracted distractedly
  • Focusing on fluency

Roleplays are good for improving fluency – for two reasons. One is the script writing phase where you put students in pairs to create and practice the dialogue. The other is the acting phase where the pairs present their role plays to the class.

Role Plays

  1. You’ve been waiting for a friend for over forty minutes. He/she is very late, as usual. He/she finally arrives.
  2. You’re going out on a date. You’ve just taken a shower and you want to dry your hair. Your roommate has borrowed your hair dryer and broken it. He/she is watching TV.
  3. You’ve been standing in line for more than an hour to buy tickets for a movie that you’ve been dying to see. Finally, when you get to the window, the cashier tells you that the tickets are sold out.
  4. It’s late Friday afternoon. You’re planning to leave on a weekend camping trip as soon as you finish work. Just as you’re about to leave, your boss calls you into his office and insists you come to work in the morning.
  5. You are walking along the street. Someone bumps into you and knocks all your books from under your arm. He/she rudely tells you that you should watch where you’re going.
  6. You’re at a restaurant and the person next to you spills some food on your shirt and then laughs.

One last thing

If you’d like to learn more about English language teaching, check out our other articles on our TESOL Advantage website.




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