5 Halloween-Themed Activities for Your Young English Learners

image of pumpkins

It’s almost Halloween and the ghosts and vampires will soon be coming out to play! Did you know that although we often associate Halloween with pumpkin carving and eating candy, the festival has much older origins?

Samhain is an ancient Gaelic festival which celebrates the end of the harvest and the start of winter. This is why people often associate the colors of orange and black with Halloween: orange is the color many leaves turn in autumn and black is the color of the darker winter months.

People used to believe that spirits walked the Earth on the night of Samhain. The tradition of dressing up as ghosts and demons started as a way to hide from the spirits who walked the streets. Similarly, people used to leave treats outside their houses for the spirits and from this came the tradition of trick-or-treating.

It’s always fun to engage with students in fun Halloween activities to get them into the Halloween spirit while they learn English. Even though many programs are teaching remotely during the Covid crisis, we can still engage in fun Halloween activities. Here are a few ideas to get students playing and learning, even when remote.

1. Who or What Am I?

In this activity students will practice using descriptive words and learning Halloween vocabulary. Search images online that include Halloween imagery (jack-o-lantern, pumpkin, ghost, black cat, bat, vampire, etc.) Email each student one picture ahead of the class. During class, give each student one to two minutes to describe their picture to the class without telling others what it is. The student who first guesses the object correctly gets a point. Play until everyone described their object. After each guess is completed, you can show the picture to everyone on your shared screen. The student with the most points wins the game.

2. Pumpkin Oranges

Pumpkin carving is fun – but it’s also messy and pumpkins can be really heavy! Instead, have students use an orange and a black marker! Get them to draw a scary face on their orange and then write a short text describing it. Here’s an example you can share with your students:

pumpkin orange

My pumpkin orange, Ghoulie, has two big eyes. He’s got a small nose and a big mouth, with lots of teeth. This Halloween, he’s going to sit outside my house. He’s going to scare people but he doesn’t scare me! I think he’s very funny!

3. Let’s Play Halloween Bingo!

This is a great activity to review the Halloween vocabulary. Email students a blank bingo board or have them draw one on a piece of paper. Then have them draw Halloween items, one for each box. You might want to give them some ideas, such as ghost, black cat, pumpkin, bat, etc. Then play bingo, calling out different Halloween-related words. Students listen and mark their boards if they have the item that was called out. The first person with five in a row wins the game.

4. Halloween Theater

This activity will let your students be creative while they are practicing modals. Put students in small groups, and give each group a scary scenario. For example: Frankenstein has stolen your lunch. A big black hairy spider is chasing you. A vampire asked you to go for a walk with him. Have the groups discuss what they would do in each situation. Encourage them to use modal verbs (should, could, would). Then have groups share their ideas with the rest of the class.

5. Tell a Scary Story

Have the class create a scary story. Students take turns adding one sentence to the story. For example, Student 1: One night I was home alone when the lights went out. Student 2, All of a sudden, I heard a big bang coming from the basement. Continue until everyone contributed to the story. For a larger class, you might want to put students in groups to work on their story, write it down, and then present to the whole class. You might also want to give students sentence starters or some vocabulary to get them going.

Teaching practical vocabulary in your grammar lessons

By Stacy Hagen

Recent shifts in adult education have placed a priority on workforce and academic readiness. English language programs need to not only help learners develop English language competencies but also develop the skills they will need as they further their goals of education and better employment.

In this new educational landscape, preparing our students for college and career readiness is critical.  One thing we can do is to focus on practical vocabulary and content in our exercises.  Let me show you several examples.

Beginning students need to learn the basics of filling out forms.  In this exercise from the new edition of the Fundamentals of English Grammar, the grammar point is simple present and present progressive, but the context is completing forms.  While students are practicing the verb forms, they are also learning the language necessary for filling out forms.

Email is the number one form of communication in the workplace, but many of our students don’t use it at all.  When they get to college or start a job, it’s likely they may not know how to compose a proper message.  Here’s an exercise to introduce students to email appropriateness while practicing the verb will.  Through reading, discussion, and writing, students learn that casual language, emojis, reduced speech, to name a few, are not appropriate for academic or workplace emails.

Beginning and intermediate students need practical life-skills vocabulary; this can be easily included in sentence-level practice.  In this exercise with another/the other, the context is appliances and tools. Students practice a new grammar point while also acquiring practical vocabulary.

A traditional way to teach students how to ask for the meaning of something is by giving them an unfamiliar word.   For example, if they are at an intermediate level, we might give them the word spectacular and have them ask, “What does spectacular mean?”  Now, at some point, students will probably encounter a word like spectacular, but we could also give them content that would help them navigate their more immediate world: texting.

Helping our students become college and career ready also involves teaching them useful learning skills and strategies. Tips for how to be a better learner can be embedded into grammar lessons as illustrated by this example:

The topic of this reading is based on an interesting insight from cognitive science that shows we remember information at the beginning and the end better than information in the middle. Students tend to study in long blocks, maybe an hour, or two.  But if they study for a shorter amount of time, 25 minutes and then take a 5-minute break, they create a new ending and beginning.  This will help them remember information better.  

The Fundamentals of English Grammar and Understanding and Using English Grammar now have a series of blog that include study tips to help student become more successful in the academic world. Whether students are preparing for college or seeking employment, we can help them by providing practical and relevant content from the start. As these examples illustrate, this practical and relevant content can be easily embedded into any grammar lesson.


Stacy Hagen has been involved in ESL for 40 years as a teacher, administrator, teacher-trainer, and materials writer.  She has taught intensive, immigrant, refugee, high school, and MATESL students. She is the co-author of the Azar-Hagen Grammar Series, including the most recent Fifth Edition of Fundamentals of English Grammar.

Learn more about the Azar-Hagen Grammar Series here.

True Stories + Future = Perfect Partners!

True Stories is a six-level reading series that has been an enduring favorite of teachers and students for 25 years. These popular texts consist of human-interest news stories that are geared towards adults.

The series can be used as a stand-alone reading course or as a complement to Future, a six-level adult English course that equips learners with transferable academic, workplace, and English communication skills.

The color-coordinated book covers make it easy to match the levels in True Stories with the levels in Future.

Why are True Stories and Future perfect partners?

Pair units in Future with thematically related units in True Stories to:

  • accelerate your students’ progress in reading
  • recycle and reinforce the vocabulary of the topics
  • prompt students to share their own “true stories” related to the topic
  • enliven your lessons with believe-it-or-not reading selections

Sandra Heyer, the True Stories author explains the rationale between this association between Future and True Stories:

“I teach reading in the four-level Adult ESL program in my community. I go from level to level with True Stories and teach a 20-30-minute reading lesson in each class.

When I walked into a classroom with the books, often the teacher asked if I had a story about the topic they’re working on–health, work, housing, etc. I usually did. The teachers and I noticed that a lot of the vocabulary in the life-skills unit reappeared in a theme-related story, and that often the story got students talking about their own experiences related to the theme. Another plus was that the story seemed to change the energy in the room—that the story about the woman with the bad knee being chased by a bear, for example, offset the seriousness of a lesson on illnesses and injuries. So, the teachers and I began to coordinate our lessons.”

We want to share this partnership with you. Therefore, we have created handy correlation documents to help you quickly match units in Future with complementary units in True Stories.

Download them here.

Designing a Superhero Movie Unit

by Lora Yasen

“You’re despicable. Dishonorable. Faithless,” said Gamora to Peter Quill.

This short line from the sci-fi superhero movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, provides a lot of material for the ESL class.  First, this list of adjectives in the movie makes a good multiple-choice listening exercise. Next, students can learn new vocabulary words and talk about the tone, informality and intent of the speaker. This scene is a good discussion topic also. What are some characteristics of a hero?  Is Peter a hero at this point in the movie? Why or why not? At the end of the movie unit, this line from the movie may be cited with a reference in a student essay on the transformation of the hero character during the story.

In my university level reading, writing and discussion skills-based ESL courses, I often use a movie and reader in addition to the usual textbooks. Superhero movies are instantly engaging, and a favorite source of language and cultural content for my students. Here is the process I follow for designing a superhero movie unit.

Superhero Movie Toolkit

First collect the movie resources. Find a junior novelization or ESL reader on the movie (which includes movie photos) as a student textbook. Find teacher reference materials such as the movie script online, movie websites, movie trailers, soundtracks and lyrics, comic books, etc. Official movie websites may have games, quizzes, taglines, trailers, etc. that can be used in worksheets, scavenger hunts, or previewing activities. Most have character photos that can be references for students to learn about the heroes and the villains.

Pearson English Readers have a whole series based on the Marvel Super Heroes

Materials Creation

 For Guardians of the Galaxy, I created a PowerPoint with movie photos to help students learn the character names, and different groups and planets. Later we returned to the character photos to talk about special abilities, motives for wanting the orb, and tragic backstories.

I created a listening assignment called, “Who Said It?” for the movie. I used quotes from the movie or website taglines that are important to the comprehension of the film.

“You keep throwing that in my face!”

Who said It? Peter Quill said it when Yondu reminds him the crew wanted to eat him.

Since music is such an important theme in the movie, I developed lessons on several songs from the Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1 soundtrack and discussed the lyrics, and we viewed the original singers in YouTube videos. Knowing the songs made the music more meaningful during the movie and helped students comprehend more of the movie.

I chose Scene 13 from the movie script for student role-plays. This scene, “12 % of a Plan”, is significant in the movie. It is a difficult, humorous, sad scene where the characters decide to set aside their selfish motives and unite to save the galaxy. Student read the scripts and then discussed the vocabulary and meaning of the scene before viewing this part of the film. Without this preparation, students would have missed this major change in the plot.

Lesson Plans, Course Outcomes & Assessments

Using a reader and movie offers plenty of opportunities to meet course outcomes and design interesting assessment options. I have students read 3-4 chapters of the reader each week. While reading, we discuss vocabulary in context, discuss parts of speech, work on reading comprehension skills, reading for details and do a lot of summarizing. We practice the concepts learned in our regular textbooks.  We begin with the paragraph and locate main ideas. Then we summarize the paragraph, then the page, and finally the chapter. We practice note-taking skills with the reader and make oral and written summaries. Unless the reader comes with reading exercises, I create my own worksheets that incorporate the skills and student learning outcomes that I normally teach in the course. To scaffold summarizing skills, students work in groups, pairs and then alone to summarize the chapters. Assessments include reading tests on the story and writing assignments on a character or a compare/contrast essay on the reader and movie.

Stop and Go Method

Every Friday after finishing the weekly reader chapters, we watch the portion of the movie we’ve read about. I turn on the closed captions and we watch the movie scene using a stop and go viewing method. I stop at confusing scenes to ask questions. Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? At the end of the movie unit, we watch the movie through without stopping to prepare for the final writing assessment.

Superhero Themes

Superhero movies reflect American society and culture and include many interesting themes for discussions or writing assignments. My students decided that one of the themes in Guardians of the Galaxy is that diverse groups of people can work together successfully to help others. Superhero movies are not simply for entertainment, they can be rich sources for teaching language and culture.


Pearson ELT offers a large collection of graded readers at all levels of proficiency. Our new series of readers is based on Marvel’s Super Heroes series. To search the catalog of all Pearson English Readers, click here.

Using Plays in the Classroom. Part 4: Reflecting on the Play

This article is another installment in our Helping Superheroes Teach series. The aim of this series is to offer teachers helpful strategies and practical tips they can implement in their classrooms.

 
By Dr. Frances Boyd and Christopher W. Collins

In this series of blog posts, we’ve discussed a variety of language-learning exercises and activities for introducing the play preparing for the play and digging into the play . In fact, some of the most satisfying moments come when the play has been finished. Completion of the play allows for a deeper, more reflective response on the part of students. While they have focused on comprehension and interpretation of individual scenes, students now have the opportunity to respond to the work as a whole, to make connections with their own experiences, and to think critically about their views.

Play Performance
Whether students see a stage or a movie performance, when the reading is done, they can step back to observe and react to the director’s choices. The teacher can give them a choice of what to focus on and then pose such questions as: How do the casting, costumes, setting(s), lighting and sound fit your imagined version? How does the audience react (in a live performance)? If the director omitted or changed any lines or scenes, why and to what effect?

In our experience, few students have analyzed film; fewer still have ever experienced a play in the legitimate theater. By empowering students to get into the director’s shoes, rather than elicit a simple reaction, teachers create an intriguing platform for students to think critically about the techniques, strategies, and expressive power of drama.

Integration of Grammar and Vocabulary
Throughout the unit of materials for a play, students learn new language and practice using it. By the end, it is appropriate to expect more nuanced, varied, and accurate utterances. To both elicit and model such language, teachers can create a structured conversation between two readers who have just viewed a performance. Such an exercise could either be a quiz or a final practice. In either case, it is also effective as a prelude to a discussion.

Two readers of “To Kill a Mockingbird” have just seen the Academy-award-winning film. Use modal perfects, adjective clauses, and past unreal conditions.

A: Wow! That was no run-of-the-mill film. Gregory Peck was amazing as Atticus. I read that Harper Lee, [1] ___________wrote the original novel, said the director [2] _____________[choose/not] a better actor.

B: Uh, huh. One big difference from the novel is the point of view. Jean Louise, [3] __________ is Scout as a grown woman, is only there in the beginning of the film. If she [3]_____________________[continue], it __________________[be]

Essay Writing
When students write an essay in response to a play, they practice their writing skills in an organic way: the motivation should be intrinsic and much of the language should be at their fingertips.  In a variety of unedited quotes from student essays in response to August: Osage County, we can see some of the depth and breadth of their engagement with the work.

I really like this story and movie even though this is totally a tragedy, but this story gives me a lot of thoughts and made me reflect on what the family is…This story tells us an important thing: we are all part of our family and that is why we can talk to each other by heart and criticize them without offense, because we love them so much.

***

Every family has inevitable contradictions; everyone in this world has their own miserable problems.

While these students focus on the family, the following student delves into the emotional relationships themselves.

It’s an indisputable fact that some of plot is “fiercely funny”, but when I think rationally, I tend to think it’s “bitingly sad.” The emotions and implications of August: Osage County are complex….

Other students comment directly on how the reading of a play holds possibilities for understanding culture in greater depth.

Language and culture are the important factors that make the film or play have different national characteristics.

***

This play quintessentially displays the real American family who lives in the countryside.

***

As an international student, if I hadn’t learned this play so deeply, I would have never known those complicated aspects of real American life.

While excerpts from individual writings only give a narrow sense of the writing itself, we can see students responding to the piece of literature and to the culture out of which it emerges. We can also appreciate their search for connections to their own experience as well as explanations for the similarities and differences across cultures.

Concluding Remarks
“People’s need for theatre is as powerful as their desire for food or drink,” says Oskar Eustis, Artistic Director of the Public Theatre in New York in his TED Talk “Why Theatre is Essential to Democracy”. In the dialog on stage, he explains, we hear the drama of conflicting points of view, and we “lean forward” in empathy; moreover, we do this together, as part of an audience.

In an in-depth study of an American play, English Language learners can partake of this powerful, ancient, collective experience – guided by teacher-made exercises and activities that move from comprehension to interpretation to reflection and coached by teachers who set the stage for students to explore new contexts, new relationships, and new ways of using language.

Here is a list of plays we have successfully introduced in the ESL classroom. This list is by no means exhaustive; we would welcome hearing recommendations for other plays, particularly those that are contemporary.

Selected American Plays for English Language Learners

Advanced: CEFR B2 – C1
All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, An Enemy of the People – Arthur Miller
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire – Tennessee Williams
August: Osage County – Tracy Letts
Inherit the Wind – Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee
A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansberry
Six Degrees of Separation – John Guare
To Kill a Mockingbird  – Christopher Sergel/Harper Lee
Twelve Angry Men – Reginald Rose

Intermediate: CEFR B1
Lost in Yonkers, The Prisoner of Second Avenue – Neil Simon
Children of a Lesser God – Mark Medoff
Crossing Delancey – Susan Sandler
The Miracle Worker – William Gibson
Our Town – Thornton Wilder


Dr. Frances Boyd has been teaching students and developing teachers for over 30 years in the U.S. and abroad, in China, Columbia, Kyrgyzstan, and Mexico. She serves on the faculty of Columbia University’s American Language Program in the School of Professional Studies, where she has collaborated on the American Play Project for nearly all of those years. She is co-editor of the academic book series NorthStar, author of Making Business Decisions –both published by Pearson, and a frequent featured speaker at international ELT conferences. Boyd holds the BA from Oberlin College, the MA from the University of Wisconsin, and the Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Christopher W. Collins is a lecturer in the American Language Program (ALP) at the Columbia University School of Professional Studies, where he also co-chairs the annual ALP Winter Conference, and he has also taught in the Czech Republic and in Japan. He completed his M.A. in TESOL at The New School, with a concentration in Curriculum Development.