Repeat after me: “You can’t use props too much in the classroom.“
Do you agree?
Props – or visual teaching aids – make the learning process fun and effective for the students as well as the teacher. That’s why successful ESL teachers build their stock of props over time and use them in every lesson.
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If you are looking for inspiration, what to try out next, here is our list of the best ESL teaching props, together with tips on how and when to use them.
Why Using Props in the ESL Classroom is Important
When young learners begin acquiring their first language, they are essentially like sponges, absorbing everything they see, hear, smell, touch, and taste.
Toys, books, games, and activities can help to make the experience more fun, particularly if they are used in a manner that enables young learners to be physically involved in the learning process. Of course, there’s also the show and tell aspect of using these child-centered resources as part of the learning experience.
For ESL students, especially young learners, acquiring a non-native language poses different challenges. As an ESL teacher, you will likely be using props and other teaching aids, not only to make the learning experience more fun and engaging, but also to elicit responses from students to develop their English fluency.
For online teaching, props can even more help to focus the student’s attention. In an online lesson, you have less control of the learning environment and potential distractions.
But you can make use of the fact that the students are used to watching videos or playing online games at home with lots of action happening on the screen. With many props (and high teacher activity), you can deliver an experience close to watching a cartoon movie and draw full attention.
Read 8 more tips on teaching English to little children.
What Makes a Prop Good for ESL Instruction?
In truth, anything can be used as a prop for teaching any subject, if it is used purposefully. As ESL teachers – whether in the classroom or online – we want to get down to business quickly using ready-to-go teaching props and aids.
We teach many students and classes throughout the day, so having a core set of props and aids can be a major time and lifesaver.
Good props for teaching ESL are those which can be used across a broad spectrum of classes, students, and contexts. There simply isn’t enough room to fill your home or office with props for every single context.
That’s why you want to build up an inventory of props that can cover a wide range of ESL age groups, topics, themes, and proficiency levels.
A prop is evidently a meaningful prop, when you can you it to:
- develop vocabulary
- practice spelling
- learn phonics and improve pronunciation
- practice describing items
- compare and contrast
- explain cause and effect
- learn and sing songs
That said, not all props need to be multi-textual to serve a purpose. Very young learners may be more challenging to keep on point, as they have short attention spans. For these situations, noisemakers and clappers will come in handy.
So, let’s get you set up with the right props for ESL teachers and how you can use them in the classroom.
Recommended Props for ESL Teachers
Let’s look into various categories of teaching props, most of them suitable for in-classroom teaching and online teaching as well.
Hand and Finger Puppets
Hand or finger puppets make excellent props for ESL classroom instruction. Use them to captivate your students through conversation, role-play, and other forms of engagement.
Because they slip onto your hand or fingers, puppets can magically transform into make-believe characters your students will connect with and grow to love.
In this video, Karen Frazier, co-author of the Let’s Go series, gives us an excellent model of how to use puppets in the ESL classroom to introduce conversation:
As you can see, puppets are great props for ESL instruction. For young ESL learners, you can breathe some life into your puppets – and your lesson – and completely transform the learning experience for your students.
Buy hand and finger puppets on Amazon:
Melissa & Doug Hand Puppets: Safari Buddies
Set of 6: Elephant, Tiger, Parrot, Giraffe, Monkey, ZebraStuffed AnimalsCheck the price on Amazon
Melissa & Doug Animal Hand Puppets: Zoo & Farm Friends
Set of 2, 4 animals in each: Zoo and farm animalsCheck the price on Amazon
Hand Puppet Set – 6 Family Members
9” Inch Soft Plush Hand Puppets: Mother, Father, Son, Daughter and GrandparentsCheck the price on Amazon
32 Pieces Finger Puppets: Zoo Theme
32 pieces of zoo animal finger puppets in different styles, 2.76 inches (ca. 7 cm) in heightCheck the price on Amazon
Stuffed animals are a favorite with young ESL learners, and like puppets, they can be used in various learning contexts. Indeed, you can use puppets and stuffed toys interchangeably.
The main difference between them is that stuffed toys are a little more challenging to bring to life, as you can’t move their parts with your hand like you would with a puppet. Still, there are many types of stuffed toys, that you’re more than likely to find a specific toy you’re looking for.
You can set them on a table or shelf, or hold them in your hands while teaching. Most of all, stuffed animals are soft, cute, and cuddly, and kids love them.
Use stuffed toys during warm-up activities, storytelling, or even creating an imaginary zoo, farm, or aquarium.
Buy stuffed animals on Amazon:
Stuffed Animals Bundle of Forest Animal Toys
7 inches (ca. 18 cm); Lion/Elephant/Zebra/Giraffe/Tiger/LeopardCheck the price on Amazon
Pink Rainbow Unicorn Stuffed AnimalCheck the price on Amazon
DOLDOA 5 Packs Soft Stuffed Animals Plush
Cute Teddy Bear/Monkey/Panda/Rabbit; 12.5 inches (ca. 32 cm)Check the price on Amazon
T-Rex Dinosaur Stuffed Animal, Filled with 5 Cute Little Baby Dinosaur Hatchlings Inside
15 inches (ca. 38 cm); with 5 Cute Little Baby Dinosaur Hatchlings Inside its Zippered TummyCheck the price on Amazon
Or just search for “stuffed animals“ on Amazon and look for other options.
Food is a popular topic with ESL students, and play food is a great way to get students talking about food.
Use play food to describe food groups, colors, shapes, and tastes. You can also use play food to talk about more complex topics like healthy vs unhealthy food, popular food around the world, or meals of the day.
So, go ahead and use play food to engage your students in fun, interactive activities. Make a picnic. Have lunch. Cook dinner. Order a meal. Dig in!
You can find lots of play food on Amazon:
axoJoy 122-Piece Deluxe Pretend Play Food Set
BPA-free plastic; bold colors, realistic designCheck the price on Amazon
70 PCS Cutting Play Food Toy
Including a toy grocery basket, 2 cutting boards, 2 kitchen knives, and 4 dinner plates. Foods are put together with Velcro and can be repeatedly “cut and sliced“Check the price on Amazon
Melissa & Doug Wooden Snacks and Sweets Food Cart
40+ Play Food pcs; durable, wooden constructionCheck the price on Amazon
Which child doesn’t love to hit, kick, throw, or catch a ball? We can’t think of one.
If you’ve never used balls for props in the ESL classroom, you’ll soon realize how much fun they can inject. Use a ball to assign student turns during any activity. There are no limits to the kind of activities you can do in the ESL classroom with a ball.
Here’s an example of Jenny White using a ball to effectively engage her students in a vocabulary game:
What’s remarkable about using a ball while teaching is that you can get your students on their feet and physically active during the activity. That not only improves their concentration and participation, but also adds elements of competitiveness, teamwork, and coordination between thoughts and actions.
If you teach ESL online, you can use a ball for talking about sports, colors, and shapes.
Your ESL students will have a ball learning English – seriously!
Needless to say, you can find many balls on Amazon:
beetoy Inflatable Sport Toddler Balls Set
6 balls: Football, Basketball, Volleyball, Baseball, Rugby, Spike ball; includes bag and pumpCheck the price on Amazon
Toysmith Get Outside GO! Pro-Ball Set
Pack of 3 (5-inch soccer ball,6.5-inch football and 5-inch basketball)Check the price on Amazon
KLT Sensory Stress Ball Set
12 Pack Stress Relief Fidget Balls/Squishy Balls, 2.5 inches (6.35 cm)Check the price on Amazon
Every ESL teacher should be equipped with flash cards for all occasions. Whether teaching in the classroom or online, flash cards are nifty because you can use them in so many contexts to enhance the learning experience.
Use them for activities and games, drilling vocabulary, pronunciation, conversation, and role-plays. Though most stock flash cards are geared towards young learners, you’ll find a wide variety of flash cards that cover more complex concepts such as nouns and prepositions, and themes such as emotions.
Flash cards are also easy to pack and carry, they make an excellent teaching aid for traveling ESL teachers. So, if you’re planning a family vacation but plan to teach ESL online during your travels, flash cards will fit neatly into your suitcase.
Here are some ideas for using flash cards for teaching primary children, by Carol Read of Macmillan Spain:
These flashcards are available on Amazon:
Star Right Numbers & Sight Words Flash Cards Set of 4
144 Sight Words Flash Cards: Numbers, First Words, Colors, Shapes, and Alphabet; with binder ringsCheck the price on Amazon
GAMENOTE Dry Erase Alphabet and Number Flash Cards
Write and Wipe Laminated ABC Letter Tracing Practice Card for Kindergarten (47 Flashcards with 2 Rings and Marker)Check the price on Amazon
Teacher Rachel’s Educational Flash Cards for Toddlers – Set Of 5
182 Cards Pre K-K Mega Flashcards Set with First Words, Alphabet, Colors, Shapes, Numbers, Manners, Greetings, Feelings, and WeatherCheck the price on Amazon
There isn’t much we could say about dry-erase boards that ESL teachers don’t already know. Dry-erase boards are an English teacher’s biggest asset in the classroom.
But what many ESL teachers may not realize is that smaller dry-erase boards (primarily designed for children) are compact enough to hold in your hands. This makes them useful teaching aids for demonstrating grammar, vocabulary, assessments, or keeping scores during a class activity.
Get a magnetic dry-erase board and use it with magnetic letters and numbers!
These are great options on Amazon:
U Brands Contempo Magnetic 11″ x 14″ Dry Erase Board
Magnet, marker, and double-sided Velcro mounting strips includedCheck the price on Amazon
GMAOPHY Dry Erase White Board, 16″ x12″ Large Magnetic Desktop Whiteboard with Stand
Including 10 Markers, 4 Magnets, 1 Eraser, Portable Double-Sided White Board Easel (12″ x 12″ also available)Check the price on Amazon
Dry Erase Lapboards (30 Pack) DOUBLE SIDED, 9″ x 12″
Mini White Dry Erase Boards for Students, including markers and erasersCheck the price on Amazon
Also read: How to use interactive whiteboards in the classroom
Magnetic Letters and Numbers
Magnetic letters and numbers are extremely useful for teaching ESL to young learners, and go well with a magnetic dry-erase board. They can be used in numerous ways, especially for learning the alphabet, counting numbers, spelling, practice phonics, and do math.
You can also use scrabble letters in place of magnetic ones, though scrabble letters would be better suited for the classroom than online instruction.
This set has all you need:
253 pieces Magnetic Foam Letters and Numbers Kit, with Double-Sided Magnetic Board and Storage Box
52 uppercase letters,156 lowercase letters, 20 numbers, 14 math symbols, 5 cartoon refrigerator magnets, 1 double-sided magnetic writing board, 3 marker, 1 eraser and 1 sturdy storage boxCheck the price on Amazon
Though hand clappers are not so useful for instruction, they can be useful teaching aids during activities, or simply to keep young learners attentive and focused. You can even use them to celebrate student birthdays during class.
If you teach online, you probably just need one hand clapper; since they usually come in inexpensive packs, you may as well have an assortment of hand clappers on hand, and use them to practice language skills such as identifying colors.
Other options to hand clappers are maracas and squeaky rubber chickens.
Let’s make some noooooise with these hand clappers:
Kicko Hand Clapper Noisemakers, 12 pieces
7.5 inches (ca. 19 cm); different colorsCheck the price on Amazon
Giant Hand Shaped Clapper
1 piece; available in 4 colors; 18.5 inches (ca. 47 cm)Check the price on Amazon
24 Mini Wooden Fiesta Maracas
6 colorful designs; 10.2 inches (ca. 26 cm)Check the price on Amazon
Our focus in this post was to reach both teachers who teach in the classroom as well those who teach online. We’ve given you some pretty awesome examples of props you can use in the ESL classroom.
There are undoubtedly more teaching aids than we could possibly cover here. You can use everyday items and almost anything as a prop or teaching aid, as long as you use it in ways that are meaningful to learning and the learning experience.
Just be creative!
Many online ESL teachers use green screening as a teaching aid, which is great because you can easily share images, animations, and do other neat stuff on-screen.