Material Magnetism: How to Keep Your ESL Students Coming Back for More

What’s the most important thing that will keep your students coming back for more lessons?

Is it your well designed grammar exercises? Your refined pronunciation drills? Or maybe your charisma?

These are all great, but unless you build lessons that are relevant to your students, you will eventually lose them.

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In this article you will learn exactly how to find the perfect material and match it with your students, keeping them happy and making your retention rates stay sky high.

How to Create Magnetic  ESL Lessons: The Teacher Guide

How to Find Magnetic Material

1. Learn About Your Students

Each student has their own reasons for learning English, they have their own interests and own motivations. They are investing their time and money in you because they believe that you can help them move towards their goals.

So, how do you find out what your students’ goals and interests are? Well, there’s this beautiful thing called conversation that can be used to ask these things called questions… 

Joking aside, I use the first part of a trial class to do my investigation. One of the earliest questions I ask is

“Why do you want to improve your English?”

Now, this is quite simple and you will usually get similar basic answers:

  • “For work”
  • ”For study”
  • “Want to speak with friends”

This will give you a rough idea, but you will need to dig deeper. 

For example, if they say they are learning for work then you need to find out how they use English.

  • Do they just send the occasional email to foreign clients?
  • Do they have to give presentations?
  • Do they have to manage a team?

Get as much information as you can. This will help you much more when you structure your lessons later on.

Paul… the Software Engineer (A)

Paul is a software engineer. He works in a local team where he speaks his native language (German) but occasionally has to send emails to English speaking workers from divisions in other countries. He isn’t sure about his grammar and would like to appear as professional as possible when communicating with these people.

It’s also vital to ask what they do for work / study. Once you know the field of study / work then you can use vocabulary / terms that are specific to that field. This will add massive value to your students who are taking one-to-one lessons. Even if you are teaching a group class, you can find areas that are relevant to as many of your students as possible.

Janet… the Architect (B)

Janet is a college student who wants to one day be an Architect. She has decided to study Architecture in the UK (providing she passes her IELTS). As well as helping her with her exam it turns out that expanding her vocabulary relating to Architecture is something she would be interested in.

Finally, find out your students’ hobbies. Tying lesson material to a student’s interests is a quick way to get them hooked on your lessons!

Ben… a Fan of Sitcoms (C)

After some discussion, it turns out that Ben is a huge fan of American sitcoms. He finds them funny but can’t always understand what’s happening. Although he didn’t say he is specifically wanting to improve his English for the purpose of watching sitcoms, he seems much more interested when you mention you would like to include these things into your lessons.

2. How to Build ESL Lessons

Once we have plenty of information to go on, we are ready to make our lesson plans. First, it’s a good idea to think about which area you want to develop and then get the materials to fit that.

Let’s look at our examples again:

Paul… the Software Engineer (A)

Paul mentioned already that he wants to improve his grammar. With regard to him needing to improve it for work emails, it makes sense to focus on writing ability.

Now, from here, what would you do?

We could set some exercises and role play some scenarios for Paul to reply to. However, if Paul has some past emails from work or ones that he needs to work on then it makes sense to use this as your source material. This is as relevant as it gets, you are using material that the student would be using on a regular basis in their English-speaking world.

This is now moving on to our second step, finding the right material. This was fairly simple with Paul as we already had the material to work with.

What could we do with Janet in Example B though?

Janet… the Architect (B)

We mentioned already that Janet would benefit from expanding her vocabulary relating to architecture. For this, it’s as simple as finding material that has a lot of relevant vocabulary. This can be found in Architectural news articles and magazines. We can have Janet read these articles, check her comprehension of certain words and then get her to use these words in a sentence to drill them to memory.

Finally let’s look at the kind of student who has a hobby (such as watching sitcoms) you want to incorporate into a lesson and the ways of doing this:

Ben… a Fan of Sitcoms (C)

The student could write a review or summary of a lesson. You could discuss the episode in class, favourite parts etc. for the purpose of speaking. Your student could read scripts (found online) to check pronunciation and comprehension when reading. You could also have your student listen to the episode without looking at the screen and then summarise the situation to focus on listening.

Not only are these developing the students’ skills in a relevant way but because it’s fun for them you will find them to be highly motivated and more likely to keep going with their studies!

3. Reviewing Your Lessons

This last step is equally as important as the other two. We need to review and refine what we do.

Sometimes the activities we are doing aren’t as effective as they could be and need some tweaking. Often our students’ life situations change and we need to adapt to keep ourselves relevant. Let’s look at those examples one last time:

Paul… the Software Engineer (A)

After studying with you for a year it turns out that Paul doesn’t actually send that many emails anymore but he now reports to a different boss who speaks in English. We asked how he was finding the lessons when we discovered this news. Now we can adapt the lessons and focus more on speaking to keep things relevant.

Janet… the Architect (B)

After asking how things were going for Janet at the start of the lesson we discover that she has an interview for her dream university, great! The interview is in English so let’s put the vocabulary on hold for now and we can practise interview techniques and have a few mock interviews in class.

Ben… a Fan of Sitcoms (C)

Although Ben likes using a wide range of skills in class, he still struggles with speaking the most. Due to this we can focus more on his speaking fluency and pronunciation. We can still have the lessons focus on sitcoms but we are now making the skill being developed more relevant to him.

In each of these cases we found out about these changes just from asking questions.

In example B (Janet) we discovered this news just from some light chit chat at the start of the lesson. This is a great time to find things out in a natural way. Just by asking about your student’s week and what’s happening, they will tell you plenty to inform your decisions about future lessons.

In example A (Paul) and example C (Ben) we got this information by having a review session at the end of class. It’s also important to have more structured reviews occasionally. Pick a certain frequency (for example every 5 lessons) and then ask questions such as:

  • How are you finding the lessons?
  • Are the lessons the right difficulty?
  • Are there any exercises you would prefer to do more or less of?

Asking these things and adjusting the lesson accordingly will ensure your lessons are perfectly tuned to your students and will keep your retention sky-high!

Bonus Tips for Business ESL Lessons

As we saw in Example A (Paul), these principles work really well when teaching business English.

Let’s take this one step further and see how we can provide even more value to these students.

Occupational Niche

Learning about a student’s occupational niche is what will really make you stand out from general online courses or other online teachers regurgitating the same cookie-cutter business lessons.

You have a student that wants to improve their English to help with their work. Sure, they will need the basics:

  • Making arrangements
  • Sending Emails
  • Answering the phone

But to really help them shine, you need to learn about your student and what it is they actually do at work.

Learn About Your Students’ Role in the Workplace 

Make sure to ask these questions:

  • What do they do? 
  • Who do they have contact with? 
  • What equipment do they use?

From here, we can find vocabulary that is going to be extremely useful and relevant to their role. 

You don’t need to learn everything there is to know about the role. Just a little background reading will go a long way in showing your students that you care about their language development.

Let’s look at 3 different example students and how we can find the right vocabulary for them:

Jane… the Doctor (D)

Jane is studying to become a Doctor and will study in an English speaking country soon. She will need a lot of specialist vocabulary.

Even without being specialists in the subject, we can find articles on medicine and health online. We can then have her read these articles to check her pronunciation and find new words for her vocabulary.

Dennis… the Web Designer (E)

Dennis has just started work as a web designer for a large multinational company. He deals with clients and colleagues from English speaking countries often, and wants to build his confidence when speaking with them.

With a bit of background research into web design through a google search, we’ve managed to find some useful vocabulary to test him on in class.

We can also make sure to have conversations on topics related to web designing for him to practise this new vocabulary.

Thomas… the Finance Manager (F)

Thomas is applying for a few jobs in the finance sector and wants to be prepared for his interviews.

After getting him to send over the details for the jobs he is applying for, we have some very niche vocabulary that we can test him on.

We can also include this vocabulary in a mock interview so he has even more relevant practice with the vocabulary.

It’s worth noting that none of this takes a massive amount of preparation time. You can find this stuff in minutes but the good impression of being a prepared teacher will last with your student forever! If you’re still struggling to find material for these lessons then here are 20 business activities and topics to help you get started.


This is the stuff that really makes one-to-one lessons different from a group class.

If you use generic material that doesn’t connect with your students then expect them to find someone else that does.

However, spend a little time learning about your students, their dreams, their motivations. This small investment of time and energy at the beginning will pay dividends so many times over later down the line!

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