Best Props for ESL Teachers and How to Use Them13 min read

Teaching props and teaching aids can help to enhance both online and offline ESL classrooms when used correctly and when keeping into consideration the specific needs and skill levels of each of the students in the class.

What Makes a Good Prop?

There are quite literally hundreds of different props that can be used during classes. In my own time teaching online and running English camps offline for various age groups, I’ve used and seen other tutors and teachers use everything from stuffed animals and puppets to green screens with chroma key to help teach students more effectively. Over time, I’ve figured out that there isn’t a specific answer for what makes the perfect prop as it boils down to what will be best for each situation. In order to decide on which props you need for your classes first you must look at a few different factors including the age level of the students, how many students are in the class, the personalities of your students, and what situations may come up where a prop would be helpful.

In my own online classes, my main go to prop is a small elephant with five or six bells attached to the end of it. This classroom prop is great both for helping to keep students attention when they get distracted and also for making noise to congratulate younger students when they answer a tough question correctly. Other tutors that I work with use various objects such as hand clappers and bells as well as puppets and stuffed animals when working with younger students.

“the class was transformed from something boring to something exciting and engaging.”

For older students, a green screen with a background keyed into the lesson is the perfect tool for adding value to the lesson and helping to keep students engaged. Consider a lesson where the students are talking about going to the grocery store. With the right background, you can take the students on a virtual trip and even point out things to ask them questions about. To this day one of the best classes I’ve ever taught was a lesson covering different countries. The students were all 13 and 14 years of age and quite fluent to the extent that the material seemed a bit boring to them. With the help of a few different backgrounds, we managed to take tours of the streets of Tokyo and the sights of London, asking questions and playing out scenarios where they interacted with locals. With only a green screen, the class was transformed from something boring to something exciting and engaging.

When Do I Use Props?

Timing is everything when learning to effectively use props in an online or offline ESL class. Following the example of the above-mentioned bell that I use in my class, if I were to ring it all of the time then students would quickly become desensitized to it (which has happened a few times) and thus the effectiveness of the prop would be severely diminished or even non-existent. With noise making props, you have to first decide what kind of situation you want to use the item in. A bell as mentioned before is the perfect tool for getting students attention and helping students that may be nodding off or losing focus to get back on track. It is quiet but at the same time just enough noise that a student can hear it and tune back in. On the other hand, an air horn or other similar loud items may have the opposite effect and cause students to become distracted instead of focused.

When using stuffed animals and puppets, overuse can not only lead to a major distraction for younger students but may also lead them to want to join in. In my online classes, I used to use a stuffed Mickey Mouse to congratulate very young students when they got an answer correct for a particularly tough question. One of my classes, however, a young girl happened to be a huge fan of Mickey Mouse and all of his friends. She proceeded to leave the screen in order to collect a few of her stuffed toys to show me. A cute scene no doubt but one which wasted five minutes of a twenty-five-minute class and caused us to have to rush through some of the lesson once I regained her attention. From that point on I decided to only use stuffed animals at strategic points in the lesson such as at the end when I am saying goodbye to everyone or at the end of a game for a few seconds. The key to selecting and properly using the correct teaching prop is to make sure that it is being used as a tool to enhance the class and does not distract from the lesson.

So which props should you have in your toolbox? Let’s take a look at some of the most common and most effective props which I’ve either used personally or observed other tutors using effectively.

“make sure that it is being used as a tool to enhance the class and does not distract from the lesson.”

Stuffed Animals and Puppets

Pros:

  • Stuffed animals are great for classes with young students. There is such a wide variety available that it is possible to find something for each type of pupil. An elephant friend to bring out a shy student or a cute little puppy dog that will put a smile on a young child’s face.
  • Sometimes, you can use a stuffed animal and especially a puppet to help illustrate a point that otherwise might be hard to make. For example, when trying to illustrate being polite or asking and answering questions, a puppet or soft toy can act as a little teachers assistant.
  • Stuffed animals are relatively cheap and extremely plentiful. There are hundreds and even thousands of different characters, styles, colors, shapes, and sizes available. This makes it a great to add a few to your toolbox without much of a commitment.
Using stuffed animals properly can help increase student engagement.
Look at me I’ve got to teach these kids some English.

Cons:

  • Some students can easily become distracted by the site of a toy. This can make stuffed toys tricky to use sometimes as they can have the opposite effect of distracting instead of focusing students.
  • Sometimes including a soft toy organically into the class so that it is not a distraction can be tricky. This is something that takes a few classes to practice and get right.
  • Most teachers will need a few different stuffed animals for different types of students. This can create more clutter in your classroom or workspace.

When to use:

Stuffed animals may be great for bringing students into the lesson at the beginning of the class. Especially for shy students that may be a little nervous, having a soft toy and speaking in a funny voice can go a long way to help them shake off some of their anxiety about the class. Using soft toys as teaching props throughout the class, however, can cause a major distraction and will cause the soft toy to lose some of its effectiveness so be careful about overuse.

Noise Makers

Pros:

  • Noisemakers are great for getting students attention quickly. They also do a great job of helping students who may be tiring or falling asleep to refocus their attention.
  • They are good for both online and offline classes as students losing focus is an issue in both. For online ESL classes, they are especially effective as there is a lack of physical contact so a tap on the shoulder or the desk isn’t possible.
  • This teaching prop works for students of all ages as losing focus is a classroom issue that affects all students.

Cons:

  • Noisemakers especially are prone to losing their effectiveness over time. Students can easily become immune to the sound if they are overused. Something that is easy to do, especially in classes that might be later in the evening when students are already lacking focus.
  • Not all noisemakers are built equally and sometimes finding the right tool for your class can be a challenge. Using something too loud can be a problem for online classes where students are using headsets and using something too soft is an issue in offline classes where students may be sitting far away from you.
  • Shy students might not enjoy the noise and may become a bit anxious or withdrawn from you the more you use noisemakers.

When to use:

Noisemakers especially should be reserved for very specific times and only when they are warranted. A great example is to get students attention back on track. If you have just one student you can easily say their name to refocus their attention. But, if you have an entire classroom full of students that are losing focus then this is the time a noise maker can become handy. Also, when a student does a great job of answering a hard question a little extra noise celebrating their achievement can help to boost their self-esteem which can also help with student’s focus among other positive effects.

Scoreboards and Points Counters

Pros:

  • Having a way to keep score when students hit a certain goal or count points during games can create a competitive attitude and make students work harder. Sometimes, helping them to visualize the progress they are making in learning can go a long way towards furthering that goal.
  • Competition can work towards motivating students who may be falling behind in the lesson or in the overall class. Different students are motivated by different things and creating a competitive environment might work to energize certain students to perform and learn better.
  • Scoreboards are great for both offline and online classes but work especially well for online classes because it can provide a slight psychological incentive to focus more and perform better in the class as opposed to a typical lesson where there is not as much to keep them focused.

Cons:

  • Some students might become too competitive when presented with a scoring system. While this in and of itself isn’t bad the problem comes when the student becomes more focused on scoring points as opposed to learning the content.
  • On the opposite side of that, some students can become discouraged if they lose and can shut off from learning the content. It is a fine balance of using the scoring to help motivate students without causing undesirable behavior from the two mentioned extremes.
  • Awarding points can sometimes take up valuable time in classes that are already trying to fit too much content in short timeframes. Keeping a track on this can be important for balancing the lesson and making it through all of the content.

When to use:

Scoreboards and points counters are great teaching aids for certain types of content. For example, when students are going over their vocabulary awarding students points for getting answers correct and being able to use words in sentences can help them to focus more on learning the words. Also, during games and when asking certain questions throughout the class you can award them points to encourage them to keep performing well.

Flashcards

Pros:

  • ESL flashcards can be great for condensing key learning goals such as vocabulary and phonics into easy to digest bits of information.
  • Flashcards work for all age levels as the information being presented is increasing in difficulty with each level of student.
  • Flashcards can be used both online and offline. They are especially helpful with online classes where students are close to their computers and can easily see the cards being presented to them. Flashcards can also be created digitally and shared on the screen.

Cons:

  • Though flashcards can be used in offline classes, there can be problems with students in a large classroom not being able to see them.
  • Since ESL flashcards need to be tailored to the level of each student, many different sets of cards are needed for tutors and teachers who have multiple levels of students. This can create a problem of having to have a large number of different sets of cards.
  • If not used properly, flashcards have the potential to become boring for students and can cause students to lose focus on the lesson.

When to use:

Flashcards should be used to convey key points of information. They can be used in games and in lieu of normal vocabulary activities but the information being presented should be short bits of content and should be concrete such as vocabulary words and phonics lessons. Flashcards work best when students are listening and then repeating as an added visual aid to the words being spoken. Because of this, ESL flashcards should be used in short bursts so that students do not become bored.

Green Screens

Pros:

  • Green screens (also referred to as *chroma-key* screens) can be the perfect tool for online tutors for projecting different backgrounds that are relevant to each lesson and each age level of student. Hundreds of thousands of different pictures are available to use for backgrounds making it very easy to find things that relate to the lesson being taught.
  • They eliminate the need for having many different backgrounds for tutors that teach multiple age levels of students saving both money and helping to eliminate potential clutter.
  • Green screens in online ESL classes are a non-intrusive way to introduce novelty and can be used to help illustrate concepts in the lesson further.

Cons:

  • Green screens are exclusive to online tutoring and are of no use in the offline classroom.
    Some technical knowledge may be required to set up some programs such as Manycam and other chroma key programs.
  • Green screens require a little bit of set up in order to get the lighting correct which can be troublesome at first, especially in rooms heavy with fluorescent lighting.

When to use:

  • Green screens are perfect for almost all occasions, but as mentioned above are specific to online classes. Since they are in the background they can be turned on at the beginning of the lesson and left running without having to mess with them. Advanced green screen users will even be able to project different effects such as masks or digital props onto the screen using programs like Manycam or even project the courseware onto the screen and teach using a standing desk. The possibilities are only limited by your own imagination.

Conclusion

Though the above list is not exhaustive, I believe it’s a very solid foundation for both online and offline ESL tutors looking to add some variety to their lessons. As discussed, the important thing is that you are making sure to use props that do not distract from the lesson and to use them in appropriate places that do not cause students to lose their focus. I use all of the above in my own online classes and feel this to be a good start for creating a toolbox that can help you in any situation. At the end of the day though props are not a substitute for creating engagement and are only as good as the tutor using them. Having a solid foundation and then using teaching aids to help expand on that is the optimal approach when looking to improve engagement in your ESL classroom.

I want to help you find an awesome job in the ESL industry and then excel at it. I’m a TESOL certified teacher with over two years of experience working both online and offline. I have worked with students ranging from young learners to advanced level university speakers and have worked in recruiting and hiring, teacher training, and content creation. I’ve seen the good and bad of the ESL industry and I’m here to tell you about it.