Let’s Talk About Food: Five Ways to Do So

To a student, an ESL class can be drudgery. It can be brain-draining, frustrating, and worse of all, boring. As many of our readers know, it doesn’t have to be that way. It shouldn’t be that way. The ESL class, like any other class, should be fun.

There are many ways to make it fun. You can read some of our ideas here. We also wrote about fun props you can use in the class.

Another way to have a more fun class is by having interesting conversations. Finding things that students not only like to talk about, but find fun and humorous, is an excellent way to keep the class engaging. Whereas not every subject is interesting to every student, one topic we have found to be interesting is “food.” I have yet to find a student not interested in food. There is something to talk that is interesting to everybody.

Here are five different food topics that we have found to be fun and engaging.

  1. Fast “Junk” Food

Hamburgers, hot dogs, French fries, pizza, fried chicken; if it’s bad for you, the more we seem to enjoy eating it and talking about it.  In fact, the junkier the better. Students from other countries, particularly Asia, marvel at the assortment of “fried eats” in the American diet. At first, they shake their heads in disapproval, but quick peeks into the cafeteria often show them enjoying their French fries with melted cheese. It’s not just great eating, it makes for great conversation in the ESL classroom.

  1. Unusual Food

Ask students to talk about something they have eaten that is unusual. Whereas many different “foods” will be mentioned, the one thing they have in common is that students like to talk about it. Every student from every country will have something to say. What is strange to someone in a foreign country might be normal to someone in another country. Kujira, anybody?

  1. The Cafeteria at Work/School

Asking about the food at the office or school is another good conversation starter. What is the cafeteria like? Is it free or do you have to pay? How long do you get to eat? What seem like simple, straightforward questions can occasionally pull out a fascinating answer. I recently had a Taiwanese student tell me that after lunch comes nap time. No, not in the lower levels of elementary school, but at the office filled with adult workers. It is customary for employees to either bring in a small, folding bed or just put their head down on the desk and take a short snooze after lunch. How cool is that? Napping aside, the student/office cafeteria can be a good conversation topic. Like the type of food offered, the dining customs and social interactions make for good chit-chat too.

  1. Breakfast

Of the standard three meal periods of the day, breakfast is usually the most conversational. Who doesn’t enjoy breakfast? It turns out that many people do not. The busy student or professional in your ESL class is usually in a hurry in the morning. Just because they don’t always eat it, does not mean they don’t enjoy talking about it. It’s fun to hear what breakfast is like across the globe. From beans, fish, and vegetables to hash browns and grits with gravy, breakfast is subject that always gets students talking. Whether you eat it or not (yet you know you should), the international breakfast table in the ESL classroom is rarely boring.

  1. Ice Cream

No matter what age the student is or what country students are from, who doesn’t know and like ice cream? I always keep a fake, plastic ice cream cone or prop nearby to break out in conversation emergencies When do you eat ice cream? How do you eat ice cream?  What types of ice cream do you enjoy are always good to conversation starters. An ice cream wrapper or box works well in the face-to-face classroom, but when I’m on camera, fake ice cream is always a winner. One thing I’ve learned from my ice cream discussions, chocolate is a popular English term, no matter what language your students speak!

Making the ESL class fun is more than just props and shtick, it can be conversational too. Find the right subject and your students will start talking and continue talking. And while they are enjoying themselves, they will be learning English.

Five Funny Props for the ESL Classroom

In a previous post I discussed the importance of humor in the ESL classroom. For all the jokesters and punsters out there, sadly, jokes and puns are for the most part ineffective in the English language learning environment. Most students simply won’t get the joke. The teacher must therefore rely on other ways to make the classroom funny and the student learning experience more enjoyable.

One such way is with the use of props. Whether in the face-to-face classroom, or the distance learning, virtual classroom, props can be a great way to create some levity and ease the anxiety the language learner may feel. Their effective use can tear down the barrier between “teacher” and “student” and make the nervous ESL learner feel more at ease.

Here are five simple but fun props I like to use:

  1. A musical instrument

You don’t have to know how to play a musical instrument to benefit from what this prop can do. In fact, the worse you play it, the more smiles you can bring. Whether it is a guitar, horn, accordion, or even a drum kit, you can add fun and life to any lesson. I have an old, hand-me-down, beat up ukulele.  I can’t play very well. In fact, I stink. But that doesn’t matter. I like to open my lessons with a made-up song, sung off-key, strumming away on the worn-out strings. It’s not a big deal but it sets the right tone.

  1. A funny hat

Look in your closet for the silliest hat you own. You might have bought it as a joke during an inebriated shopping spree, or, it might be a dopey gift from an old relative. It’s not dopey anymore. Break it out, brush it off, put it on, and start teaching.

  1. Fake pizza

No matter where in the world your students are from, chances are they know and love pizza. Careful scouring of the budget bin at the local Target or Walmart, or even a visit to the chewy toy aisle at  local Pet Supermarket can turn up this prized prop. This fake food may work best in the virtual classroom, but it’s o.k. to give it a go when teaching face to face. You may not even need to use it. Just have it lying around on a nearby table should be enough to add a touch of irreverence and bring a smile or two to your students.

  1. A silly wig

Walking into class with an out of place, silly wig, is another great way to get the students to smile. I bought an 80s, long blonde wig, suitable for any aspiring rock-and-roll musician. I use it sparingly, but when I do, students always burst out laughing. It’s a great ice-breaker, and another way to lighten up the classroom environment.

  1. An empty KFC box

The one common food denominator from around the world I have found is not McDonald’s, but KFC. Both young and old from almost any country get a smile when thinking of this quintessential example of American culinary decadence. Even the more health conscious students know about KFC. All students will smile when they see the box. And of course, segueing into a food conversation is usually a very good thing in ESL.

Of course, every teacher uses props in a different way. I’ve known teachers who wear the hat on a test day, or even some who like to play a few off-key notes of a musical instrument to introduce a student presentation. It’s a great way to relieve student nervousness and reduce classroom anxiety.

What’s your favorite prop? When do you use it?

Let’s hear from you!

Humor and the English Language Learner: Five Ways to Make Class Funny

It’s widely known that humor has a great impact on learning. It breaks down the barriers between teacher and student, reduces classroom anxiety by making the students feel more comfortable, and stimulates the brain to think critically and creatively. But what impact can it have in an ESL classroom?

It is certainly possible to tell your ESL students that you know 25 letters of the alphabet, but you don’t know why (Y); however, the chances are you will only get blank stares. Even the advanced learners may get stuck on the wordplay. The weather in Mexico? Chili (chily) today and hot tamale (tomorrow)—forget about it. Even the old standby: this lesson will be fast and not half-fast, falls flat. Clearly, puns, riddles and other types of clever wordplay are out, but what is in?

Competent use of humor can have a tremendous positive impact on student learning in the ESL classroom. Whether the learning environment is virtual or face-to-face, the teacher can make the student laugh—and learn. It is still possible.

Here are five ways:

1. Funny Props- A visit to the local Dollar Store, Party Supermarket, or pet shop can find a plethora of silly, irreverent and inexpensive props to use in the ESL classroom. Anything from funny masks and wigs to fake plastic food can be useful. The odder the better. You just need your imagination.

2. Physical Comedy- Whether teaching online or in a face-to-face classroom, it is easy make yourself physically look funny. Silly hats, lavish clothing, and dopey mannerisms can add life to the dry ESL classroom. The burst of levity can ease the stresses of language learning by students of all ages.

3. Funny Sounding Music- Go ahead and Google funny sounding music (copyright free), and you will get a host of options. Find a few that work for you and start your class with them. Or if the class is starting to drag, play them anytime. Music in the classroom is always refreshing. Fun music makes things even more special.

4. Humorous/Oddball Conversation Topics- In most cases, ESL teachers have a dedicated curriculum and teaching plan. That does not mean you cannot veer off into areas that provide more levity. Certain subjects are naturally funny (funny stories, crazy family members, a bad cooking experience, and your first date come to mind). If funny tales are not part of the curriculum, it is usually o.k. to veer off the dull subject of the day and dabble in the world of silly.

5. The Bad Joke- Even though your students probably won’t understand it, tell it anyway. Always have a “Knock-Knock” joke at the ready. It might not be funny to the students, but if you laugh at it they will laugh at you. Besides, what makes the joke funny is a teachable moment to a foreign language student…..and it sure beats grammar.

So, ESL teachers, take a chance. Work outside your “comfort zone.” Put on that silly looking wig. Sing off-key to your young students. Good teaching is all about taking risks. Your students might not always laugh along, but they will appreciate your attempt to make their learning fun.