Substitute Teacher Emergency Kit

Let’s set the scene. Say your teaching contract has just ended, you’re between jobs, or you work part time. You decide to put yourself on the substitute teacher list. You arrive to do a two day substituting gig, only to find that there is no lesson plan left for you. That was me this week. I walked into an upper intermediate ESL classroom 45 minutes before class started to a note that said “be creative! :)” Sure, I love being creative, but I need to be emotionally prepared for it! I am a planner through and through, so this really put me in a pinch.

So what do you do when there is no lesson plan? After a bit of research, a lot of panic, some new experiences, and advice from colleagues, I’ve created something of a substitute emergency kit.

A good go-to base to build upon is to have something ready for the 4 main areas of ESL/EFL learning:

Speaking, Listening, Reading, & Writing

Speaking – Warm up/ice breaker/filler activities and games:

  • Ice breaker using skittles. Bring in a bag of skittles (who doesn’t like skittles first thing in the morning?) and make sure everyone gets a few different colours. Each colour will correspond to a different question about themselves. You could write the questions on the board, or hand out sheets with the questions. Because I was teaching an intermediate class, I only wrote the key words of the question (e.g. “what is your favourite food?” –> “favourite food”). I then got each student to choose another student to ask a question to. They could only ask a question that corresponded to the colour of skittles that the other person had. Because I only wrote key words, the students had to create the questions themselves. This continued on for about half an hour with a small group (8 students). You could add more questions if you had less students, or only use one question per colour with a larger group.
  • 2 truths and a lie. Have each student write down three statements about themselves, but instruct them to make one of them a lie. Each student will present their three statements, and the other students must ask questions to figure out which is the lie.
  • Category-based word games. The free linked activity explains it all, but basically, students need to say words within a category (e.g. animals that fly). It’s a fast paced activity that gets students thinking and talking in English.

Listening & Writing – Fun (yet educational!) activity.

  • Have a pre-made “Mad Lib” style activity on hand. This is a great way to sneak in some grammar. For lower level students, you could stick with just using easy parts of speech like nouns, present tense verbs, and adjectives. For intermediate level students, they should know most parts of speech, so you could do just about anything. I like to do a quick review of the parts of speech before introducing the mad lib activity. Then, I get all the students to independently write their answers to the prompts. I call on students randomly to get their answers for my master copy. Then everyone gets a copy of the story (with blank spaces, of course). Depending on the level, I read the whole story 1-2 times while they listen (and laugh). Next, I read aloud again, but this time they must fill in the blanks with the words they hear. So while this activity is fun, there is actually a significant amount of English skill required! This could even be expanded by having students write their own stories to turn into a Mad Lib.

Reading & Speaking – Cut out and copy an interesting news article.

  • News articles are great, because the real world applicability of what the students are learning is evident. Depending on the level, there are a lot of different ways to go with news articles. For very beginners, they could circle the words they know, then partner up with another student and compare words. They can explain to each other any words that their partner doesn’t know. For higher level students, the topic of the article can be introduced, along with some of the key words (e.g. if the article is about a political scandal, it would be a great opportunity to teach the word ‘scandal’ and associated words). The students can then read the article and participate in a discussion, or answer comprehension questions. If old school newspapers aren’t your thing, Newsela is great resource for finding articles that are available in multiple levels of English.

Listening & Writing – When it doubt, pop in a movie!

  • If you have the technology, and it seems appropriate, make use of English movies. I substituted in a school where ESL students attend 6 hours a day, 5 days a week. By Friday afternoon, it’s safe to say that students would not be opposed to a less demanding activity. Whatever movie you choose, make sure that a) you own a legal copy of it; b) you’ve seen it before; c) the content is general (no horror!) and appropriate for your learners; and d) you can tie it into the lesson somehow. With my intermediate class, I did a lesson on movie reviews. Afterward, we watched Labyrinth (1986), then I assigned the students to create their own movie review about it.

I hope this is helpful! Does anyone else have any go-to activities or lessons when substituting ESL classes? I would love to hear it!

Happy teaching!

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