Effective Lead-Ins for TEFL/ESOL Classes | How to Start a Lesson

Written by: Larry Walder



Time to read 4 min

How should we start a TEFL/ESOL lesson?

Hopefully NOT like this;-

Hello Students. Today we are going to talk about the “Will Future.” Open your books at page 47… Benny, please read the first line to the class.”

The start of the lesson sets the tone and context for all that follows. In many ways, the first things we say or do when we walk into a class at the start of the lesson are like an author looking at a blank page at the start of a book. We want to come up with something that will grab people’s attention right at the beginning so that we can keep them fully engaged as it goes on.

In this article, we will think about why the lead-in to a lesson is important and suggest some effective methods to get a lesson or topic off to a good start. The article is accompanied by a useful download, detailing quick, easy and effective warmers, lead-ins and opening activities.

What is a lead-in?

The lead-in is a short activity to warm the students up at the start of the lesson. It usually only lasts about five minutes but could be extended if it really helps cement the aims and objectives you have for the lesson as a whole.

As the phrase implies, a lead-in is a way to introduce the material you’re planning to cover in your lesson. It sets the context for the coming lesson. It’s a way to encourage your students to actively engage with the topic and motivate them to participate in the class. It is also an important opportunity to allow your ESL students to warm up and get back into “English mode”. They may not have used much English since your last class with them.

Why use a lead-in?

Why not just walk into the classroom, tell students to open their books to a certain page and launch straight into the meat of the lesson? The answer is probably (and hopefully) clear, but it needs to be defined. Most of us have been in situations where that has happened, when we were ourselves school students, and we probably don’t have very positive or happy memories of it. We might have been chatting with our friends about something we plan to do at the weekend and suddenly a teacher strides in and demands a complete change in our focus and attention. There is nothing collaborative or democratic about it; suddenly we are being told what to do and what to think. If we were the type of student who is hostile to authority and inclined to rebellion, this would be the only excuse we’d need. But even more mild-mannered students are likely to be resentful of this approach. We have just been thinking about one thing totally unconnected with school and now we are being told to focus on something else… Something new… Something boring… Something we don’t fully understand… Something intimidating… Something less pleasant than what we were thinking about before… And we are being told this by somebody whose stance and attitude sets them apart from us. Perhaps we’ll just keep our heads down while the more strong-willed students (the troublemakers) complain, and the teacher gets cross with them. Maybe that will give us a chance to read ahead a bit on the page, so we don’t feel stupid if the teacher asks us a question about the text. But we don’t really understand what we’re looking at anyway…

By contrast, a good lead-in overcomes the barriers and obstacles our learners may be experiencing. An effective lead-in encourages our TEFL/ESOL students to engage positively with the material we are introducing to the class. It helps us to kindle their interest and motivation. It also establishes the context we want the learners to focus on.

Target Language Verses Context

We can sometimes get mixed up when planning a lesson between the target language and the context. A good lead-in activity may cover both areas, but it is probably most important in establishing the context for the language we want our learners to practice. For example, if the target language is past continuous/progressive the context might be ‘Can you remember what you were doing when you first heard about Coronavirus?’ The context is more likely to interest the students than the technicalities of the language we want them to learn. Hence, the context helps us to smuggle in complexities without putting the students off.

Student Centred

Thinking about the context helps to make the whole learning experience more student centred. We want our students to relate to the theme of the lesson in a personal way. Therefore, rather than say (for example) ‘Today we are going to talk about the human body,’ ask ‘Has anybody in the class ever broken an arm or a leg?’ Questions are in themselves one of the easiest but most effective ways to lead in to a lesson, and asking questions automatically establishes a student-centred approach. (There are a lot more question-based ideas and activities in our free download).

A student-centred lead-in gives your students a stake in the remainder of the lesson. It validates their own experience and helps them to identify ‘why’ what they are doing and learning could be useful to them.

Typical Lead-In Activities.

As mentioned previously using questions in various ways can be an excellent way to lead into a lesson. Other useful and engaging activities may include the following.

  • Surveys

  • Lists

  • Ranking and Rating

  • Stories

  • Anecdotes

  • Music

  • Pictures

  • Quotes

  • Memes

  • Games and Quizzes (We have a great selection here)

For more information on all of the above, plus ideas about how to use them please see our free download at the end of this blog.

Just like the author writing a book, if you learn how to get the first line right, the rest should follow more smoothly. It is worth experimenting and trying new things. Over time you will build up a selection of opening activities which you know work well for you and can be adapted for different groups of students.

We hope you will find our free download available below useful for generating ideas. If you would like to share other TEFL and ESOL activities which you have found effective in getting a lesson off to a great start, we would love to hear about them in the comments below.