Finding a Cure: How to work practical skills into a lesson

ESL students are faced with two basic challenges: They must master English for communication, and they must learn to function within an English-only environment.  For example, a student must be able to ask a passerby which bus he should take to reach the city library. Then, after boarding the bus, he needs to pay the fare, read the bus route, listen for his destination to be announced, get off the bus, and follow signs to the main entrance of the library. In short, he must communicate and function in English to meet his daily goals. ESL teachers should bear this in mind when planning lessons.

Working practical skills into language lessons is particularly helpful for students in English-speaking countries. While their ultimate goals are academic or professional, they must also achieve everyday goals like navigating the local library, using a phone card, and making purchases at a pharmacy. This last task can be overwhelming even for a native speaker. Just think of the array of bottles and boxes that make up the stock of over-the-counter medicines (OTC) at any pharmacy. Choosing and then using OTCs is a practical skill we can help our students learn. Consider different ways you can incorporate label reading into your reading, grammar, and vocabulary lessons:

  • Teaching reading skills: scanning for information. Bring in several empty bottles and boxes from OTCs. Have the students pass the empty containers around, examining the labels of each one in turn. They must find the information to complete your chart:

                      What symptoms              What’s the dosage            Expiration date                                                               does it relieve?                       for an adult?

Name of                                                                                                                                                                                                                medicine:

1. _________      ____________       ___________       ___________

2. _________      ____________       ___________       ___________

3. _________      ____________       ___________       ___________


  • Teaching expressions of cause. Note how medications state causes of symptoms using due to.  Have students find examples on the containers.  Example: Benadryl – It relieves symptoms due to hay fever or other upper respiratory allergies.
  • Teaching conditionals. Have students find uses of if and in case of and restate the meaning. Examples:

Do not use if seal is broken or missing. = When a seal is broken or missing, you shouldn’t use this medicine.

In case of overdose, get medical help. = If you take too much of this medicine, get medical help.

  • Teaching imperatives. Have students find examples of directions and warnings. Examples:

Directions: Pepto-Bismol tablets – Chew or dissolve in mouth. Drink plenty of clear fluids.

Warnings: Benadryl – Do not use in a child under 2 years of age. Avoid alcoholic drinks.

  • Teaching vocabulary skills: recognizing the suffix “-er” and its meaning.  Have students find examples of the suffix “-er” on labels and restate the meaning. Examples:

Pain reliever = It relieves pain.

Upset stomach reliever = It relieves an upset stomach.

Or ask questions to elicit target vocabulary: What do we call a medicine that reduces a fever? – Fever reducer.


5 Comments Add yours

  1. victor says:


    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      I haven’t regularly taught mixed level classes. However, I’ve had to face groups in which one or two students were considerably weaker in one skill area. For example, all students might have placed into advanced grammar, but not all of them had advanced listening or speaking skills. Conversationally, one or two were low-intermediate. In that situation, I followed my basic lesson plan and targeted the majority during presentations and whole group work. There’s a minimum that everyone was expected to produce, and stronger students were encouraged/ invited to go an extra step. There were other times within a lesson, for example during solo work, that I could give students extra support if they needed it.

      If you regularly have mixed levels, you might consider a good variation of formats. Sometimes you can pair up lower level students with upper level ones, giving the more advanced students added responsibility. In the role of leader/ guide/ assistant/ teacher, the more advanced students solidify their own language skills. However, there are times when it’s beneficial for all the students in such classes to work in small groups that are more homogeneous. Within a single lesson you might have two different activities – one for mixed levels and one that keeps students of similiar skill together. Example: Have mixed pairs create a short set of questions on an assigned topic. The process will help lower level students learn how to make questions (yes-no, perhaps). Then the partners ask each other those questions. The partners then break up: (1) The lower level students then come together and form a homogeneous group and interview one another. (2) The upper level students can work solo, composing a paragraph about the student they just worked with and based on the exchange they just had.

  2. Roger says:

    Nice post Jennifer! You always have such good information. I just subscribed with the RSS feed, so now I won’t miss out. I am going to use the OTC suggestions this coming session in my class. We have a chapter in our text book that covers OTC labels and your lesson corresponds nicely. My goal is to include more practical skills into the class. — off topic, but maybe you have a suggestion — There is a good possibility I may have to combine intermediate level students with beginner levels and have one mixed class. Any suggestions on how to manage this to provide optimum learning for all? I know its a pretty big question… any advice would be greatly appreciated 🙂

  3. Roger says:

    Thanks Jennifer for such a prompt reply and excellent suggestions, I knew you would come through! I like how you explained that with one lesson I could accommodate both groups. Tomorrow is the first day of class for beginners. We begin with a pretest. I hope there is a good turn out.

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      Hope the pretest went well. Having to teach beginners and intermediate students together on a regular basis would be a challenge. Do you know the saying that necessity is the mother of all invention? It may prove to be true in your classroom. You’ll continually have to weave lesson plans in a way that brings the groups together and then pulls them apart. You may consider experimenting with LEA (see my other entry under Reading). You might also come up with novel ways to practice vocabulary and grammar. For example, have the beginners learn their set (e.g., things in the kitchen) and explain to the intermediate students the purpose of each item. The intermediate students can add on to the descriptions by using modal verbs (possibility or necessity). Example: (Beginner) “This is a refrigerator. It’s cold in the refrigerator. You put food in the refrigerator.” (Intermediate student)”Yes, you can put food in there because it’s cold. But you must keep the door closed. You can’t leave it open.”

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