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Alo7 Tutor showing off his teaching aids

ALO7 Academic Team Leader James shows off his box of props

When I was in elementary school, my classroom teaching aids usually consisted of a chalkboard, an abacus (I promise I’m not 50 yet), some blocks, books, crayons, construction paper, a few dolls, Lincoln logs, and the tempting mystery string near the ceiling that produced a few maps. At least that is all I can remember from my post-Neanderthal abacus years. Not only did teachers have a limited amount of supplies to work with, but they had to use those with over 30 students in a room.

Flash forward *muffled cough* years later, and classrooms are bursting to the brim with props, toys, and games. Modern teaching aids include SMART boards, tablets, computers, libraries, toys, craft sections, STEM sections, puffy chairs, tents, and pillows – and this is just on one side of the room. Class size, if the teacher is lucky, is also reduced by 10-20% compared to Ye Olde Classrooms of the 20th century, enabling them to reach more students. Speaking of reaching more students, it still blows my mind that I am able to instantly talk with students in Shanghai from my cozy little office in Ohio. The ability to do that when I was in elementary school would have involved some sort of sorcery and a full moon.

Why are so many teacher supplies needed? Because children learn through play, however, not every prop, toy, electronic device, or stuffed animal works for everyone. While props can be used in almost any scenario, age and fluency levels are the most important factors when it comes to using them. Let’s look at a few props that can be used not only in the brick and mortar classroom but for teaching ESL students online, as well:

ESL teaching prop featuring the sun

Mr. Sunshine is Teacher Dalissa’s most popular prop, even among 12 year olds

Puppets and Stuffed Animals

Puppets and stuffed animals are excellent tools for engaging younger students, however, bringing out your ferret puppet “Mr. Tickles” for tween and teenagers may not get the reaction you’re hoping for. Older students will react more favorably to a less cute and more professional looking model, and if you can throw your voice, that’s even better.

Food, Glorious Fake Food

Food teaching props and ALO7 tutor

ALO7’s Teacher Julie uses plastic food props to spark conversation

One thing you’ll discover when teaching English to students online is that they love love LOVE to talk about food. Plastic food is an excellent teaching resource because it never spoils and can be used to teach less fluent students vocabulary, along with a broad range of ideas. For example, with just one small green apple and a larger red apple, I am able to teach (or reinforce) the concepts of plurals, numbers, colors, sizes, basic addition and subtraction, tastes, and preferences.

While plastic food can be used for more fluent students, an even more productive prop would be to use a restaurant menu and have them role play ordering from a restaurant. This is a useful real-life lesson that enables them to practice English, social customs, and conversation. For a cross-curricular lesson, give them “money” to spend at the restaurant and make sure they stay in their budget. Though this may sound difficult to do online, a few extra minutes spent on class prep can bring this idea to life.

Pictures and Flashcards

Pictures and Flashcards are a great help for students to put a word to a “face.” Brightly colored cartoon-like and age-appropriate images, like Sesame Street or Curious George, work great for the younger students and hold their attention, though you will want to check with your online tutoring company to discover whether or not they permit the use of copyrighted images in your online class. For older and more fluent students, realistic cards and images that pertain to their lives will be more helpful.


Tangible items students are familiar with are some of the best teaching resources, not to mention you can find them in your home. Real utensils, paper, pens, trophies, sports regalia, toys, food, superheroes – the list is endless. Simplify with younger students, while adding more intricate, exciting, and life-related items as the students get older.

Teaching Aids Categorized by Age

Let’s break down some prop ideas and modern teaching aids by age groups for online and offline ESL teaching. Remember, even though you have a fluent teenager, you know best if they will respond to an Iron Man action figure or an iron trinket for the concept.

Teaching aids used in online ESL class

Students bring their stuffed animals to class with ALO7’s Teacher Marisa

Ages 3-6: puppets, stuffed animals, plastic food, dolls, Mr. Potato Head, Mickey Mouse, utensils, simple pictures, items of the same color, number magnets and flashcards, masks, crayons, real items pertaining to the lesson, music, green screen, abacus

Ages 7-11: stuffed animals, plastic food, action figures, utensils, sports items, clothing, noisemakers, trophies, pictures of famous actors and actresses, movie regalia, PowerPoints, musical instruments, money (real and pretend), green screen, real pets, maps

Ages 12 and up: plastic animals, figurines, real or artificial food, menus, checkbooks and credit cards (don’t use your own!), pictures famous athletes and actors, musical instruments, real pets, place settings, bus tickets, clothing, maps

This is by no means an exhaustive list, almost anything can be used that you have sitting around you, but you do need to take into account the students’ age, maturity, and fluency level to maintain their interests. Students that are 3 years old may not know who Black Panther is, but they will squeal over a cute puppy doll. Likewise, using Elmo to impress upon 13-year-old students will go over like a pop quiz on the last day of school.

Let’s face it, many of our teaching aids, props, and ideas are often off the cuff, like the time I was talking about spiders with 12-year olds and one just happened to fall down in front of my face during the lesson. I still remember the screams…mostly because they were mine.

One last thought, if you find that a prop is not working as you want it to, ask the students for their input. The more you know about their lives and interests, the easier it will be to find the right teaching aids.

Which teaching aids bring you the most success when teaching concepts and vocabulary in the online ESL classroom? Comment below!

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