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ESL Lesson Plans: World Cup in the Classroom

Jordan Catapano

If there were a list of topics that American lags behind the rest of the world in, somewhere toward the top of that list ranks soccer.

American interest in professional soccer ranks somewhere between their love of recycling and love of cleaning out the gutters. The rest of the world, however, loves soccer. And nothing excites the passions as much as the World Cup – the international soccer tournament lighting the world on fire every four years, the women’s version of which is happening now in France.

While Americans may express a passing interest in the tournament, your international and ESL students are much more likely to display a passionate intensity for the events transpiring on the playing field … and that’s your opportunity to leverage this momentous occasion for your classroom, by utilizing ESL Lesson Plans.

In our Tips and Tricks for the ESL classroom podcast, we explain how teachers can take advantage of their class’ diversity and play games to reinforce content. Along with other tips found in the podcast, these elements collude to create a dynamic and fun environment – and that’s exactly what you can use specifically with the World Cup. The World Cup is, after all, little more than diversity and games. Now is the time to use the World Cup as your baseline for lessons to hook and engage your students.

ESL Lesson Plans: World Cup Vocabulary

An easy entry point for utilizing the World Cup as a centerpiece for instruction is introducing vocabulary through it. Consider some of these different types of vocabulary related to the World Cup:

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  • Soccer rules and terms (i.e. red card, striker, out-of-bounds, corner kick).
  • Action Verbs (i.e. kick, run, pass, shoot, score, win).
  • Prepositions (i.e. in bounds, on the head, at the goal, to the teammate).
  • Nouns (penalties, referee, player, team, athlete, crowd, stadium).
  • Adjectives (i.e. rowdy, aggressive, determined, talented).
  • Countries of the World (i.e. Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy, Costa Rica).

Depending on the age and experience of your class, determine what the next phase of vocabulary instruction is. What’s important to remember is that you do not want to just teach them terms specific to the World Cup because they can only use those every four years! Instead, use topics related to the World Cup that they can use on a continual basis.

World Cup Opens Discussion for Diversity

The last option above – discuss one country – is one of the linchpin topics that can transition students from focusing on soccer to focusing on a much broader and more important category of content – the world. ESL students already carry with them a broad scope of linguistic and cultural knowledge, and the effective classroom will exploit this to teach them the English and content they need to acquire.

Consider the following approaches for bridging the World Cup to other international items of interest, especially to focus on reading skills:

  • Research their own country of origin.
  • Research the country of their favorite team.
  • Look at the most recent news or political action from a specific country.
  • Examine the history of two countries’ relationships with one another (and how that might affect the soccer game itself).
  • Examine the host country (France) and different cultural aspects visible in it during the World Cup.
  • Find stories of soccer players’ path to the World Cup, or other fascinating individuals’ stories related to the World Cup.
  • Examine the preparation, security, and hosting responsibilities of France.
  • Look at the different ways countries prepare for and celebrate the World Cup.

Teach an American

Once students have acquired some of the basic language associated with the tournament, put them in the driver’s seat. Allow your students to explain some aspects of the game to someone – like another American student – who may not know much about it! This will put your ESL students into a position of authority, and they will be excited to tell about something they love to someone who may know little about it. Have students choose an aspect related to the World Cup they can excitedly explain to someone else.

  • Teach about a specific rule or aspect of the game.
  • Teach about a specific skill or strategy of the game.
  • Teach about the history of the World Cup.
  • Tell about what “FIFA” is supposed to be.
  • Compare it to other more “American” sports, like American football or baseball.
  • Explain which teams or players are the best and why.
  • Explain the strategy or outcome of a game.
  • Discuss what makes soccer so popular around the world.
  • Discuss one particular country.

Where their interest begins with the World Cup, it should end with an enriching exposure to a multinational experience. Their research should help them focus on reading skills, both in English and in their native languages. Consider sources like BBC News (which hosts more than 40 languages), Veinte Mundos (which integrates articles in Spanish and English, plus other languages), or other international, multilanguage reading sites.


Get creative with how your students share the information they have learned!

  • Create a “tournament” bracket of your own modeled after the World Cup’s for students to discuss and compete with one another.
  • Have students create posters featuring flags, photos, and information.
  • Challenge students to create stimulating questions that spark conversation and debate.
  • Have students compare similar topics in different countries and discuss/debate them.
  • Play soccer-based games that require students to share information or resources with one another in a competitive setting.
  • Watch a portion of a match and have students connect what’s going on to items they have researched.

Other Fun World Cup Connections:

Keep your eyes as open as a World Cup goalkeeper’s when looking for opportunities for your students to read, write, listen, and discuss with one another. Try these techniques too!

  • Create a fill-in-the-blank paragraph that discusses the World Cup but is missing words and phrases students need to fill in with appropriate terms.
  • Have students look at lists of adjectives and decide what World Cup-related nouns they could describe.
  • Create a crossword puzzle featuring clues that require specific World Cup knowledge or research to solve.
  • Ask students to write down questions related to the World Cup that will spark discussion or interest in others.
  • Ask World Cup and soccer opinion questions of your own and ask students to write their responses to it.
  • Have students listen to a commentator (without watching the game) and ask questions about how the game is going; or have students draw pictures based on what they heard.

If you can leverage students’ interest in the World Cup and passion for their own country and language, then you can initiate them into a new dimension of learning that may be inaccessible when the tournament is not taking place. Experiment with what students are interested in, connect the World Cup to the skills you want them to acquire, and celebrate their successes as they celebrate the tournament.

How will you incorporate the World Cup into your ESL lesson plans?

Jordan Catapano is an English teacher at Conant High School in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and currently serves as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish.

Published on June 26, 2019

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