A fun way to teach English as a Second Language (ESL) students is through food! There are many different ways to teach food, from written and spoken texts to real-life settings. It’s not easy being a teacher, and coming up with creative and new ways to teach is a constant challenge. These ideas should help you get started with ways to incorporate food-related materials on teaching English.
Here are 7 ways to teach English through food-related materials.
1. Watch Cooking Shows
Watching cooking shows are fun and entertaining but also are educational. Students learn not only how to cook but also how to talk about it. Learn special English terminology in context and add audio and visual for a powerful, engaging learning experience.
Have students listen carefully to cooking show hosts for food vocabulary and cooking terms by using worksheets. A worksheet could have two lists of vocabulary, one with adjectives like silver dollar and ripe and one with nouns like pancakes and blackberries. Students then connect the vocabulary correctly, silver dollar pancakes and ripe blackberries. Students will be able to pick up the words better while listening.
How-to-cook cooking show hosts tend to talk at a slower pace and more clearly. They often describe their actions while doing them, such as “Let’s get the mixer going” or “I’m going to grab my spatula.”
- Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa
- Ree Drummond’s The Pioneer Woman
- Giada’s Giada Entertains
- Demaris Phillip’s Southern at Heart
Two more ESL classroom activities using cooking shows include role play and mock cooking competitions.
- Role-play Have students role-play cooking in front of the class or in groups. Use props or actual food to make the activity more fun. Sharing food and talking about it always create a community and make a relaxed environment conducive to learning.
- Cooking Competitions Does your class like competitions? Turn how-to cook demonstrations into competitions. Have mystery baskets with 4 unknown ingredients that the students must use and cook with. If there are no kitchen facilities on-site, have students use the ingredients and cook a dish at home, and then bring to class to share, taste-test, and decide the best tasting dish. Students apply what they’ve been watching on tv and practice their new vocabulary. Plus they’ll be better cooks!
2. Eat at a restaurant
Arrange for your class to eat at a restaurant. As preparation, teach students phrases to use at the restaurant:
- What’s the specialty for the day?
- How is the steak cooked?
- We’d like another order of onion blossoms.
- Check, please.
Before or at the restaurant, have students study the menu and circle new words. Talk about the words as you wait for the meal. Once the food arrives, have the students describe to one another their dish using the new vocabulary.
Bonus: Turn your dining into a cultural experience. Eat at a local pizzeria, such as this one in Peachtree City, GA, or this one in Gainesville, FL. Pizza is always a favorite.
Have students preview the menu on the website before hand to start learning the vocabulary (and deciding what they want to order!)
—> If your class can’t go to a restaurant, simulate one by setting up a mock restaurant in the classroom. Have students design menus and role play being customers and waiters.
3. Attend food events or festivals
Have your class attend local fresh markets or a food festival to learn English while sampling new foods. Attend dinners, seminars, and tasting booths to learn food vocabulary. Visit with winemakers, chefs, cooking stars, and passionate fans while enjoying the many events. Students will have fun, learn new vocabulary, and develop their confidence in using English to talk about food.
—> If your class can’t do these types of activities, then invite guest food experts, such as chefs, farmers, or food specialty entrepreneurs, to talk to the class. They will enjoy sharing their passion and students will learn a lot of insight from people in the food business.
4. Study menus
Menus are rich in adjectives and highly specific vocabulary. Collect menus, with your students’ help! Collect a variety: fast-food (Subway), fast-casual (Panera’s), sit-down (PF Chang’s), family-owned (local restaurant), franchise (Olive Garden), cheap (food truck), expensive (steak restaurant), etc.
Cheaper restaurants have menus that use shorter and simpler words, making them a good start on building basic food vocabulary: decaf, sides, delicious. Expensive restaurants tend to have more complex language with clauses, multiple adjectives, and long, fancy words: decaffeinated, accompaniments, hand-crafted. Compare for instance two different menus from The Cheesecake Factory and then from The Capital Grille.
Compare with other menus, such as this upscale four-dish dinner from The Capital Grille, a fine steakhouse:
BUTTERNUT SQUASH BISQUE with bright curried apples
BONE-IN KONA CRUSTED DRY-AGED NY STRIP WITH SHALLOT BUTTER our acclaimed coffee-rubbed, boldly flavored NY strip
CREAMED SPINACH blended with a béchamel sauce for extra creaminess
WARM FUJI APPLE CROSTATA with vanilla ice cream
Point out that certain adjectives make food more appetizing and descriptive, like fire roasted salsa, omelets with fresh eggs, a steaming bowl of chunky chili.
Bonus: Read linguist Dan Jurafsky’s chapter on “How to read a menu” from his book The Language of Food.
5. Order takeout
No doubt, talking on the phone in a foreign language is difficult. You don’t get to see the facial expressions to see if you’re being understood nor do you get the cues to understand what is being said to you. But, it gets easier with practice.
Have students role play ordering food on the phone. This makes a great follow-up activity after the menu lesson above since you can use the same menus. Have students write out a script with their order. Specify that they order at least a drink, appetizer, main, sides, dessert, and one modification. Here’s a script for ordering restaurant menus with the phone. Have students order from easier menus to start with, Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches, for instance, where basic ingredients are given and then customized.
Slim 1: Ham + Provolone + Bacon + Avocado
6. Listen to food radio and podcasts
Radio and podcasts are ways for students to keep immersed in English beyond the classroom. Students can listen to English all day on their headphones as they ride the bus, go for a walk, drive to class, wait in line at the coffee shop, etc. There are lots of podcasts and radio shows to listen to that are food-related.
7. Read Cookbooks
Cookbooks are a fun and familiar text, making it a great ESL resource. Recipes look similar across languages and are divided into manageable sections. Note the title, headnote (initial description), list of ingredients, and directions, each given in small paragraphs, and side notes with tips, facts, or variations.
Cookbooks are not as intimidating as news and are more timeless in topic and language. Plus, appetizing food photos support the text and make it more appealing to read. The visual will help students remember the vocabulary and visualize the dish. Photos will help students remember what “roasted chicken and caramelized lemons” means, and help them imagine the recipe directions develop into a dish.
Bring into class a variety of cookbooks, both American and ethnic cuisine, celebrity and non-celebrity. Free recipe cards from the grocery store will work great too. Compare the different language, foods, images, design layout, etc. Ask students what recipes catch their eye and why/why not.
Bonus– Discussion prompts can be to think about the future of print cookbooks with online recipes being so ubiquitous.
Cookbook Assignment- Have students write their own cookbooks for a final project. Some might even turn their cookbooks into Christmas gifts or as safe-keeping family recipes. Here is a resource for you on preparing for the lesson on how to write a cookbook.