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Lesson Ideas: Countries and Nationalities

A common theme in beginner and elementary  course books is countries and nationalities, which often appears in one of the first units. However, lessons or speaking clubs themed on countries and nationalities at higher levels can be done which allow students to say much more about them.

I plan to do a separate page (or more than one) for travel related ideas, so these are not included here.

ESL lesson ideas countries and nationalities

Possible Learning Outcomes:

Beyond being able to name countries and nationalities, it may also be useful for students to talk about countries or make generalisations about them. The following outcomes may therefore be useful in planning a lesson:

(All outcomes should be proceeded by “by the end of the lesson, students will be better able to”)

  • identify countries on a world map and name the corresponding nationality,
  • say where people are from and what their nationality is,
  • talk about what a country is known for e.g. famous people and products,
  • make generalisations about a country, nationality or something related to either (e.g. I love Italian food).

Games/Activities:

Using Maps

Course books often introduce a number of country and nationality pairings that they assume are useful to all students. Certain countries are always represented (the UK and the USA), some may find their way in (Thailand, Argentina), and some never get a look in (Nigeria, Pakistan). However, the countries and nationalities that students need to know most of all are the ones that their country has the most exposure to.

For this reason, when introducing students to countries and nationalities, I like to give them a blank world map and find their country first of all. In teams, I then ask them to find as many countries as they know, mark them and also write the nationality of people from that country. We then go through these and give out points to the teams. 

Talking about a Country/Nationality

One activity that students should be able to do from a pre-intermediate level is to prepare a short talk on a country. You could have a student pull a country from a hat each week and next week that student delivers a short talk on that country. You can provide questions to help the student e.g. what is the population, capital, national dish, official language, etc. To make it more fun (and ensure other students listen), you could also ask the student to prepare a few questions for their classmates to answer after their talk.

You could invite students at higher levels to do a pecha kucha presentation on a country. This is simply a 7 minute (6 minutes 40 seconds to be precise) talk with 20 pictures each being shown for 20 seconds each. Students may find it motivating to look for these pictures.

A good lead-in to a lesson on a particular country is the 5 things game. To play you simply need to think of 5 things that you find in a particular country, or 5 things that a particular nationality famously do. Of course these shouldn’t be things that are true to all countries (though not necessarily unique). For example:

5 things that you find in Australia:

  • Kangaroos
  • Boomerang
  • Aborigines
  • Gigantic spiders
  • Surfers

5 things British people do:

  • queue
  • talk about the weather
  • drink tea
  • use sarcasm
  • apologise too much

Another game that can be played here is one minute talks. In this game you just need the name of some countries written on pieces of paper. In groups one student takes a piece of paper and turns it over. The student has to try and talk about this country for minute. Alternatively, instead of trying to speak for one minute, they can speak for an unlimited time, but the other students should try and guess the country.

Comparing Countries

One simple game to compare countries is Top Trumps. For this, you will need to create cards for different countries with at least 3 different stats e.g. population, ranking in an index, GDP, etc. Students then play the game of Top Trumps with the cards. A more productive game to compare countries is comparative arguments. In this game, you give students 2 or 3 countries. In teams, they have to come up with as many sentences to compare them as possible. They can also compare the people e.g. Italian people are more passionate than British people (that’s probably fair!). Another fun game you can try is to give each student a nationality that they will know a decent amount about. You then play the what’s the question game, with each student answering based on their nationality. For example, if the question was what did you have for breakfast, students might answer: Russian: porridge Spanish: omelet French: croissant American: cereal

Stereotypes and Generalisations

I’ve already mentioned some stereotypes above. While negative stereotypes can be harmful when perpetuated, it is certainly useful for students to be able to call them out. These can also be a good source of humour, and are certainly used a lot by comedians. One activity you could do is to ask students to come up with as many stereotypes as they can about their own country and nationality and then about other countries and nationalities. Of course it is best to avoid countries that hate each other. I wouldn’t ask a room full of Arabic speakers to give me stereotypes about Israel for example. If you feel that is too free, you can instead provide stereotypes to discuss. There are many to choose from which I won’t list because I don’t want to offend my entire readership! You can have students discuss how true they are and then have them look up how true they are as homework. An alternative to the above exercise, and as a variant of the 5 things game, you could ask students to name the 5 countries who drink the most tea, or have the highest rates of obesity. Students will likely be surprised that the UK and US do not top these lists respectively (although admittedly they will be unlikely to get any of the countries above the US on the second list).

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