We Plan, You Teach: A Closer Look at ESL Lesson Plan CompaniesBy Jennifer Maguire
April 27, 2023
ESL lesson plan companies offer ready-made resources for teachers
Denver, Co. – The aphorism “time is money” may sound pithy, but teachers know the value of time – and how much is spent on juggling the many responsibilities of a teacher. A typical day in the life of a teacher may include instruction, communications with students and parents, collaboration with other staff, assessments of student understanding, grading and, of course, at the start of it all, preparation for lessons. As online ESL instruction becomes increasingly ubiquitous, time spent on preparation has also grown. Whether teaching for a school, via a marketplace company or as an independent tutor, the value of good instructional materials cannot be overstated. Textbook companies provide valuable curriculum and support, but materials are also geared toward broad audiences and new editions are printed infrequently. The need for engaging, relevant lessons and activities has empowered a growing industry of lesson plan and curriculum providers. This growing compilation of companies provides quality lesson plan and curriculum resources for ESL teachers that may maximize their ability to focus on students and increase earning potential.
ESL Pals is one of many lesson plan companies that provide this service, and their slogan, “We Plan, You Teach,” encapsulates the idea of saving teachers hours of planning while still providing engaging, relevant content for students. While there were many lesson plan companies already in the business before the pandemic, ESL Pals is one of several that began at the height of school shutdowns, as the need increased for resources for independent ESL teachers.
“Oh, the shock of non-contract commitments!”
Many of today’s ESL teachers have become teacherpreneurs, a growing group of educators working online to provide tutoring and instructional resources, either as a full-time gig where they manage their own portfolios of students or to supplement a day job on campus. For those new to the teacherpreneur space, there’s often a learning curve as they navigate the different landscape of freelance and contract work.
Crystal Weber, founder and managing director of Crystal Clear ESL, experienced that very thing when the pandemic hit and she found she needed to scale up her online teaching hours. She was doing back-to-back lessons, almost every day, working around the clock, spending countless hours preparing lessons and developing curricula, which eventually sparked the idea to create her own web-based ESL curriculum membership service.
“Oh, the shock of non-contract commitments!” she said. “After rigorous searches online produced zero curricula options I was happy with… I [knew] I needed sequential lesson material that would replicate the teaching ease, zero prep and high professionalism I knew from contract teaching.”
She found many ESL resources with piecemeal lessons but discovered the time needed to “sew” them into suitable curricula was still overwhelming. Similarly, there were textbook-based curricula options, but she did not want to teach “via scanned PDF” from the “pre-digital ages, not to mention the expense.”
Her own experiences with working independently, spending countless hours preparing lessons and developing curricula, inspired the idea to create an online curriculum resource company that offered affordable, effective lessons to empower independent online ESL teachers.
Schools typically pay salaries, and some preparation time is often included. But for teacherpreneurs, pay is only earned during instructional times. The variety of lessons offered by lesson plan companies may be a way to provide engaging, relevant lessons and activities, with less time spent preparing for classes. Less time spent in preparation means opportunities to teach more, increasing earning potential.
We reached out to some of today’s lesson plan companies to provide an overview of services offered and pricing plans and to discuss the value of the resources they provide. We also took that information and created an ESL Lesson Plans Resource Guide with links to resources and promo codes for the Bridge audience. The companies – Crystal Clear ESL, Ellii (formerly ESL Library), ESL Brains, ESL Pals, Fluentize, Linguahouse, Onestopenglish, Sensations English and ZenGengo – all offer ready-made lessons plans, but the resources do vary. Resources focus on students in different age groups, different fluency levels, varied career paths, topical lessons and test preparation. Some lessons are video based, some are printable and some are in interactive digital formats. In most cases, the business model is subscription based, but one company offers individual lesson plan purchase options. There are also options for individual teacher subscription and organizational subscriptions. All lesson plan companies offer some free access to lesson plans or other resources. Becoming familiar with the resources available on sites such as these may offer today’s ESL teachers, especially those working as a teacherpreneur, resources that can minimize instructional preparation time and maximize opportunities to grow their customer base and direct their efforts where it matters most – with their students.
Company overviews are provided in the ESL Lesson Plans Resource Guide, as well as links to pricing and other resources. But first, let’s consider the benefits of utilizing ready-made lesson plan resources.
Focus on students, not preparation
Because teachers have so many duties that are part of the profession, it’s sometimes difficult to find time to do what is most important – work with students. We want to spend time on one-on-one instruction, provide detailed feedback and take the extra time to revisit areas of need. But too often, teachers are mired in all the additional duties of a teacher, including preparing lessons and activities. Preparation can be an enjoyable part of the profession but also a time-consuming one. Textbooks provide invaluable resources to guide instruction, but ESL is one subject that has not traditionally had a great deal of additional lesson and activity resources readily available. While teachers of other subjects may visit marketplace sites such as Teachers Pay Teachers to find ready-made materials in abundance, that has not typically been the case with ESL instruction. And ESL is a subject that requires formal testing, which means test preparation may also be part of instruction.
“One of the aims of ZenGengo is to free teachers from the photocopier,” said ZenGengo Co-Founder Paul Raine. “To that end, all ZenGengo assignments are designed, administered, submitted and graded entirely online within an intuitive web interface.”
ZenGengo is an online platform for teaching and learning languages. The company provides tools for teachers and instructional designers “that can be used to create end-to-end digital language learning experiences.” Lessons on the ZenGengo platform may be designed, administered, submitted and graded on the web interface. “ZenGengo provides 10 assignment types, which cover all four skills of listening, reading, writing and speaking, as well as language features such as grammar and vocabulary.”
Students do not need a log-in for ZenGengo, “making onboarding even easier than handing out a PDF.”
“Teachers pick and choose content based on the needs and levels of their students.”
Like the other lesson plan companies, ZenGengo lessons are assigned levels corresponding to the Common European Framework of Reference for languages (CEFR).
Ellii (formerly ESL Library) offers a similar all-in-one platform with engaging content and interactive teaching tools. “Using our platform, you are able to present and share lessons directly to your students, who will receive and complete the content on the student side of the platform,” Ellii VP of Publishing Tara Benwell said. “Most of our content is also available as a printable PDF, which can also be presented and annotated digitally. The majority of our content has both print and digital versions.”
Ellii also has features designed specifically for schools or programs that have special needs. These features include Clever rostering, social-emotional teaching and reporting tools. Print and digital solutions are available for teachers or tutors who are teaching in classrooms or hybrid, as well, with content suitable for groups or one-to-one teaching. “Teachers pick and choose content based on the needs and levels of their students,” Benwell said. “Our print versions are available in American, Canadian and British spelling, and audio can be downloaded or streamed.”
ESL Pals Co-Founder Raedmund Gibbons was alerted to the need for more lesson plan resources for ESL teachers as he was both an ESL teacher and a language student. The lack of relevant, effective instructional materials drove him, as well as his Co-Founder, Delaine Nel, to start the company with the goal of providing ready-to-use materials that are applicable to real-world language proficiency.
“It’s a win-win situation for the teacher and the students,” Gibbons said. Gibbons and Nel were both teaching online in South America when the pandemic began. They were also learning Spanish and noticed the lack of engaging, thought-provoking materials that were available.
“We encountered that [problem] as students, as well,” Gibbons said. “We couldn’t apply the conversations and vocabulary in real life.”
Their experiences as both teachers of ESL and language students spurred the idea to create a resource for ESL teachers that would offer ready-to-use lessons that were engaging and useful. They also noticed that many lessons were standalone resources that did not connect to other lessons. That observation prompted them to ensure the ESL Pals content included a curriculum guide.
“We want to make sure there’s flow into the next lesson,” Gibbons said. “That’s the importance of having the curriculum.”
ESL Pals is one of a few lesson plan companies we found that offer curriculum mapping, but most companies organize lessons by topics, themes and/or fluency levels, creating the potential for curriculum planning for the teacher.
“It’s a win-win situation for the teacher and the students.”
Onestopenglish (OSE) was launched in 2001 as a marketing site with resources to support Macmillan teachers. OSE is part of Macmillan Education Ltd., producing high-quality education materials to support teachers and students. Materials are written and edited by ELT professionals and ready to use. The site also has a Teacher Professional Development (TPD) section, as upskilling is often not funded by institutions or available to self-employed teachers. For example, the Advancing Teaching series supports teachers as they keep up to date with TPD trends and improve teaching methodologies.
OSE offers a bank of supplementary resources to do what the coursebook cannot – provide authentic, topical resources and series that promote diversity and equity in the classroom. For example, the recent Education for Sustainable Development and Inclusion series explore themes such as global citizenship. OSE also has resources such as flashcards for young learners. The resource site is teacher moderated, meaning teachers can choose the resources that work for them. Textbooks must work for a variety of audiences, so they tend to offer a conservative, wide-lens focus. Sources like OSE can offer teachers more diverse subjects as they know their students best and can select the most engaging resource for their classes.
Linguahouse offers ESL worksheets, online resources and the Expemo learning app, providing solutions for language schools and phrasebooks with useful words and phrases. The ESL lessons include a PDF worksheet, a recorded audio session and multimedia Expemo flashcards. Article-based worksheets utilize sources such as The Independent and The Conversation. While much of the content can only be accessed with a subscription, there are certain resources that can be accessed or downloaded for free with registration. All materials are created by experienced, former ESL teachers.
“We want them to be able to edit and adapt. Teachers know what they want to do.”
Sensations English is a resource provider that uses video-based lessons focused on global news topics. Lewis Bronze, Founder of the company, said he wouldn’t necessarily describe Sensations English as a lesson plan company but instead a resource for ESL instruction that provides curated news topics for instruction. The site does have 14 lesson plan templates that may be easily adapted to any of the videos, and each video is accompanied by a transcript, activities and study tools.
“You can download our template and edit it,” Bronze said. “We want them to be able to edit and adapt. Teachers know what they want to do.”
The company was established in 2019 after the five founders got together, bringing their differing skill sets of ELT, video production, English instruction and systems architecture.
“We identified the need by looking at resources from traditional publisher websites,” Bronze said. “There was very little related to news, and we also found very little video-based news [instruction] on the web. And it had lots of adverts. We believe we are very unique.”
Increase earning potential
English language jobs at school sites typically pay a salary or hourly, which includes preparation time. However, ESL instructors working independently are only paid for instructional hours. Time spent on preparation is unpaid and takes away from time that might be spent in paid instruction.
“There’s definitely a trend of people wanting to work independently for themselves.”
ESL Pals’ Co-Founder, Gibbons, pointed out that, in England, a teacher will work and do four lessons a day, for example, with two hours of planning time. “In theory, you’re getting paid for planning time.” But an ESL teacher working independently is paid by the hour without the planning time. ESL Pals offers subscription pricing, so there’s an up-front cost, but “you can work more hours and earn more money.”
“There’s definitely a trend of people wanting to work independently for themselves,” Gibbons said. “There’s an upfront cost, but [with ready-made lessons and curricula] you can work more hours and earn more money.”
Although most of ZenGengo’s subscribers are teachers working in brick-and-mortar schools, they do have some independent teacher clients. Raine described a recent Zoom call with a teacher who was starting her own online English teaching business using a combination of different platforms including Canva, Camtasia, Calendly, Quizlet, Genially, Zoom Pro, Mailchimp and ZenGengo.
“This piecemeal approach to building an online language tutoring business seems to be quite common. ZenGengo offers a lot of functionality, but it can’t do everything. I think the most immediate and pressing concern for most independent language teachers is how to find paying students. In this regard, some of our customers have used ZenGengo as a lead generator by providing practice activities and quizzes to potential customers.”
Independent teachers are the largest subscription group for OSE, with most subscribers living in Western Europe. OSE offers a variety of lessons with different topics, fluency levels and lesson lengths. Some teachers may need fully prepared lessons with different levels that support mixed abilities, for example. Others may be looking for short warmers and fillers or materials to help students with a particular skill they are finding difficult. Resource providers like OSE provide ready-made resources for a variety of scenarios that are written and created by ELT professionals.
Bronze of Sensations English said resources like those they provide help independent teachers enormously. “We’re providing a sophisticated system at minimal cost,” he said.
Sensations English has teacher packages that can be bought for small numbers of students, as well as packages for groups of 30 students and school-wide subscriptions. With the subscriptions, teachers can grant licenses to their students and the platform has a teacher side and a student side. On the teacher dashboard, the instructor can create a lesson, write instructions, select activities and then send the lesson to a particular student. The teacher can then see the number of attempts a student makes to complete activities, the time spent on the activity and more. “I think it’s a particularly good value for independent teachers,” Bronze said. “The teacher, of course, has to invest, but the money is small.” There is some time spent on preparing the lesson but much less time than writing it from scratch, and the content is well-developed and effective.
“So, a lot of teachers are trying to build their own practices. They’re looking for resources.”
Fluentize offers lessons based on videos, with the primary market being teenagers and adults. Of the companies interviewed, Fluentize was the only one that sells lessons individually. Credits are purchased for a single lesson, five lessons or 10 lessons. A full-access site subscription is also available. See the ESL Lesson Plans Resource Guide for a promo code for the full-access subscription for Bridge readers.
Founder and Materials Writer Jake Young credits the need for quality lesson plan resources for ESL teachers to an increasing shift to independent teacher instruction. “These days there are a lot of independent teachers using a variety of tutoring platform sites, but many try to avoid these types of platforms due to the commission fees the platforms take from the teacher’s lessons,” Young said. “So, a lot of teachers are trying to build their own practices. They’re looking for resources.”
ESL Brains is another lesson plan company that offers ready-to-use lessons in both digital and printable formats. Lessons are designed for adult learners and are based on authentic, real-life videos, thought-provoking ideas and current topics. The company started as a teaching blog, but as need arose for quality lesson plan resources, the focus shifted to providing those materials. These days, 95 percent of their subscribers are independent teachers.
Stan Saluda, ESL Brains Co-Founder, said, “We feel that we are in a position to deliver such diverse materials to teachers and students. Our customers find them valuable and base their classes on them. According to our user survey from February 2022, 40 percent of the ESL Brains community use our lesson plans in every second lesson they run each week, and almost 25 percent say that three-quarters of their lessons are solely based on our teaching materials.”
Teach with relevant, up-to-date materials
All lesson plan companies interviewed update their websites with new lesson plans every month, so the content is fresh and relevant. This online business model provides the opportunity for continuous content additions, which means topics and content covered in lessons is relevant to current events, new trends, current topics of discussion and more.
“In our Lesson Library, we try to provide a selection of both evergreen and topical lessons,” Raine said. “During October, for example, we added two Halloween-related lessons. We also have a series of lessons on the Sustainable Development Goals. We try to base our Lesson Library materials on a wide selection of interesting and relevant topics.”
“Our most popular assignment type is the old, familiar multiple-choice quiz, followed by text gap fill.”
There are a variety of resources that are popular for subscribers on each of these sites, but the overall consensus is that teachers like the foundational products the most, as these typically focus on grammar. That said, the data on popular resources is interesting as it highlights the needs of today’s language teachers and students.
“Our most popular assignment type is the old, familiar multiple-choice quiz, closely followed by text gap fill,” Raine said. Teachers tend to like to use the activity types they have always used in pen and paper contexts, as well as experimenting with some more modern and innovative activities such as audio and video recording and speech recognition.”
For Onestopenglish, topical resources and authentic content are always popular because they are timely and engage students. But grammar is also always consistently in the top 10 most popular products.
For ESL Brains, the authentic videos (compared to scripted audio and video files typically offered in coursebooks) are popular “because that gives students access to ‘real’ language in real-life situations and touches on topics that are new and intriguing,” Saluda said.
“Our agile publishing team is constantly adding to and updating the content to assure that it is up to date and reflects current, real-world issues.”
For Ellii, the new speaking task is very popular, “as teachers are always looking for ways to offer more speaking opportunities,” Benwell said. “We have over 1,300 speaking tasks now and continue to add this task to most of our new lessons. Teachers are also thrilled that Ellii Bot (new AI technology) is helping grade written tasks.”
But the most popular Ellii content remains the downloadable Grammar and Discussion Starter PDFs.
“Our agile publishing team is constantly adding to and updating the content to assure that it is up to date and reflects current, real-world issues,” Benwell said. “Meanwhile, our tech team builds features that make it easy for teachers to find, filter and deliver the content and track progress.”
Benwell added that the new speaking task is “extremely popular as teachers are always looking for ways to offer more speaking opportunities for English learners. We have over 1,300 speaking tasks now and continue to add this task to most of our new lessons. We’ve also introduced Microsoft’s Immersive Reader tool to our digital readings, which has been a game changer for teachers. Teachers are also thrilled that Ellii Bot (new AI technology) is helping grade written tasks.”
“We want to keep the lessons fresh.”
For ESL Pals, the children’s lessons are the most popular, so that’s where much of the focus goes for publishing fresh content. Gibbons speculated that there aren’t many textbooks with the lesson structure used by ESL Pals, which may drive the popularity of the products.
“We want our lesson to have longevity,” Gibbons said. That said, we also “don’t want outdated content, so we update regularly. We upload at least three [new] lesson plans a week. We want to keep the lessons fresh. The new lessons every week are across different lessons.”
Crystal Clear ESL sees a similar pattern, with their most popular lesson bundle being Crystal Clear Kids, which is comprised of levels two through four of their core curriculum and suitable for pre-beginner through intermediate proficiencies.
The Fluentize library of about 360 lessons spans 20 different categories, but among those most popular are the free lessons and those focused on environmental topics, business and careers and technology and innovation. Young believes the popularity of certain topics can be attributed to the relevant nature of the subject, which is one of the reasons lesson plan companies are such an important resource to today’s teachers.
So, while the foundational skills resources may continue to lead the pack in popularity, the consensus is that resources that provide current, relevant topics and focus on traditionally difficult tasks are also quite popular with subscribers.
Sensations English may not have pre-packaged lesson plans, as the plans are templates for the news-focused videos, but the relevancy of the content cannot be overstated. The website is updated every 48 hours, and the videos, which all include a transcript, activities and study tools appropriate to the chosen level, focus on current events in the genres of community, culture, entertainment, hard news, innovation, lifestyle and the natural world.
In the British Councils 2021 ELTons, Sensations English was awarded the Judges’ Commendation for Environmental Sustainability and Climate Action for offering “global news-based lessons covering world issues like climate change” and for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), which celebrates “resources that bridge educational inequality, reflect diversity and promote the inclusion of typically underrepresented groups.”
The need for ESL resources is here to stay
The pandemic, or more specifically, the global closing of schools, greatly impacted the education industry. For companies such as these, the closures launched businesses in new and interesting ways. For teachers, the closures expanded the online teaching industry, creating avenues for independent instruction and teacherpreneurship. But what does the future hold? Schools are back in session, and yet, the closures highlighted new avenues of instruction that may continue to grow in popularity.
“With COVID-19, there was a boom in independent educators (private tutors) needing more and more interactive, digital tools to help teach their classes virtually, and we addressed those needs with various updates to our technology.”
When the pandemic hit, OSE offered free support to the ELT community, publishing additional resources to help teachers with online learning and virtual classroom tools. After the pandemic, OSE reinstated the paywall but halved the subscription price and started to offer monthly subscriptions to help the community. Many students around the world have now returned to classrooms. However, OSE continues to be popular with teachers looking for additional resources to supplement their lessons and engage their students.
“With COVID-19, there was a boom in independent educators (private tutors) needing more and more interactive, digital tools to help teach their classes virtually, and we addressed those needs with various updates to our technology,” Ellii’s Benwell said.
Many students may have returned to classrooms, but online instruction seems to be here to stay. Ellii has continued to see strong subscription numbers, with customers around the globe, from Australia, India, Argentina, the United Kingdom, the Philippines and many other locations, with the majority of customers located in the United States, Canada and Brazil.
Linguahouse has been around since 2008 and continues to add new lessons every week. Teachers using the Linguahouse resources are both independent and working at school sites. The Expemo app runs on phones, tablets and computers with synchronized data, so learners can use the app at any time on any device. Students can review material from their lessons or practice or build recall skills from previous lessons. The multimedia resources and course plans continue to be valuable tools for any ESL educator, whether online or in the classroom.
Sensations English opened its virtual doors during the pandemic, like several other lesson plan companies. The initial focus was on brick-and-mortar schools, so school closures made the transition challenging. But despite this, the pandemic further spotlighted the need for relevant instructional content delivered in the digital format, and the business model evolved and expanded in response. Today, clients teach at schools and work independently, and the need to provide relevant, up-to-date content continues.
The company partners with distributors around the world, equipping them with a platform, and they do the administrative work with customers, primarily schools and universities. One of the bigger distributors is in Turkey. The resources are the same set available to all customers, but the Sensations English sites are specific to the region, sensationsenglish.ed, for example in Germany, with instructions provided in German and videos and instructional content in English.
The next Sensations English product will be an exam preparation course. “At the moment, we have courses, but we don’t have progressions,” Bronze said. “We’re building a course that will be aimed at particular English exams. Our course will have a progression and modules. It will start with one module but will eventually have three modules.”
ESL Pals and Crystal Clear ESL both also launched during the pandemic, as the need for ESL resources became abundantly clear. Both companies have grown and evolved over time, still seeing the clear need for quality ESL content, especially for independent teachers.
“We had been thinking about it for years. The pandemic was the final push.”
Weber has been working with her creative development team and will soon “wrap up completion of almost 700 sequential, fully-interactive ESL lessons that span all ages and proficiencies of English language learners.”
She feels lucky to have this “tiny team of incredible talent” and is excited about the “potential to host other educational content and courses on my site, and to be able to provide the infrastructure small-scale developers might need to reach our clientele.”
For ESL Brains, the pandemic shifted the focus of the company from a teaching blog to a lesson plan resource provider. “We had been thinking about it for years,” Saluda said. “The pandemic was the final push.”
These days, ESL Brains continues to publish at least three new lessons on the site each week. Saluda sees a great need for resources such as these, as traditional ESL/ELT publishers must wait to publish new editions, so they are not typically equipped to provide the most current materials. He pointed out that publishers also must conform to various country-specific requirements and curricula, which often results in a templated approach that may not be as engaging.
“There simply is a need for some differentiation on the market.”