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November 25, 2005

Lesson Planning - Using Halloween for ESL Class: Anytime!

ESL Halloween.gif

"There is nothing funny about Halloween. This sarcastic festival reflects, rather, an infernal demand for revenge by children on the adult world." ~Jean Baudrillard

One annual celebration in some English-speaking countries that younger European ESL Students find utterly fascinating, once they understand it, is the now overly-commercialized institution of Halloween. How can you incorporate this into an ESL lesson plan? For starters, you could begin with a discussion of the definition for the word "holiday" itself (holy-day), and what North Americans, for example, really consider a holiday and what they consider an annual celebration. If you are teaching in a country that REALLY has no familiarity with the occasion, you can probably get away with doing this lesson ANY time of the year, at least once.

NOTE: For myself, I can only speak for North Americans. Correct me if I'm wrong, but The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language claims that Hallowe'en is also observed in the British Isles (see paragraphs 4 and 5).

Because of Halloween's proximity to very sacred religious observation(s) in Catholic European countries, such as All-Soul's Day and All-Saint's Day (the days of the dead), some European ESL students might come to the table with a predetermination that North Americans (or others) are disrespecting their sacred memories of the deceased. This, in fact, has happened to me personally on more than one occasion. Rather than a cause for alarm, it is, instead, a unique opportunity to employ a little cultural diplomacy by introducing a condensed history of Ireland's Samhain (apparently pronounced "SOW-en" in Gaelic) and getting your ESL students to explain the meanings and rituals of their own localized religious observances by comparing and contrasting them with the history and traditions of "All Hallows' Eve."

For instance, according to the Oxford English Dictionary and Webster's New Millennium Dictionary of English, Samhain is an Irish word that refers to "the first day of November, marking the beginning of winter and a new year for ancient Celts" according to their own calendar. For Wiccans and other pagans, however, Samhain is celebrated on October 31, and is also referred to as November Eve, Hallowe'en, Hallowmass (one of the quarter-days of ancient Scotland), Feast of Souls, and the Feast of the Dead.

Halloween (short for All Hallow Even) is celebrated in the United States, Canada, and the British Isles on October 31st with children going door to door while wearing disguises, asking for treats and playing practical jokes on those who do not comply.

Some of the older ESL students, generally the drinking-legal, college-aged ones, already recognize the "masquerade party" aspect of Halloween and observe this night of debauchery (in select locales) alongside Western expatriates in the more cosmopolitan European cities. You too can bring some of this "fun" into the classroom. If you have younger ESL students, ask them all to bring a number of loose candies equivalent to the number of students in the class plus the teacher (you too should bring enough candy to represent every student). Demonstrate the process of trick or treat, by asking every student to approach another with the phrase "Trick-or-Treat!" until every student has fully exchanged their candy. This will be especially effective if you bring a candle and dim the lights to create a spooky atmosphere.

An entire ESL vocabulary lesson can be planned beforehand about the Halloween experience, e.g. "ghoul," "goblin," "costume," "disguise," "treat," "trick," etc., and you might break the class into small groups to invent "tricks" they might play on persons unwilling to give them candy on Halloween. Have the ESL students then present their "trick" to the class in English.

Finally, if they do not object, you might try your hand at creating a "fright" story. You can write the first sentence at the top of a piece of paper like, "It was dark rainy night at the castle/ESL school on (insert your street’s name here)." Then, in small groups again, each group could be assigned to invent a next line to the story, first, perhaps, in their native language, then transcribing it into English onto paper. Encourage them to be as "frightening" as possible. When you get to the end, finish the story yourself with a "surprise" sentence like “and the villain is right outside the window!” or some such nonsense (unbeknownst to them), light the candle again, dim the lights and read their story back to them in a slow, scary voice.

This will be one ESL lesson they will likely never forget!

Let us know here at ESL-Lesson-Plan if you have done something successful with Halloween in your ESL classes that you’d like to contribute to your fellow readers. And remember, in the words of Arthur Conan Doyle, Sr., "Where there is no imagination there is no Horror."

With hopes that this will be both a “trick” and “treat” for your ESL classroom,

Lee Hobbs
ESL Instruct, Editor-in-Chief

P.S. If you'd like to use the topic "Halloween" in an ESL lesson plan but would first like to research its history, please visit the following link for information that will help you design the perfect ESL lesson plan! www.halloween.com/history_halloween.php

*For a whole page of North American Halloween lesson plans that you might be able to "adapt" to the ESL classroom, please explore the following site: www.lessonplanspage.com/Halloween.htm

Looking for more articles about lesson planning for the ESL classroom? Click HERE!

Posted by lhobbs at November 25, 2005 05:32 AM

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Halloween is a rich topic for ESL classes. It's always fun to see how far into the realm of comparative mythology classes end up going.

Another really great day for discussion in class is Buy Nothing Day. It's every year the day after Thanksgiving. In a way I think that it's better than Halloween, Christmas and other traditional celebrations because it has an idealogical component. It opens up a whole bunch of questions about society, culture and consumerism. The great thing is that it's possible to disagree with Buy Nothing Day! As well, there are lots of resources out there online for it that teachers can use in class.


Posted by: Nigel Fogden at November 26, 2005 04:59 PM


Note from Lee:


Thanks so much for that fabulous idea.

"Buy Nothing Day!" LOL. That is awesome! I'll be honest, I've never heard of it (why has this escaped my attention?), but it sounds like an excellent "holiday." I mean, if we can have a "Smoke-Free" day why not a "Buy Nothing" day?

What a fine concept to contrast with the traditional "day after Thanksgiving" (sometimes referred to as "Black Friday") in the U.S. since it is famously one of the busiest shopping days of the year there (when the "sales" begin, of course). See a web reference here a:

You're absolutely right though, economic and class issues would certainly be a way in for a wonderful ESL conversational topic.

I think I can speak on behalf of the other ESL-Lesson-Plan blog readers that we'd be very interested to see what kind of typical lesson plan you'd present for Buy Nothing Day. Please share if you find a few spare moments!

Posted by: Lee at November 26, 2005 05:15 PM


Buy Nothing Day is the day after American Thanksgiving. For me Thanksgiving is the first Sunday in October.

Posted by: EFL Geek at November 28, 2005 03:33 AM


Note from Lee:

EFL Geek is absolutely correct about the differing dates of various "Harvest" celebrations celebrated throughout the modern world but, according to:


it seems the "Buy Nothing Day" is a self-proclaimed international phenomenon. The hyperlink, of course, is to a British website.

Thanks to both EFL Nerd and Nigel for bringing these issues to our attention. Great lesson plan material!

Posted by: Lee at November 28, 2005 03:37 PM


Over 40 years ago, as a young child here in the U.K. the only thing that marked out Halloween as being anything special was being told that it was the night when witches, etc. would try and get you if you went outside.

Of far greater importance was (and still is) Guy Fawkes night on November 5th when we would have bonfires and fireworks to celebrate the fact that Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators didn't succeed in blowing up the Houses of Parliament.
In the last 10 years, under the influence of American TV shows we have seen British children starting to copy 'Trick or Treat' with the younger ones dressing up and asking for sweets (= U.S. candy/ies), etc. and the ones about to become sullen teenagers preferring to do such 'tricks' as moving plant pots, etc.

Anyway, the two 'celebrations' have now combined and we now have a period from the end of October until the beginning of November when on any night of the week you can hear rockets and bangers going off until the early hours of the morning.


Posted by: Rod at November 30, 2005 11:37 AM


Note from Lee:

Rod, thanks for that insider's clarification on the history of Halloween practices in the U.K. This is something that can certainly be brought to the attention of our curious ESL students. I am aware of Guy Fawkes day but thought that I'd save that topic for a separate ESL lesson plan discussion.

From now on, we'll just have to keep in mind that the way American dictionaries utilize the idea of "observation," with reference to holidays observed in Britain, has the potential to be misleading if readers assume wrongly that observation is played out in the same manner everywhere. To be fair, I never met an American family that celebrated, for example, Christmas in exactly the same way as any of their neighbors, regardless of how it is depicted in film.

The same can probably be said for the aforementioned "Buy Nothing Day," an observance of which I was not aware took place in the United States until another poster on this blog enlightened me on the subject. The concept certainly receives little, if any, mass-media attention, regardless of what the internet might lead people to believe. Since mass-consumerism plays such a major role in the overall sense of culture in the U.S., that should make perfect sense.

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Posted by: Lee at November 30, 2005 01:42 PM

Note from Lee:

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Posted by: Lee at January 27, 2006 10:01 PM