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ESL Lessons Using Non-ESL Websites

This article will introduce Web Site Guides for ESL Students <> These lessons are each based on a major commercial web site and allow the student to click directly from the lesson page to different parts of the commercial site.   New vocabulary and customs related to the site topic are explained and the student learns, through example, how to navigate the site.   The lessons include assignment questions and/or assignment projects that involve navigating and getting information from various locations in the site.


For more than ten years, my colleagues and I have been successfully using maps, menus, travel brochures, newspaper inserts, and other authentic materials in the classroom. We have found that these types of materials are very effective in generating student interest, encouraging interaction between students, and teaching customs and vocabulary. Most importantly, though, we have found that using authentic materials gives students confidence in using English. With more and more students having access to and showing interest in the Internet, using the Internet as a source of authentic materials seemed to be a natural extension. I have made a collection of lessons that use the Internet to improve English skills, introduce culture and customs, and, at the same time, introduce students to the English Web via some excellent sites.

The Lessons

The goal of this project is to have ten to twelve lessons that could be used for a one-semester computer language lab course or as supplementary material for a regular textbook-based one-year course. Writing and maintaining successful lessons has proved to be more difficult than was expected.   Successful commercial sites grow and eventually redesign and reorganize their sites while unsuccessful sites disappear overnight.   Each time there is a change in the commercial site that the lesson is based on, the lesson must either be rewritten or discarded.

Some of sites that have been successfully used for lessons are the Internet Movie Database,, MapQuest, and CuisineNet. These sites were chosen because they are a) extensive and very well designed sites, b) interesting and/or useful for the student, c) related to topics that I wanted to cover in class, and d) seemed relatively stable. began as an online bookstore in 1995 and now sells almost anything that you would want to buy on the Internet. The lesson, <>, gives a navigation lesson in searching for a book. MapQuest is a site that can be used as a source for maps and as a trip planner.   In the MapQuest lesson, <>, students can choose routes and sightseeing spots, find hotels and restaurants, and even check for locations of rest stops for a road trip in the US.   The Internet Movie Database is a site that has information on thousands of movies. This lesson, <>, shows the student how to search for information about movies and actors.

The CuisineNet Lesson

CuisineNet is a huge site that includes a collection of dining guides with descriptions, photos, and menus for restaurants in many cities. It was chosen to introduce the student to types of restaurants, menus, dining customs, and manners. The CuisineNet lesson, <>, consists of the following sections.

An Introduction

The first section shows the student what information the CuisineNet site is capable of providing. The introduction explains that one can search the database by location, cuisine, price, amenities, or by name. Difficult words, like cuisine and amenities , are defined. Just dragging the cursor over a linked vocabulary word will make the definition of the word appear in the URL window at the bottom of the browser window. By clicking on the linked word, the student can go to that particular word in the vocabulary list at the bottom of the lesson page.


This section introduces CuisineNet capabilities and navigation by taking the student on a short tour.   In this part of the lesson there are five numbered steps that will take a student from the CuisineNet homepage to the online menu of the Wildfire Restaurant in downtown Chicago.   Each step contains links so that a student has the choice of either clicking to each site page from the lesson page or following the five steps all within the CuisineNet site. The steps are linked so that there is no chance that the student will get lost in the site.   A teacher could recommend to the student that s/he open up two browser windows, one for the lesson and one for the CuisineNet site. However, most students will eventually do that without being told.


There are two exercises in the CuisineNet lesson. In the first exercise, the student is directed to a sushi restaurant in New York called the Haikara Grill. As in the previous section, each step of the instructions has links to the relevant site pages so that even a novice will have little trouble following them. The student is given questions to answer at each step of the way. The following are some examples of the questions used in Exercise 1 of the CuisineNet lesson.

  • What price categories are there?
  • What is the seating capacity of the Haikara Grill?

These questions are very simple with answers that will be obvious to the student. The object of these questions is not so much to get the student to find the answer but to direct the student's attention to instructive and useful parts of the page.

  • What days is this restaurant closed at lunchtime?
  • What is the difference in price between the lunchtime and dinnertime chirashi zushi?

These questions are a little more difficult and may require searching within the page, calculating, or both.

  • What is the English name for the Japanese fish called hamachi?

Although all the answers can be found within the site, sometimes an Internet-savvy student will find that finding an answer elsewhere is easier. For the above question, some may choose to go to a dictionary site. This should be encouraged or at least pointed out as a possibility.

  • What would you order if you had $50 in your pocket?

These questions involve making personal choices. Some of these can be quite difficult and time consuming because of the searching and the calculating that is necessary. This question is even more involved because tipping has to be taken into consideration.

  • Can you guess why there is no shellfish on the menu?

Some questions are much more challenging and have answers that involve culture and customs. Not all students will be able to deduce that the answer to the above question is that the Haikara Grill is a kosher restaurant.

Exercise 1 has a total of eleven questions. The time it takes for a student to answer these questions varies considerably. Exercise 2 has ten questions of a similar type and could be assigned to a faster class in addition to Exercise 1.


This section introduces students to questions that they may be asked if they eat at a restaurant in the US. The students could be asked to write their own dialogs for a waiter and a customer as an additional assignment.

Table Manners

Four dos and four don'ts to remember when eating in a restaurant in the US are listed. This can be used as a starting point for a discussion on differences in manners from country to country.


This section gives the student some information on the system of tipping in restaurants. A discussion of the custom of tipping, with its pros and cons, usually makes for a lively discussion in class.

Vocabulary List

Difficult words that appear in the body of the online lesson are linked to this list of words and their definitions at the bottom of the lesson page. If a student clicks on a linked word, s/he will go to that particular word in this vocabulary list.   From the list, if s/he clicks the back button on the browser, s/he will be taken back to the body of the lesson.

Using These Web-based Lessons

Before using these web-based lessons the teacher should check the links in the lesson to make sure that everything is in order. Single-site lessons, like CuisineNet, are easy to check because the links to the commercial site tend to either all work or not work at all.  The CuisineNet lesson has had to be rewritten several times because the site was expanded and redesigned. Other lessons have had to be discarded because a site disappeared, or because it changed in such a way that it was no longer a good site to base a lesson on.


There are benefits in using any kind of authentic materials. Students come to realize that they do not have to read or understand materials in their entirety in order to extract personally useful information. Students experience the satisfaction of using English instead of just studying it and gain confidence in their English abilities. With these lessons based on web sites there are added benefits. Students learn how to navigate up-to-date sites and gain experience and confidence in using the English language web.