The EFL Playhouse: A Resource for ESL/EFL Teachers of Young Learners

Finding Materials

One pressing concern for many international teachers is where to find materials. As teachers know, good resources are rarely cheap. Books are heavy, and educational games take up a lot of packing space when you're limited to one or two checked bags and a carry-on.

In the past I've paid extra for the privilege of checking a third bag, sent boxes of teaching materials ahead of me via surface mail, ordered new teaching materials once established overseas (paying international postage to get them), and packed light, then purchased what I could when I reached my final destination. The U.S. postal system no longer offers international surface mail, which is probably just as well given the three+ months packages often took to arrive.

Getting Material from Home

So what's the best way to get all those goodies from your local teacher supply store to your destination? It depends on your circumstances. Options include ...

  1. Packing an extra suitcase.

    Packing an extra bag can be a decent option if you have someone meeting you at the airport and if their vehicle has room for multiple large suitcases, plus a carry-on, plus passengers. If you're flying out of the U.S. an extra bag will set you back about U.S.$120 and will afford you 50-70 more pounds of shipping. It's a little pricier than surface mail for most destinations, but a lot cheaper than air mail. Plus, with luck, your supplies will actually reach your destination at the same time you do.

    If you're flying from Europe, Australia, New Zealand, or virtually any country outside of North America, though, check with the airline before doing any extra packing. Baggage restrictions tend to be stricter in other parts of the world, and an extra bag could easily set you back $400 or more.

    Also keep in mind that he more luggage you have, though, the more cumbersome traveling becomes. You've got to get your bags to the airport, get them checked through at the airport, then collect them at the end and get them to your final destination. The first half of that process isn't too bad, provided you family or friends willing to help. The second half, however, can be tedious -- especially after you've been traveling for 20+ hours. If an individual from your new school goes to the airport in their personal vehicle to meet you, the ride home shouldn't be a problem. But if you're forced to rely on public transportation, trying to get around with multiple bags in tow is NOT a pleasant process, especially when you're already bone-weary. I've dragged extra bags (yes, that plural was intentional) along all of one time when traveling alone and will probably never choose to do so again.

  2. Mailing a parcel ... to yourself (It's always fun to get packages from home, right?) 

    Shopping in your home country, packing up your purchases, and mailing them to your soon-to-be address is one of the more straightforward methods of acquiring resources. You can see materials for yourself -- flip through books, peek into packages, read the rules of educational games, etc. You also pay exact shipping costs -- no inflated "shipping and handling" charges or added fees. (Hint: Make friends with the owner of your local teachers' store before moving overseas. He or she may be persuaded to ship future purchases to you at costs, particularly if you place large orders once or twice a year.)

    But this method isn't without risks. First and foremost, you'll want to acquaint yourself with international postal rates before purchasing quantities of material. As previously mentioned, the U.S. postal service eliminated international surface mail earlier this year, and air mail isn't cheap.

    Second, foreign governments may charge duties or tariffs on incoming packages, particularly if the value of contents exceeds a certain amount. These vary by country, so again, you'll want to check before mailing. (South Korea kindly offers exemptions for books and educational materials.)

    Third, the reliability of postal services varies from country to country and even from neighborhood to neighborhood within countries. My South Korean address of four years actually proved more reliable than the APO address my husband and I now share. Acquaintances in other parts of Korea, however, have complained about damaged packages and occasional theft, while a friend teaching in Saudi went so far as to tell his family not to bother mailing anything to him, as packages were consistently ripped apart and their contents reduced to rubbish.

  3. Ordering online

    Though similiar to method two, ordering material online and having it shipped to you offers a couple of unique advantages. First, it allows you to get situated and see what you need/want before making any purchases. (Keep in mind that there's often a gap between what you're told you'll be doing and what your new job actually entails -- particularly if you're hired through a recruiter.) After all, there's no need to buy a Scrabble game if the school where you're teaching already has six of them sitting on the shelves. Similiarly, you won't need advanced grammar references in the high schoolers you were told you would be teaching end up being three-, four-, and five-year-olds.  

    Second, there are far more materials available online than any single teachers' store can stock. If your home school district has a limited ELL population, chances are your local teachers' store will be equally limited in its ELL offerings. If your local ELL population consists primarily of native speakers of Spanish, you may find that the offerings at your local teachers' stores consist primarily of bilingual materials that don't really address the needs of the Japanese or Korean or Chinese students you'll be teaching. The Internet circumvents such barriers and gives you access to virtually every resource book or educational product in print.

    Still, the international shipping risks outlined above apply here as well. Before making any purchases, it's wise to check with online merchants and find out whether they offer such services as insured shipping.

Taking Advantage of Online Services

When it comes to buying educational resources online, most people immediately think in terms of And indeed, has garnered a decent percentage of my gross pay in past years. But Amazon's vendors won't generally ship games or manipulatives internationally and the few who will charge a premium. My personal favorite supplier is

As the name implies, is a Christian company, and the bulk of their products are religious in nature. Under their homeschooling section, however, they offer material from virtually every mainline publisher -- Carson-Dellosa, Learning Resources, Scholastic, McGraw-Hill, Didax Educational Products, etc. Everything is discounted, and their international shipping generally proves the cheapest I can find. At 30-35 percent, shipping is still not cheap. But when I've ordered games and manipulatives from other vendors, I've ended up paying 100 percent or more in shipping costs. (Case in point, I wanted a $30 bucket of Reading Rods letter cubes a couple of years ago. I e-mailed the manufacturer and was quoted a shipping price of $35. I ordered through and got them shipped for $10.)

Honorable mention also goes to, which deals in closeouts and remainders. offers books and some other educational materials for 50-90 percent off cover price.

But the web doesn't just give you ready access to traditionally printed materials. In recent years, several companies have found new ways to make products even more accessible to consumers the world over.

  1. eBooks

    Easily the market leader, offers a huge selection of titles from Scholastic, Teacher Created Resources, Creative Teaching Press, the Teaching and Learning Company, and numerous smaller publishers, all ready for online purchase and downloading in PDF format. Titles are discounted 10 percent off retail, you can download them immediately, and if there's ever a problem, their customer service is tops.

    Teacher Created Resources and Evan-Moor now offer most of their newer titles in electronic format and make digital versions of their products available through their respective websites. Teacher Created Resources' digital offerings include a three-part reproducible phonics series that is ideal for use in the ELL classroom as well as growing collection of full-color game and learning center books.

  2. Subscription services

    Other online services that deserve mention are the Reading family of sites, Standards Made Easy, and Evan-Moor's

    Reading offers over 700 leveled downloadable mini-books, complete with related worksheets. Subscribers also have access to a nice assortment of flashcards (including words and pictures for every letter of the alphabet) and both Zaner-Bloser and D'Nealian letter formation sheets. Other sites in this family include and

    Standards Made Easy, the brainchild of the company that brought us Frank Schafer materials, offers subscribers access to over 10,000 reproducibles, searchable by grade level, subject area, theme, and skill focus. For $19.95, individual subscribers can choose 100 items to download. Considering that most of the resource books in my library cost at least $19.95 and that I haven't used 100 items out of any one of them, I was pretty happy with the deal. is a new, but promising venture from Evan-Moor. This is a monthly subscription service that provides members with unlimited access to a growing online resource library. It differs from Standards Made Easy in that membership includes access to teacher resource/idea books (not just worksheets) and a sizeable collection thematic mini-units, many of them in full-color. The one disadvantage is that teachers must either print and file downloaded materials or remain subscribed at $9.99 per month to have continued access to material. This site does not allow material to be downloaded or saved to a local hard drive.

Shopping Locally

Beyond the resources mentioned above, it's important that one not underestimate the local economy.

I returned to South Korea in 2003, after having been in North America for seven years, and I could hardly believe how much the country had changed. From supermarkets to bookstores, it's just not that hard to find western goods any more. Bookstores devoted to English teaching materials are sprouting up in all the major cities. Large bookstores typically carry a decent selection of English teaching materials and kids' books, and international book fairs come to Seoul at least two or three times a year. Granted, I still buy a fair amount of stuff over the Internet as my favorite resources aren't always available here, but that's changing. During one shopping trip, I discovered that one of the major bookstores in Seoul had started carrying the full line of Dorling-Kindersley First Learning Games. On another trip, I walked into Kim and Johnson's (my favorite English teacher's speciality shop) and spied a table full of Carson-Dellosa games for less than a dollar more than I'd paid for them in the States. Both Kim and Johnson's and competitor English Plus also offer a membership card that will save you an additional sum off your purchases. As previously stated, I tend to favor Kim and Johnson's, as it has the wider range of learner-centered items. But thanks to the hefty discount my administrator negotiated with English Plus, I buy everything I can there -- often for less than I would pay back home.

Beyond stores catering specifically toward English language learners and teachers, South Korea's expat community has grown to the point that it's capable of supporting a full-fledged English bookstore. markets most mainstream titles, sells at cover prices, and offers free shipping throughout the country. The physical store deals primarily in second-hand books, but the website can supply you with almost any in-print title you'd find on Amazon and generally offers delivery within 10 days.

Costco has also moved in and brought with it everything from cheese to construction paper. I've bought glitter glue, Dr. Seuss books, Wee Sing CDs, Crayola colored pencils, Sandylion stickers and giant packs of heavyweight construction paper for no more than I'd pay for them at a Sprawl-Mart in North America.

Still, the best tools often pop up in the least expected places. I walked into the Korean equivalent of a dollar store one day and found wooden number puzzles for W1,000 apiece (about 80 cents U.S.). Found clay molds another day 4 for W1,000 (good for motor skill development) and wooden clocks and abacuses on yet another visit.

I regularly visit stationary stores looking for cheap toys to be used as prizes and math counters. While I'm there, I stock up on stuff to make my own teaching aids. Memory cards fit nicely into pocket charts. The paper, paint and foamboard selection offers an endless array of game and visual aid possibilities. And the nice little die-cut punches (which sell for about half of what they do in the U.S.) make great objects for seasonal counting/graphing/estimating/patterning tasks.

The best find by far, though, had to be the day I stumbled upon a used bookshop at Dongdemun that had English National Geographics for W1,500 a piece. Needless to say, I bought as many of those as I could fit into my bookbag.

Capitalizing on Freebies

I'm a career teacher, a lifelong bookaholic, and a resource junkie. But I also realize that not everyone reading this article fits that same mold. If you're a recent college graduate trying to pay off student loans or save up money for grad school, you'll want to give careful consideration to purchases -- especially if you plan to teach for only a year or two.

Frugality does not mean, however, that your classroom has to be barren or your classroom routines boring. It simply means you have to be a little more creative in building your resource library ... and be willing to invest time in lieu of dollars, won, or yen.

  1. Authentic material

    If you're living and working overseas, chances are that you're also doing at least some traveling. As you go along your way, look for printed tourism resources in English. You'll almost certainly be able to find maps, train or bus schedules, and guides to popular destinations. Grab handful and use them as springboards for role-playing.

  2. Sale flyers and catalogs (regardless of the language)

    Unsolicited sales pitches seem to be a part of life the world over. So let the would-be sellers provide you with a service you actually want for a chance -- free material for your classroom. Collect sales flyers (easy if you live in an apartment building), cut out the pictures, and use them to create your own games and visual aids. I've cut pictures from catalogs and glued them on index cards for mini-flashcards (suitable for use with small groups of students). Add in word cards, and you've got a word-picture matching activity for beginning readers. Make two identical sets of cards (grab an extra flyer!) for a memory game. My kindergartners have used grocery store ads to create posters about the four food groups. Elementary students used non-English menus from various Korean restaurants as a springboard to create their own restaurant menus in English and role-play placing or taking orders; they've also used catalogs to make Christmas lists and to "shop" for their friends and loved ones (with a preset budget, no less).

  3. Trash

    Yes, even garbage can be helpful when you're desperate. How? Well, as western products invade the world, so does their accompanying environmental print. Your may find yourself teaching students who don't even know the English alphabet. But show them a bag of M&M's, and they can certainly tell you what they are. Add a McDonald's bag to the collection, and they have two familiar objects to remind them that "M" says /mmm/.  Consider building a word wall of environmental print. Encourage students to turn trips to the grocery store into "scavenger hunts" for English words.

  4. Evaluation copies

    Last, but not least, it's worth noting that many publishers make free evaluation copies of textbooks available simply for the asking. If you find yourself in a school with no curriculum, e-mail the local offices of mainstream publishers of ELL materials, state the approximate ages and ability levels of your students, and request free evaluation copies of the texts they would recommend.

    Once the books arrive, take time to review all of them. Choose the one(s) you believe will best meet the needs of your students, then take the sample copies to your employer and politely request that students be required to purchase the book(s). Remember, free evaluation copies are just that -- copies to evaluate. The publishers send them out with the expectation that you will purchase them in greater quantity. They're not simply giving you a free book to photocopy or distribute as desired.

    If your employer has simply not given much thought to curriculum, you're helping him or her out by evaluating and selecting texts. If your employer has been too cheap to invest in curriculum, you're enabling him or her to build a better program without personal financial outlay. (Remember a key phrase: "The students need to buy these books.") And if your employer is either a total cheapskate or totally disinterested in any aspect of the school beyond the money coming in, point out to him or her that textbooks can be a good source of added revenue. After all, schools can usually purchase texts at a 15-25 percent discount off retail prices, then turn around and bill students the full list prices of the books.

While my experience has been limited to South Korea, the same principles apply in other countries. Any foreign products that can be found here probably made their way into Japan, Thailand, China, Taiwan, and so on several years earlier. The challenge is in finding them. Familiarize yourself with the local neighborhood. Ask native teachers for recommendations on where to shop. Talk to other foreigners. Search the Internet. And don't overlook freebies. Junk mail may well be your friend.

Happy teaching!


Lillian Vernon Online
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