ESL Meets AI: How We Can Make Our Lives Easier with ChatGPT

By Kristi Reyes and Ryan Detwiler


ChatGPT (Generative Pre-trained Transformer), a form of Artificial Intelligence, was launched on November 30, and in no time, many high school and college teachers panicked. LinkedIn posts and newspapers all decried the impact of the tool on original writing, the inability of plagiarism checkers like Turnitin to contend with student cheating, even the death of the college essay! In short order, a college professor reported nationally that a student had used ChatGPT to submit a class assignment.

Meanwhile, other EdTech specialists reminded educators in their social media posts and blogs that similar fears had been around as long ago as with the invention of the typewriter and as recent ago as the widespread 1:1 computer use that cheap Chromebooks afforded students during the pandemic and are still in use in classrooms. Many tech enthusiasts who are also educators profess that the next logical step is to teach students about ChatGPT and how to use it effectively, tempering its usefulness with its limitations and teaching about that.

As teachers of adult ESL in a noncredit community college, we believe ChatGPT can be leveraged to help teachers save time, come up with new ideas, create teaching materials, and provide a valuable language teaching and learning resource for both teachers and students.

When we asked ChatGPT how to use it in our teaching, this was the response:

How does ChatGPT work?

It’s very simple and easy to use. It’s different from Google. Google is an index of results that when used finds keywords and provides you with a list of results.

In contrast, ChatGPT does not comb the internet as Google does. Its output is from information previously fed into the system by programmers and incorporated into its memory bank. Its answers are “intelligently” paraphrased, using the concepts it now “understands” after identifying them in your query and not just copied and pasted from another source. That said, ChatGPT output cannot be counted on to be 100% accurate or unbiased. Another limitation is that it does not contain a wealth of knowledge about anything that may have happened after the year 2021. It is free…for now.

Get Started

  • Go to ChatGPT to create an account.

  • Type in a question or command in the text box on the bottom of the screen. (In subsequent searches, select “New Chat” in the top left).

  • If a result doesn’t meet your expectation, provide feedback for changes you want and choose regenerate.

  • You can copy and paste the text output.

  • The left panel keeps your previous chat queries, which you can individually edit, delete, or clear completely.

Prompt Engineering

Do you remember the first time you used Google? Over the past several years, have you become “better” at writing queries that produce desired results? You’ll experience the same thing with ChatGPT.

Here are a few things you can play around with:

  • Ask a series of questions about a topic to be answered in the response

  • Ask ChatGPT to write in a specific tone (friendly, colloquial, formal, persuasive, argumentative, etc.)

  • Ask ChatGPT to write for a specific audience (beginning ESL, Intermediate ESL, etc.)

  • Ask ChatGPT to phrase a response in the voice of a book author or character.

  • Ask ChatGPT to write from a specific perspective. For example, “Act as a doctor, or, Act as a comedian, or, Act as an ESL teacher.”

  • Instruct ChatCPT to format a response in a certain way (number of paragraphs, include vocabulary, 500 words, etc.)

  • Ask ChatGPT to provide specific examples or scenarios. For example: “Write a short conversation between two landscapers about the plans for a backyard remodel. Write for a low intermediate ESL audience.

20 Ways ESL Teachers Can Use ChatGPT

We have brainstormed some ways we will be using ChatGPT in this list that shows example queries and sample outputs.

1. Write model dialogs with target vocabulary or grammar.

(response continues)

Here's another example.

(response continues)

2. Generate conversation questions for class topics, vocabulary, grammar.

(response continues)

Here's another example.

(response continues)

3. Generate leveled articles via a series of questions about a specific topic.

(response continues)

4. Punctuate and format text. (In this case, an auto-generated transcript of a YouTube video.)

(prompt continues)

(response continues)

5. Scan text and list Academic Word List (AWL) vocabulary.

(prompt continues)

(response continues)

6. Generate multiple-choice quizzes.

(response continues)

7. Generate gap-fill activities.

(response continues)

8. Rewrite text for different levels.

(response continues)

9. Generate a list of vocabulary words and definitions from a text (in this case, here is a snippet of the list from MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech).

(prompt continues)

(response continues)

10. Summarize plot conflicts from different characters’ perspectives.

11. Ask students what they’re interested in or what workplace English they want to learn and then use ChatGPT to quickly create individualized material.

For example, generate different workplace dialogues for different students:

  1. a conversation between a house cleaner and her client for one student,

  2. a conversation between two landscapers about the scope of a backyard remodel for another student,

  3. and a short conversation between hotel staff and a guest for a third student or group of students.

Conversation 1

(response continues)

Conversation 2

(response continues)

Conversation 3

(response continues)

12. Generate sentences, paragraphs, and stories for vocabulary and grammar introduction, practice exercises, and quizzes.

(response continues)

Here's another example.

(response continues)

13. Generate a text for students to introduce new grammar forms, modify (sentence combining and adding transitions), change verb tense, demonstrate how to summarize/paraphrase, and rewrite with more formal, academic language.

(response continues)

14. Define vocabulary and idioms and give examples.

(response continues)

15. Compare register (formal v. informal forms).

(response continues)

16. Answer hard questions about vocabulary, grammar, or other topics you may not be prepared to answer on the fly.

(response continues)

(response continues)

17. Write scenarios for discussion and problem-based learning.

(response continues)

(response continues)

18. Generate writing assignment prompts and model paragraphs for writing assignments.

Here's another example.

19. Group projects to practice ChatGPT prompt engineering.

Example assignment, “Invent a product that solves a specific problem. Use ChatGPT to streamline the development of a marketing presentation about your product.”


In small groups:

  1. brainstorm a problem

  2. then brainstorm an invention (product)

  3. next ask ChatGPT to list 3 ways the product will solve such and such problem

  4. experiment with ChatGPT prompt engineering to develop a marketing pitch

  5. make a Google Slides presentation

Example prompt engineering tasks:

Tell ChatGPT to:

  • act as a specific person or profession

  • use a specific tone, for example, a friendly, scientific, casual, slightly-enthusiastic tone

  • incorporate specific vocabulary

BONUS: Use a text-to-image generator to create images of your product solving the problem.

20. Write lesson plans.

(response continues)

In addition, teachers AND students can use ChatGPT to get suggestions for improving written assignments by copying in students’ written submissions and asking for targeted feedback. It can also provide grammar corrections and explanations, but the explanations are not always great. Chat GPT also does translations; a student could ask ChatGPT to explain text entered in English in another language.

Are you interested in other uses of AI for instructional purposes? Futurepedia is a directory of AI tools waiting to be explored and exploited for engaging language teaching and learning! There are tools that will paraphrase texts, create art and logos and avatars, make music including mixtapes and playlists, write better emails, convert video to text, create podcasts, design the interior of your home, create videos from scripts or blog posts using voices, allow you to have conversations with historical figures and have your text spoken by celebrities, even write newsletters like this one!

See also this compilation of other tools and resources: Artificial Intelligence (AI) Tools for Teaching and Learning: List of Resources, Further Reading.

We are curious how you will use ChatGPT or any other AI tools you explore! Are you as excited as we are? This article focused primarily on how teachers can use ChatGPT. How would you have your students use ChatGPT and other AI tools?

Kristi Reyes and Ryan Detwiler teach at MiraCosta College in Oceanside, CA.