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Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in Elementary School

school girlWritten by Jenny L.  Jenny L. has experience teaching in the inner city public schools of Baltimore, Maryland and is currently finishing her Masters of Teaching at John Hopkins University. In her free time, Jenny enjoys assisting with the Myositis community and is the organizer of the Annual Myositis 5K run/walk/wheel.

As a new teacher, I was both intrigued and overwhelmed by the diversity of my classroom. I had 22 students Pre-K students and half of them were ESL students. These children represented at least 8 different countries. This presented a great learning opportunity for both myself and my students. At the beginning of the year, most of my ESL students spoke little to no English. This was their first introduction to school and they could barely understand a word that I said. With the assistance of ESL teachers, immersion of the English language, and useful tips that I learned along the way, some of these students were speaking in complete sentences by the end of the year.

Teaching ESL in an elementary school classroom can present an array of challenges for both teachers and students. With the variety of students’ needs, it can be difficult to make sure that everyone is receiving the attention they need. How does a teacher differentiate instruction, in order to ensure that ESL students are progressing? Although this can seem overwhelming, there are many valuable tips and strategies available which can help overcome the language barrier.


First, it is very important to do an initial assessment of the student’s skills. What does the student currently know about the English language? This helps the teacher to know where the student is lacking and where they should begin their instruction.

Always keep in mind that if materials are interesting, it will be easier for students at all levels to learn English. You should never purely rely on worksheets, as students will quickly lose interest. Learn as much as you can about the countries represented in your class, as well as the backgrounds of your students and reflect on this diversity as often as possible. This knowledge will help you to incorporate ESL students in your classroom, as well as enrich the learning of all of your students. This can be done through reading about a particular culture, class discussions about cultural practices, or having assignments where the students can speak, draw or write about their own heritages. Sometimes, learning about the cultures represented in your classroom may even explain some resistant behavior or behavioral problems.

During all classroom activities, make sure that ESL students are always involved. They should never be isolated from the rest of the class. You should encourage participation and search for opportunities where ESL students are able to take part in activities. Be sure to praise their achievements. Additionally, research suggests that it is okay to correct the content of what these students say. When correcting their grammar or pronunciation, be sure do to so in a positive manor, or the student may feel hesitant and result in decreased participation.ESL BUDDIES

Be sure that you encourage all students to work with and help ESL students. Assigning a “buddy” can be quite helpful. Buddies” should be strong, well behaved students who will help the ESL student become a part of the classroom and school community. Seat the ESL student next to the buddy so that they can guide the student and answer any needed questions.


Make sure to speak in clear, concise English. However, do not use unnatural speech such as baby talk, shouting or excessively slow talk. It may even help to repeat yourself or rephrase what you have said. You can also repeat what other students have said when they are asking a question or giving an answer. Helping to shape what students want to say can be beneficial as well.

ESL students tend to rely on both verbal and non-verbal cues. Therefore, beginning language learners will want to watch your mouth when you speak. They are not only hearing the pronunciation, but they are also watching the words as you form them with your lips. Make sure not to speak with your back towards the class when you are using the chalk board. Speaking while facing away from the class can muffle your voice. Additionally, many ESL students rely on facial expression for comprehension as well.


In addition, non-verbal cues (such as gestures, pictures and objects) can reinforce what you are saying. Listening comprehension is often easier if supported by visual material. One example is when teaching how colors are created. You can make a visual presentation by actually having the students mix paints to create the colors. For instance, mixing blue and yellow paint together creates green. Another idea would be using different manipulatives when teaching Math. When teaching addition, you could bring in various foods that can be used to visually show how numbers are added together. After the lesson is complete, you can then offer your students a snack.


When playing games, it is important that the language be within grasp for your students. Start simply and increase the difficulty of the language as the students become more proficient. If you see that the children are hesitating too much in a game, switch to an easier one. Children in preschool and early elementary are just learning to write in their own languages. For this reason, it is not the best time to overwhelm them with writing in English. For younger ESL students, it is better to spend the most of the lesson time on listening and speaking skills. As they progress through school, you can begin using games and activities that require writing.


Below is a list of activities that can be helpful for ESL students in elementary grades.

  1. Fill your classroom environment with print and with interesting things to talk about, read and write about. You can even have students make flash cards of the items they see in their classroom and allow them to post them around the room.
  2. Allow students to have center time each day. During this time, you can spend individual time with your ESL students. You can also have them play games with their “buddies” which can further assist them with the language.
  3. For a short time each day, have your students practice their English using a computer program or a book on cd or tape. However, do not overdo this as it is important that students interact with classmates.
  4. Make a picture dictionary. Staple sheets of construction paper together and have students cut pictures out of magazines. It is often helpful to use categories which complement your lessons. Encourage students to add to their Dictionary whenever possible. This is an excellent cooperative learning activity that mainstream students can share in as well.
  5. Make a vocabulary poster. Have students work in cooperative groups. Have each group of students cut pictures from magazines and label them to create large posters of categories of common vocabulary words. Categories might be food, clothing, body parts, colors, animals, transportation, etc. Display the posters in your classroom.
  6. Read to your students every day. This should always be accompanied by pictures, gestures, dramatic voice to convey meaning.
  7. Songs are one of the best ways to teach English. This is a great way to make what is taught more memorable. Take the theme of your lessons and make them into fun songs with actions and good melodies. Think about what children learn from the easiest. Television commercials are short and catchy and the most memorable are the ones that are repeated often. Keep these characteristics in mind when you are teaching and use them to incorporate into your daily activities.

Refer to the Northern Virginia Dynamic English, Links for Teachers for more great ideas, lesson plans, activities, as well as online games for students.

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