Some Tips for Teaching ESL Classes


While teaching students who have a limited understanding of the English language can feel like a daunting task, at its core, teaching ELLs isn’t really all that fundamentally different from teaching native speakers. The same basic principles should apply as in all good classrooms – a lesson should be organized, engaging and cater to students’ different learning needs.

However, there are certain unique challenges – teaching students from an array of cultures, learning styles, education backgrounds, along with a language barrier – that come with teaching in a foreign language classroom. So, before you walk into that classroom on the first day of school, here are 10 top tips every new ESL/ELL teacher needs to know.

1. Bond with your students

Picture yourself as a student, sitting in a classroom, with a person at the front of the classroom that comes from a completely different place, has a different culture and speaks a completely different language. That’s intimidating!

Simply addressing students by name, greeting each student, physically getting down to their level and making a genuine effort to getting to know them will go a long way in building strong relationships. It’s important to remember, kids don’t learn from people that they don’t like and respect.

2. Create a safe learning environment

Students need to feel safe and secure in order to fully express themselves. By creating a positive learning environment, not just physically but emotionally as well, students will be more willing to try new things and, more importantly, practice their English language skills. Correct errors with compassion. ELL students are bound to make mistakes – that’s how they learn!

Positive reinforcement strategies, such as rewarding good work and effort, is a great way to not only make students feel safe but also build a rapport with their teacher. It’s also very important to give students time to finish their work and answer questions 0 be patient!

ELL students will most likely need to translate a question you’ve asked in their head to their native language, formulate an answer and then translate it back to English. That whole process can take a bit of time, so it’s important when asking questions to give students a chance to think it through rather than demanding a quick immediate answer.

Using teaching strategies like Think-Pair-Share will give students the time they require to process information and answer confidently effectively increasing student participation. If you’re considering getting TEFL certified as part of your application for teaching jobs abroad, then check out TEFL certifications that offer additional specializations in teaching English to young learners.

3. Establish routines

Children thrive in an environment with routines. Writing a daily agenda, having circle time or a sit-down activity for students when they enter the classroom will help students to find meaning in your lesson plans.

Make sure as well to post clear objectives, using “kid-friendly” language. ELL students need to understand the purpose or end goal of the activity or lesson to help them comprehend the content of the lesson. Using exemplars is a great way to bridge the gap between communicating objectives and student comprehension.

4. Make things visual

It’s really important to enforce curriculum content with visuals in an ELL classroom. Providing students with easy access to the English language is essential to increasing vocabulary awareness and building confidence.

Using bilingual labels to label everyday classroom resources (like chairs, doors, desks, computers, pencils, etc.) will help students absorb new English vocabulary and make it easier for them to communicate with you. Also, word walls are a great way to create print-rich environments. I highly recommend building a visual wall where words are accompanied by a picture to help students match meanings with words.

5. Be adaptable

Teaching in an ELL classroom can be unpredictable. I remember working so hard on preparing a lesson plan only to arrive in my classroom, explain the activity and…cue a series of blank faces.

OK, I thought, maybe the point of the activity wasn’t clear, so I adjusted my explanation and still…blank faces. It’s important to bear in mind that lesson activities can (and will) fall flat on a number of occasions. As a result, I had to become flexible within my lessons and prepare multiple ways to teach a certain concept in advance. Preparation is key!

Quick aside: The phrase, “do you understand?” should never, in my opinion, be uttered in an ESL/ELL classroom. Students are frequently eager to please their teacher and will almost always answer this question in the affirmative.

6.  Teach by doing

Small practices that we, as native English speakers, can take for granted, can make learning English a whole lot easier. Do everything out loud (think alouds!) and make sure to demonstrate concepts in multiple ways to increase student understanding and reach multiple learning styles. Using visuals, close activities and graphic organizers can all aid ELL students in their learning.

I would often teach the same concept multiple times using different strategies such as singing, videos, actions, stories, etc. By the time I had returned home from teaching abroad, I was no longer just a teacher – I was an actress, singer and author, too!

7. Introduce new vocabulary before use in lesson plans

As part of my regular classroom routine, I created a list of words that were related to the weekly themes. At the beginning of each week, we’d go through each word, discussing the meaning and practicing its use in sentences.

Each word was posted for the week at the front of the classroom, along with a visual conveying its meaning. I found that allowing students to understand the meaning behind key vocabulary prior to reading a story or starting a science lesson helped students focus less on understanding the meaning of the words, freeing them up to focus on the overall learning objectives of the lesson. After the week was up, I’d post each new word on the word wall that built up throughout the entire school year.

8. Practice differentiated teaching strategies

Teaching abroad taught me the importance of differentiation – not just for students that have special needs or individualized educational plans but also for mainstream students that find themselves below, at and above grade level. Differentiation goes so much further than having high, medium and low leveled worksheets and activities.

I was able to successfully differentiate by product (allowing students to choose how to display their own learning), process (creating activities that appealed to multiple learning styles) and content (leveling outcomes and activities based on ability).

Providing students with choice in learning increased student engagement in my classroom. I used a lot of center-based, hands-on learning activities. I also found grouping students in mixed ability and ability groupings helped them work more independently.

For more ideas, check out websites that provide lesson plans and resources for teachers, including, Scholastic, Share My Lesson and Learning Games For Kids, all designed to help enhance student learning experience in your classroom.

9. Learn about your students’ cultural background

ELL students need to retain recently acquired English vocabulary by relating it to their own real-life experiences in order to store it in their long-term memory. Make sure to do some research before going to your international teaching destination and familiarize yourself with the culture, customs and everyday life of your students. Use that knowledge in your classroom to help students retain vocabulary and abstract concepts.

If you’re looking for practical ways to help create a more culturally responsive classroom, check out Teach Away’s professional development course for teachers, Culturally Responsive Teaching: Connecting with students and parents of different cultures.

10. Incorporate technology

Welcome to the 21st century! We live in a digital world – kids nowadays are growing up in a world dominated by technology tools and apps. Incorporating digital tools and technologies into your curriculum and lesson plans is a great way to reach and engage digitally-savvy students in more creative ways.

So, how can you grow your own digital skills as well as those of your students? Get started by trying out some free classroom apps like ClassDojo and Quizlet. Teach Away also recently launched an online course for teachers to help bring digital literacy and learning into the classroom, Digital Learning for the K-8 Classroom, in partnership with Teachers College, Columbia University.

By Lindsey Tuckett

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