5 Tips for Teaching ESL Newcomers

Teaching Newcomer English Language Learners is unlike teaching any other grade or subject.  You may have students who are 13 and have never before set foot in a school, 6 year olds who are just developing their literacy skills, or 17 year olds who were near graduating in their home country.  It doesn't matter the age, grade, or linguistic proficiency, the fact that you're welcoming a newcomer to your school brings its own set of challenges and potential.  Below are some of my best tips for getting started with a Newcomer English Language Learner.

A seventh grader who has never been to school needs a completely different road map to success than a sophomore who is studying abroad for a year.  Curriculum, assessments, and courses need to be designed with CURRENT students in mind, not students from 3 years ago. 

Whether through an intake interview, a take-home questionnaire or any other measure, knowledge is key.  Understanding and responding to a student's past and current circumstances will help you develop a positive working relationship with the child and the family.

Navigating the jungle of school regulations and policies is a daunting task, even for native speakers!  Students and families need explicit information about where to be, when to be there, and how to present themselves in various situations.  Provide expectations using a three-pronged approach: 90:10 ratio of visuals to words, in the native language (if possible), and in English. 

I tell this story to new teachers all the time, and I hope it serves you as well.  I had a 5th grade refugee student who was coming in exhausted every day.  We talked and read about getting a good night's sleep as well as strategies for falling and staying asleep, but he kept coming in and promptly needing a nap.  I had the parents come in for a conference with a translator.  After much back and forth, the problem was revealed: the student was tasked with waking the father at 2 am for his work shift.  We provided the family with an alarm clock (and training on how to use it), and the situation was solved. 

  I'll never forget the time a lockdown was called between periods.  My 5th grade refugee student (the same from the alarm clock story) was caught off guard and panicked, and hid behind a water fountain instead of following protocol with his peers. When admin found him while conducting their safety check, they began to yell at him, which only increased his panic.  He spent the rest of the day glued to my side, alternately crying and shaking. Beginning the next day, and for all newcomer students since then, a short fact sheet was delivered to all staff to make them aware of the student, the language, helpful phrases in the native language, and any essential information such as allergies, siblings in the building, etc.  

From procedures to phrases to proper social skills, teaching Newcomer English Language Learners is a journey unlike teaching any other grade or subject.  Good luck and remember, we all smile in the same language!

Teaching Vocabulary in Context

One of my tried-and-true vocabulary strategies for science and social studies units is to teach vocabulary in context.  Learning vocabulary is way more than just associating a word to a definition, which is why students need to exposure and practice using the word multiple times before they are able to remember it and produce language with it.  Simply put, they need to know what it means AND they need to be able to use it. I often pull my English Language Learners out of their Social Studies or Science classes, so I infuse English language acquisition strategies throughout the same themes and topics as their peers.  Read on to find out how I prepare my units to teach vocabulary in context.  

teach vocabulary in context

First, I look at the textbook or scope and sequence to determine the essential questions or understandings, then I find the vocabulary that supports those understandings.  For my Guided Social Studies Unit on Early Humans, seen below, I would find about 6 of the most important words, forgoing the other 15 or so that are suggested by the textbook.  Depending on a student's proficiency level, I may add more or take more away to further modify.  I know you're thinking, but what about the other 15 words? They may be important words for native speakers to know, but are they the MOST important words my limited English proficient students need to know in order to speak, read, and write about this topic? Probably not.  By carefully and methodically taking the "fluff" words out of vocabulary instruction, I'm able to pinpoint instruction and really drive home the meanings and usage of those 6 most important words.

teaching vocabulary to ELL's

Once I've selected the 5 or 6 most important words, I use text enhancements to provide ongoing visual clues.  Color coding words throughout a unit has been a HUGE help to my students! If you're using a textbook, try different colored highlighters, washi tape, or post-it flags to help students seek and find their words easily.  It's best for my students to receive vocabulary and content instruction in manageable chunks.  Unlike a page from the textbook, my unit would contain about a single paragraph's worth of reading, about which we discuss and take notes before continuing.  The oral and visual repetition throughout the unit creates the enduring understanding, not a single word and definition on the sidebar of a page.

Vocabulary strategies for ELL's

To start the unit, I preview the vocabulary using lots of images and videos to provide background knowledge.  Throughout the unit, we refer back to those images and color coded words to help us remember pronunciation and correct usage.  I break down the information into manageable chunks, often relying on charts and diagrams to help my students create a deeper understanding without the "noise" of too many words.  As you can see below, color coding runs throughout each unit, which is great for visual learners.  For listening, musical and tactile learners, I create rhythms in the words and meanings which we can clap, snap, chant or stomp together.  A fun vocabulary activity is to have students create their own rhythmic chant about a word.  Click here to read more vocabulary practice strategies I use with my English Language Learners.

Vocabulary instruction for ELL's

When it comes time to assess, I make sure that the assessment the students take is in line with the practice they have worked on throughout the unit.  While I am looking for understanding of the word's meaning, I also need to see that students can dig deeper to use the word correctly and fluently.  

Below are some of the Guided Social Studies and Guided Science units available in my store.  I've used them in grades 3-8 to teach vocabulary in context and reading comprehension across the content areas.  Written at lower reading levels, they offer grade and age appropriate context written at lower reading levels.  They are perfect for my English Language Learners!  Click here to access the Guided Science units, covering many of the 3rd Grade NGSS standardsClick here to access the Guided Social Studies units, covering World and US History.

Guided Social Studies and Science Units

Teaching vocabulary in context is a strategy that will help all learners create enduring understandings across all content areas.  Good luck!

Digital I Have Who Has Games for the Classroom

Do your students love the game I Have Who Has? Mine sure do! There's a big push in my school for 1:1 learning with devices like Chromebooks and iPads, so I created a digital version of their favorite I Have Who Has games!

Would your students love this as much as mine would? These games are perfect for 1:1 schools or BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) schools. Here's how to play! 

Students simply open up the game, find the number they were assigned, and play! Here's a video to help you visualize how to play. 

It's super easy to open on any device that's connected to the internet.  Here's how it will look on an iPad:

There are a few ways to open the game! If you have a Google Classroom, share the game with students.  If you don't, just share the link, and they'll type it into the URL bar the same as they would for any other link.  

Make sure to assign students a number, following the instructions in the game.  Want to play again? Go for it! The game cards are random every time! 

I hope your students love it

Small Group Ideas with Whiteboards

In small classroom spaces, maximizing the resources you already have is essential to stay prepared and organized for each group.  Click here to read my past post about flashcard games for small groups. Today I'm sharing a few of my favorite ways to use a classroom staple: whiteboards and markers.  They feature prominently right behind my small group table, and I keep a basket of them near my easel and reading rug, as well.  I have blank boards, lined boards, and graph style boards, and we use them every period of every day.  Here are just a few of the ways I use whiteboards and markers with my small groups:

1. Warm up games:

My students learn to speak and write in 10 Finger Sentences, and we often use picture prompts to do so.  Rather than use paper, they use the whiteboards to easily write and edit their sentences.

2. Pre-writing:

I've found that when using whiteboards, student writing errors produce less stress, since erasing is just a swipe, rather than the constant push of a rubber eraser.  Therefore, my students often complete their outlines and pre-writes on their whiteboards, then copy them over to paper. 

 3. Sorts:

Whether you're sorting word endings, math facts, or classification of animals, whiteboards offer a blank canvas that allows students to practice organizing their ideas while producing the content expected of them.

4. Tactile/kinesthetic learning:

Some students need to touch, feel, and experience content before they absorb it, and whiteboards and markers offer that chance.  Using colors and text enhancements like underlining, circling, and numbering, students can utilize strategies that help organize their thinking.

What other ways do you use whiteboards in your classes?

Small Group Games with Flashcards

Although my small group time is limited, I try to squeeze in as much fun and engagement as I can.  One of my favorite tricks is to play learning games, which is just teacher code for more practice! Below, I'm sharing four of my favorite learning games and how to play them.  Low on materials or prep time? No problem! All you need to play these games is a deck of flashcards and your students!
Small Group Games Using Flashcards

Student tested, teacher approved! My students and I play one or more of these games each day!  These games are super versatile; use them with number flashcards, sight words, pictures, or vocabulary words.

1. Slap It! (2 teams of 1-4 students)

How to play: Spread cards on a table.  Students stand in two lines behind the table.  The teacher calls out a word, and students race to "slap" it.  The first person to slap the word/answer/definition keeps the card for their team. The team with the most cards in their pile wins. Challenge: Students must say/spell/define the word they've slapped in order to keep it.  If they can't, it goes to the other team.

Small Group Flashcard Games

2. Blurt! (2-6 players, can be individual or teams) 

How to play: Hold a deck of flashcards in your lap.  Show one card.  The first person to blurt out the word/answer/definition keeps the card for their team. Challenge: At the end of the game, each person must choose one word to make a sentence for or define.

3. Guess It! (2-6 players, can be partners or whole group)

How to play: Students choose a card, keeping it a secret.  One by one, they give three clues about their card, without saying the name.  The partner has three chances to guess the card.  Challenge: Make this a listening activity by having the partner illustrate the card based on the clues!

Small Group Flashcard Games
Click the picture to find these picture cards in my store!

4. Pass It Back (2-8 individual players)

How to play: Pass out 3-4 flashcards cards to each player.  Using a clue, (like the description/definition/spelling) call back the cards, one by one.  (For alphabet cards, I would say "I'm looking for the letter that makes the sound /s/ as in Sarah.) The first person to lose all their cards is the winner! Challenge:  Before passing back their card, students must spell, define, or use their word in a sentence.

I keep multiple sets of alphabet, sight word, pictures, and number cards in my room so they're easy to grab for a quick group game.  These take only a few minutes to play, and are great for warm-ups, brain breaks, and even an informal formative assessment.

What fun games do you play with flashcards?

7 Ways to Use Wordless Books with English Language Learners

Wordless books are some of my favorite tools to use with my English Language Learners.  The possibilities are endless! I'm going to talk about the "why" and the "how" of wordless books, then share a few of my favorites with you.


1. Wordless books foster confidence!

Wordless books allow students to process the story in whatever language is more comfortable for them.  They are then able to take those thoughts and translate them into spoken or written word.  Doing so lessens the speaking risks language learners need to take to be successful.

2. Use wordless books to teach the structure of a book. 

Title, author, characters, plot, and setting can be difficult skills to grasp.  Students can storyboard the pages to create a beginning, middle, and end graphic organizer.  Wordless books let students understand those concepts without struggling to decode. 

3. Use wordless books as speaking prompts. 

Assign a page or pages from the book, and have students narrate the story themselves.  In doing so, they'll practice using adjectives, action verbs, and proper sentence structure. Students can work in partners, small groups, or as a whole group to discuss the story.

4. Use wordless books as writing prompts. 

Prior to reading a wordless book, present one page and have students write based on the picture alone.  A shared writing idea would be to do a "circle write" where one student writes one page of the story, the next student writes another, and so on until the book is complete. 


1. Read wordless books silently. 

This tip is difficult for me, but it's so helpful for my students.  During the first half of a first read of a wordless book, I try not to say anything.  All I do is turn the pages.  For my kinders and firsties, I may track my finger along the movement to help guide their eyes, but I try not to say a word.  Watching their faces as they read the pictures is an easy and effective way to gauge comprehension. If I notice students need some help, I may ask a guiding question, but I try to leave my own thoughts out of the story.

2. Re-read, allowing free discussion. 

During the second half of a long book, or during the second read of a short book, I invite students to share their thoughts freely.  During this time I don't require raising of hands, as I want the conversation to be natural and fluid.  It's during this time that I work on using academic language supports such as "I agree with you, but I'd like to add..." or, "I can see what you're saying and I think..." 

3. Use wordless books across all content areas. 

Exposing language learners to content vocabulary is essential, and there are ways to incorporate wordless books across the curriculum.  Below are examples for the books pictured below: 

Wave (science) - Learn how tides are affected by gravitational pull
The Boy & the Book (Social Studies) - Learn why rules and laws are important
The Lion and the Mouse (science) - Discuss the ecosystem and its effects on its inhabitants
Quest/Journey (Social Studies) - Learn about different types of governments 
Once Upon a Banana (math) - Learn about exponents, cardinal directions, and if-then statements
Little Fox in the Forest (science) - Discuss the ecosystem and its effects on its inhabitants
Inside Outside (math) - Identify 2D and 3D shapes, angles, and lines in our environments

Have you used wordless books in your classroom? If not, what are you waiting for! Some of my favorites are pictured above.  Are there any I'm missing?

Four Quadrant Picture Speaking and Writing Strategy

One of my goals as an English Language teacher is to give my students plenty of time to practice their skills in conversational and academic English.  We start every class with a routine which provides practice in both skills.   I've recently added this little gem of a strategy to my repertoire, and I love the results I'm seeing! 

We've all used photographs as prompts for speaking and writing tasks before, but have you ever segmented the picture? That's the basis of this strategy, and it can be used in so many ways! All you need is a picture! I tend to choose images I know my students will find thought-provoking or funny. I have a Pinterest board full of images I use as prompts- feel free to use them too! Once you have an image, the fun begins.  If you're doing this digitally, a program like PowerPoint or an app like Pic Collage will help you create the layered boxes.  All you'll do is insert the picture, then add three boxes on top of it, leaving one quadrant blank.  If you're printing a picture, or using a magazine cut-out, just cover the quadrants with some white index cards. 

In my small groups, I've been having students work on one quadrant at a time.  For example, I'll show them the above image.  In pairs, the students would discuss what they see, think, feel, (you can do hear/taste if applicable) and wonder about the quadrant.  Then, using a PowerPoint slide projected on my whiteboard, I slide a box up or to the side to expose a new quadrant.  The students switch partners, and they discuss again.  Keeping the three quadrants covered creates an air of suspense and excitement, and allows my students to really focus their attention.

I use this as practice in making predictions, making observations using the senses, and discussing using academic language.  By asking questions such as "What do you see/think/feel/wonder," and modeling the correct way to respond, my students can listen to and practice the fluent speaking they are working towards.  Using this strategy, my students have learned how to explain their thinking using the academic language they need to be successful. 

Here are some of the many, many, ways to use this strategy as a speaking or writing prompt:
  • Divide the class into four groups, and assign each group a quadrant.  Each group is responsible for writing three sentences (or however many works for your students) about their quadrant.  Come back as a whole and work on merging the four sections together to create a cohesive tale. 
  • Have all students except one close their eyes or turn around.  The one student must explain the quadrant as best they can.  The rest of the group attempts to draw the scene they're hearing. The next student explains the next quadrant, and so on.  After all four quadrants have been explained and drawn, students can compare their drawings to the actual picture.  (This one is a fun icebreaker, too!)
  • Choose two or three pictures, print them, and cut them into quadrants.  Pass out each piece and have students try to put the pictures back together in a certain amount of time.  At the end, have them discuss what was difficult or easy. (For an extra challenge, have them find their matches without speaking!)

Have you used this strategy with your class? I'd love to hear about it!

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