Curriculum, Elementary, ell, High School, Junior High, school

14 Tools, Strategies, and Tasks for Beginning English Language Learners

There are so many ways we can help to support our beginning ELL students. These kiddos have often gone through a lot, and anything we can do to support them is wonderful.

I’ve posted before about things that teachers can do to help support our beginning English language learners.

Here, I’m going to chat about specific tools, strategies, and tasks we can implement to help these kiddos.

One of my favourite parts of teaching is planning; there are so many super fun ideas out there! Here are some specifics for our beginning language learners.


Of course, this is one of the easiest and best ways to help support our beginning English language learners.

Use online translators yourself and allow students to use them as well.

I use online translators with beginning English learners even just to have simple conversations back and forth. It gets them used to using the technology and also let’s them know it’s okay to use during class time.

Often, with very new students I’ll have them translate vocabulary back and forth just to get a general idea of the curriculum the class is working on. Or, give them important and common academic words like “compare”, “illustrate”, “explain”, and so on.


I love doing sorting activities with students because there’s so many fun ways to set them up.
When a student is brand new to English, I’ll start them off with very basic word sorting activities like “big vs. small” or “happy vs. sad”. This gives them an opportunity to learn a bunch of new words as well as practice using translators and dictionaries.

As students grow, I’ll start using more curriculum based sorting activities, or things like nouns and adjectives.

You can do this simply with cut out words on paper or create smart board or other tech-based activities.


As beginning English language learners start to learn more and more vocabulary, labelling activities are a great way to have them begin to work on the same curriculum as the whole class.

For example, if the class is writing about the water cycle, you can have your new ELL students simply label an image of the cycle rather than explain it all.

I find these types of activities especially useful in social studies and science classes, when concepts can be very difficult to grasp even for kiddos who are native English speakers.


While beginning English language learners are still working toward building a larger vocabulary and understanding of the English language, allowing them to draw or sketch is a great way for them to show you their knowledge.

Students new to a language often understand ideas and concepts, but aren’t yet able to verbalized them. Instead, if they can sketch it, that’s a great way to begin to understand their understanding and build potential grades and further areas to study with them.

For example, if I’m having the class write me a paragraph about the theme of a short story, I may ask my new ELL students to draw me a summary of the story.

Or, students can draw out the life cycle of a butterfly, rather than have to explain or write about it.


Having students point or gesture is a great way to build and assess listening skills.

I will often have something such as a map and ask questions such as “show me where the Athabasca river is” or “how many provinces are in Canada?”

Listening can be one of the most difficult things to asses, but having your students listen to you and then point out or show you their answers is a great way to see what they’re understanding.


Having beginning English language learners complete matching activities is an excellent way to build vocabulary or hit important points in the curriculum.

You can have students match vocabulary words with pictures, math problems with solutions, beginning and endings of sentences, ideas or concepts that connect, and so on.

The possibilities for this are endless and it’s very easy to start simply and then become more complex as their abilities increase.


I love playing performance games with all my students, but it’s especially great for English language learners.

Having kids act out vocabulary words, readers theatre, day to day activities (like brushing teeth), history events, and so on, is a fantastic way for them to connect with the curriculum.

For English language learners, I like performance tasks best when I’m working only with a small group of all ELL students.

The reason for this preference is because I can specifically target performances of things that pertain to students new to the language and the culture. Additionally, it’s much less daunting for them to be performing in front of students who are all learning the same thing.

An English language learner will generally be far less embarrassed to ask what “washing the dishes” means in front of students who are all in the same boat, rather than native English speakers who they may worry will see them as “dumb”.


I find having beginning English language learners repeat things back to me is a great way to see if they’re understanding what’s going on in the class.

This is also excellent for building listening skills.

Have your beginning ELL students show you things such as how to set up an experiment, how to play a game, where things in the class are, and so on.

For example, if you’re teaching volleyball in gym class, you can ask a beginning ELL student show you how to do an underhand serve. This will give you a good idea of how they’re following along in class, and if they’ve understood your question.


As students are first learning English, having them repeat things is a good way to learn new vocabulary and pronunciation.

You can work directly with students, have them work with a partner, or an educational assistant or parent volunteer can support. This also works really well in small groupings, where kids can practice back and forth.

I personally find the best time to do this is when you have a class of only English language learners, or enough where you can put them all in one group together while other groups are working on something else.


When students are beginning English language learners, trying to have them follow multi-step directions will be incredibly challenging.

Instead, begin wth giving these kiddos single step directions. As they begin to develop more vocabulary and understanding, they’ll be able to complete more.

If you give out multi-step directions to the class, make sure you write them up on the board so that your ELL students can translate. Also, check in with these students step-by-step to ensure they’re understanding what to do.

If you are working one-on-one with students, giving single-step directions and seeing how students respond is a great way to assess and build listening skills and academic vocabulary.


Similar to following single-step directions, answering yes or no questions is a fairly straightforward task, making it easier for beginning English language learners to be able to do it successfully.

You can ask students very basic questions about themselves and then start to make the questions progressively more challenging.

Working with students on this will help them build vocabulary and pick up on the intricacies of question-asking in English. After all, it’s an extremely challenging language for non-natives to pick up!


Just like asking yes or no questions, answering either/or questions will help beginning English language learners become more comfortable with basic language and simple questions.

These types of questions often require a little more reflection than yes or no questions, so you will likely have to give students more thinking time to respond. They may also not be able to yet articulate why they’ve chosen their answer.

For example, if you ask them if they would rather be too hot or too cold, they may have to translate to understand the vocabulary and then answer. However, they likely won’t have the words yet to explain why they’ve chosen either hot or cold.

As students become stronger, you can ask them to share a few words or a sentence to explain their answer, though they likely won’t be able to do this until they’ve been learning English for some time.


Beginning English language learners generally have the ability to do thing such as understand topography on a map or follow along with a story, they just don’t yet have the language skills to answer our questions in English.

Therefore, simple having them identify basic details in class is a great way to determine their understanding and build some understanding of the language being used in class.

You could have students point out, label, list or so on. For example, students could list the capital cities in Canada, or label the major rivers. They could name the main characters in a story, or write out the instruments needed in a science experiment.


Last on the list, having beginning English language learners list vocabulary is a good way to build some basic language skills.

Of course, just having your students list vocabulary out of a textbook or sheet is not useful. You have to have them do soemthing with these words. And, these words should obviously be useful.

Honestly, if you’re teaching science, don’t have beginning ELL students waste time immediately learning the very specific content-based vocabulary like “basalt” or “dacite”. Instead, have them start with things like “fact”, “data”, “compare”, “contrast”, “explain”, and so on. These are terms they’ll be seeing across units as well as in various subjects and will prove to be much more useful.

Having kids use these in a sentence, draw a picture, translate them to and from their home language, and so on are all great ways to help them “stick” in their minds. Frayer models are also excellent for these activities.

Well, what do you think? Were these helpful tips? Is there anything you do in your class to support beginning English language learners that I may have missed?

Enjoyed this? Here are some other blog posts on Katie is a Teacher you may like:

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