Classroom Activities For Young ESL Learners


The brain likes to learn in little bits. Young children have short attention spans. Put these two thoughts together and add the fact that learning a new language is not an easy task. Therefore, an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher has a daunting task keeping young students interested, awake and motivated to learn.

My young students range from ages 5 – 14 and my classes last two to three hours. Preparing interesting and relevant lessons is an ongoing challenge. Working from a textbook is a good place to start. Texts for young children generally offer some good activities but I find I have to supplement these. For one thing, the texts are often designed for a multi-lingual class of immigrant children who are learning in a new English environment such as in Canada, England, USA or Australia. In my case, I live and teach in Thailand so nearly all my students are Thai and much of the texts do not mean anything. For example, dialogues such as “Good morning, JosĂ©. “How are you, Aziz?” need to be changed. Foods such as ‘bacon and eggs’, ‘roast beef and Yorkshire Pudding’ or ‘ham and split-pea soup’ are unknowns and meaningless to Thai kids. Often, I end up writing my own short dialogues with local names and familiar foods, places, etc. The key is to make learning relevant, especially with young learners. If you don’t, you lose them quickly to boredom.

Every fifteen to twenty minutes, I try to change activities, getting the harder stuff out of the way first (grammar, spelling, phonics, etc). The children know that if they apply themselves to the learning at the beginning of the lesson, they will be rewarded later with some fun activities. But, even the tough stuff can be lightened. For pre-teens, I live a series called “The Grammar Lab”. It is centered around an imaginary group of oddball and definitely eccentric characters: Splodge, Ruff and Tumble, Mo and Snapper, Mabel and Mildred. I have even used parts of the texts with some of my adult classes.

Students relate to visual stimulation and I like to get them involved in learning activities rather than standing at the front of the classroom and teaching at them. I get the little ones drawing pictures of words that begin with a specific letter. I use the great phonics material from and . They like coloring so I try to make this an educational activity such as coloring numbers, shapes, letters or pictures with easy captions.

Simon Says is very popular with my young classes. I use it to teach actions: Stand up, sit down, touch your nose, turn left, e.g. We often end a class with five minutes of Simon Says.

Board games such as Concentration are fun. Instead of matching pictures, sometimes the students have to match a picture with a word. This is good for vocabulary building.

The Never-ending Story is one I use often. With about fifteen minutes to go, I’ll start by writing on the board “A funny thing happened to me on Saturday.” Then, I hand the whiteboard marker to a student to write the next sentence. Students delight in creating their own story and write in characters and situations. I use this for teaching descriptive adjectives, pronouns and other grammatical points.

Another good vocabulary builder is ‘Categories’. I write 30-36 words on one end of the board and five or six categories such as Office, Water, Colors, School, Hospital or Job. Students have to go up to the board and one by one place each word under the right category header.

I add a twist to Snakes and Ladders, asking students to use a word or phrase before moving ahead.

Because the brain learns best in small doses, changing activities regularly is how I keep my students as interested as I can. Learning should be fun and it is up to the teacher to make it happen. If you get a chance to try some of these activities in your classroom, I’d be interested in hearing from you as to how they were received. Email me at [email protected] If you would like a copy of my eBook “Introduction to Teaching Overseas”, contact me at [email protected]

Dr. Robert Taylor

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