Tips for including and supporting ESL students

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Each month, I invite a different educator to share a few classroom management tips that have worked in his or her classroom. It’s part of a blog post series called Real Teachers, Real Tips.  I’m hoping to feature a wide cross-section of teachers from all different parts of the world, at a wide range of grade levels, in a variety of teaching scenarios. Want to share your ideas here? Just fill out the guest blog form!

November’s featured teacher is Nicole Heinlein, an experienced K-3 educator who currently teaches second grade  in Hawaii on the island of Lanai. Nicole has worked extensively with ESL students and ESOL students (English as a Second/Other Langauge) and has some incredibly creative lesson ideas and activities for English Language Learners. Thank you, Nicole, for sharing your perspective here.

This is Nicole from Teaching With Style and I’d like to share with you some ideas for teaching English Language Learners (ELLs) in your classroom.  For the past five years I worked in a school in Portland, OR , which had a 90% free and reduced lunch rate and also 85% of our students spoke another language at home.  The first two years I taught kindergarten, and it was not uncommon to have only a handful of my 30, all-day students who could speak English at all.

I had to quickly learn tips and tricks for getting all students engaged and able to participate in each lesson. Here are my top three tips for supporting English Language Learners:

1. Use Visuals

  • An easy thing to do when explaining concepts to students is to model, model, model.  If teaching a math game, go through the game with the class to show them how to do it (don’t just tell them).
  • If possible, use gestures and pantomime everything.  This technique is not only good for students learning English, but for visual-learning students.
  • Anchor charts are another way to create visuals for students to better understand concepts and tie meaning to the language.
  • Attaching pictures and sentence frames to help ELL students use vocabulary words correctly when discussing the concept is extremely helpful for them.  Even if they cannot read the sentence frame, it will help you remember what to reinforce when asking students to respond.
Ideas for supporting ESL/ELL kids
Anchor Chart with pictures, vocabulary words, and sentence frames 
Ideas for supporting ESL/ELL kids
A teacher writing on a KWL-type anchor chart

2. Use kid-friendly definitions

  • I always teach high-academic content and words.  My students know what an entomologist is when we study insects!  The key to use kid friendly definitions when teaching these higher words.  My favorite website to use is  It is a free online dictionary that has advanced, children’s, and beginner definitions.  You can pick which one will work the best for your class!
  • Creating a class dictionary anchor chart is a great way to monitor meaning.  This is a specific GLAD (Guided Language Acquisition Design) strategy, called the Cognitive Content Dictionary.  First, students predict the meaning, then the final meaning, then use the word correctly in a sentence.
  • I also help reinforce these academic words by using them as our signal word for the day.  We tie in Total Physical Response to make it fun!  For example, last year in 3rd grade we did a social studies unit on navigation.  To help them understand the concept, when I wanted them to “go” after explaining directions, I would say “Navigation” and they would repeat “Navigation: getting from here {pointing in one direction} to there {pointing in another direction}.”  They would say the word, say the kids friendly definition, and also act it out.  After doing this several times a day, most students could tell me what navigation meant by the end of just one day!
Tips for including and supporting ESL students
Class Dictionary Anchor Chart


ideas for English Language Learners
Use the words to name your table groups!

3. Use collaborative groups

  • A great way to scaffold instruction for English Language Learners is to do LOTS of collaborative grouping.  I wore out my Kagan Cooperative Learning book the first couple years of teaching, just thumbing through and trying out all the strategies.  I love it!
  • I also utilize shared supplies in my table groups.  I feel that is a great way to teach, model, and foster important social skills for all students: sharing, asking politely to use an item, responding when people ask you a question.  It’s great!
Blog post with ideas for supporting ESL kids: this is a free cooperative learning activity that supports ELLs


ideas for helping ESL kids
Turn and Talk assigned partners with popsicle sticks and a pocket chart.


ESL/ELL support ideas
Use labeled bins to store table group materials


There you have it!  My top 3 tips for making your classroom run well and including all students, native and non-native English speakers.  Thanks for allowing me to share my ideas with you today!

Any questions for Nicole? How do you help ESL/ESOL students participate in your lessons? We’d love to read your tips and tricks in the comments!

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 arlene sandberg November 27, 2012 at 12:43 pm

Great post Nicole. As an ESL Resource Specialist and S.I.O.P training you have done an outstanding job of outlining the best strategies for working with teachers with ESL students in their classrooms. These strategies are great for all teachers.


2 Brian Crawford November 27, 2012 at 1:19 pm

Hey Nicole – great post. You’ve done a thorough job of explaining the tips, tricks and resources available to help non-English speaking kids thrive in English-speaking classrooms. I will check out the vocabulary and anchor chart resources – they look very useful!

All the best to you and your class.


3 Nicole November 28, 2012 at 1:56 pm

Arlene, I completely agree with you – the best strategies for teaching ELL students are good strategies for ALL learners! We want all of our students to speak English correctly and have enhanced vocabulary. These strategies do the trick! SIOP and GLAD have literally changed my life!

Brian, thank you for the kind comments! Feel free to send me an email at if you have any questions. I can help point you in the right direction! :)


4 Elisa Waingort November 30, 2012 at 12:16 pm

Hi Nicole,
Thank you for your post.
As an ESL teacher this year, after many years teaching in a regular education classroom, I appreciate the suggestions for online sites.


5 chaqueta north face November 22, 2013 at 4:12 am

{Bienvenido a la tienda española oficial The North Face. Aquí puedes comprar con envío gratuito


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