ESL for Young Learners – by Marama Carmichael

ESL Young LearnersThe teaching of ESL early primary students is an aspect of teaching that is not often considered. However, standing in front of a classroom full of students that speak a different language from you can be one of the most challenging things that you do, and also one of the most rewarding. Children are a receptive audience and their ability to listen to, absorb, and use new language and vocabulary can astound you.

The main focus of teaching English to younger non-English-speaking children should be on communication. At an earlier age, it is important to encourage children to verbally communicate in English rather than focus on learning grammar structure or simply learning to read or write. Lessons should not only centre on encouraging speaking, but also on listening and understanding—both vital elements in communication as students will never feel confident speaking English if they have little understanding of the day-to-day use of the language, and the ability to listen is imperative for this. Class activities and games can therefore be divided into three categories: input, listening and speaking.

Each of the games and activities below can be adapted for a different vocabulary topic, grammar, or language focus (most are even appropriate for teaching English to English-speaking children). Some require preparation but can be used again and again, while others can be used simply to fill in a spare few minutes during a lesson.


Input refers to the introduction of new vocabulary, grammar or expressions. For children to be able to communicate, they must first know what to say. Flashcards, pictures and examples are great tools for introducing a new language to children. Try to emphasise words relating to and names of things they are already familiar with.


Listening activities and games are an important part of an ESL classroom. They can help reinforce the meaning of words already introduced and to determine students’ understanding of what has already been taught.

Listening activities

Songs and dances: Some kids respond really well to songs and dances. Songs can teach new vocabulary or language, which is then reinforced using dance actions. Using popular songs can help, but seek songs that use basic vocabulary in the lyrics, such as those specifically written for young children.

In an ESL classroom, Genki English works well (‘Genki English’ refers to songs, books etc. which teach English as a second language in an entertaining manner). The lyrics teach useful language put to fun, catchy tunes, such as ‘Hello, how are you?’, ‘Where are you from?’ or ‘What time is it?’ And it’s always easy to construct actions to go with them. See <www.genkienglish.com> for more information.

Pictures and crafts: Making things by following the instructions is another useful communication activity. A couple of easy favourites are an alien drawing activity (give instructions such as ‘Draw five yellow arms, three green eyes and four purple legs’ and see how different the students’ drawings are) and a face drawing activity (same as previously but giving instructions to draw a beard, a red nose, green eyes, yellow ears etc.).

Drawing topics can also relate to holidays and other seasonal events, such as making spiders or ghosts, or drawing witches and monsters for Halloween; making eggs for Easter; or drawing Santa Claus for Christmas.

Story books: Young children love stories. You can make it a more interactive activity by asking questions during or after reading the story. Even better is to ask the children to help tell the story. Stories with repetitive lines are great for this; you can teach the words to the students and then have them yell out the lines at the correct moment—call and response always works!

ESL LearnersListening games

Slam: Spread out vocabulary cards on a table and shout out a word one at a time. Students race to slam their hands on the correct card, with the winner picking it up. You need one pack per table. Have the students play rock, paper, scissors if there are any disputes, with the winner taking the card.

Bingo: Make homemade bingo boards using pictures, words or numbers, call them out and have the students place markers on the words. Alternatively, you can have the students choose nine or 12 of the vocabulary cards, lay them out in a square and turn them over when called out.


Speaking is (hopefully) the outcome of all the input and listening activities. It’s an opportunity for students to practise using the language they have learnt and to do so in a fun way.

Speaking activities

Action guessing game: This is like a simplified version of charades. Before class, create cards with actions written on them. During class, pass around the cards and have students mime the actions while others shout out what they think is happening. If you think the students are confident enough, have them think of actions themselves.

Find someone who?: Simple – Create a class set of cards, each with the name of an everyday object or word that students have already learnt. Be sure to have a matching card of each word, so that there are pairs of words in each set. Give each student one card and have him/her walk around the classroom to find the other student with the same card by asking, for example, ‘Do you have an apple?’ Advanced – Provide each student with a table to fill in. At the top of each column, have a word or a drawing of activities the children may be able to do or of objects they may have. Students then have to go around the classroom and ask each other, for example, ‘Can you ski?’, and if the other person responds with a yes, that student’s name is written in the column.

Speaking games

Guessing game: This is an easy warm-up game that can be used to practise dialogue on any topic. It can be used for colours, emotions, vocabulary, weather, days of the week, months etc. One student takes a card with a given word written on it and looks at it without showing anyone else. The others have to guess the words by using appropriate language; for instance:

‘Is it Monday?’

‘No, it isn’t.’

‘Is it the day after Monday?’

‘Yes, it is Tuesday.’

The student who correctly guesses is handed the card. At the end of the game, the student with the most cards wins.

Concentration: Lay pairs of vocabulary cards facedown on a table. Students then take turns to turn over two cards and say aloud the words on the cards. If they find a pair, they keep them.

Board games: Make your own board games, using vocabulary and expressions that you want students to practise. Draw a shape, such as a snake or a circle. Fill in different squares with vocabulary, pictures or instructions. You can make it as simple or complicated as you need; for example, write ‘Do you like …?’ and use pictures of food, animals or other things. Or have in each square a one-minute activity; e.g. ‘Talk about your favourite food for one minute’, ‘Talk about your favourite sport’.

Car race: Spread vocabulary cards around a table in an ‘S’ shape and give each student a toy car or some other type of counter. With all students starting on the same vocabulary card, they take turns to roll a dice and move along from card to card. On whatever word students land on, they have to make a sentence using that word. You can include a few ‘miss a turn’ cards for excitement. First to complete the circuit wins.

What’s missing?: Show some vocabulary cards or real objects to students and allow time for them to study them for 30 seconds or more. Ask students to turn away and then remove one or more words/objects. Students turn back around and have to guess what’s missing.

Do you have?: This game is like ‘Go fish’ but you can use it to practise the alphabet or any group of words. Deal some of the vocabulary cards and leave the rest in a pile on the table. Have students ask each other ‘Do you have …?’-type questions in order to collect cards. For example, to practise the alphabet, students ask ‘Do you have a B?’ If the answer is yes, the card is handed to them.

Children love playing games so much they don’t realise that they are studying and learning while they participate. And above everything else, a lower-primary ESL class needs to be energetic and fun—there’s no reason to put kids off learning something new when they’ve only just begun!