Teaching ESL to Young Learners (A Long Read)

photo credit: Google images

photo credit: Google images

 Learning a second language

Language is a universal human phenomenon. Whether it is a verbal language, a series of clicks and other sounds, or even sign language, all humans find a way to communicate with one another. Children begin learning many things from a very young age. They see and hear what their parents do, and copy that. By the time a child is around one year, he or she can make simple sounds. As the child grows, their knowledge of sounds, words, and means increase and grow more complex. According to a 2005 article by Ashworth and Wakefield,

“Language is the key to creative thinking, solving problems and collaborative learning.”

(Teaching the World’s Children ESL For Ages Three to Seven, English Teaching Forum, 43 (1), pg. 3)

I couldn’t agree more with that quote. Language helps us speak our thoughts, express our feelings, and talk with one another. Language is not a dead thing; it grows as new words are added and old words are left to history. Being able to communicate effectively is essential to happy and successful living.

Second-language learners

photo credit: Google images

photo credit: Google images

Children who are learning English as a second language already experienced language-learners. They are as cognitively and linguistically developed as native-English speaking children. The only difference is that that development took place in another language. ESL learners must try to transfer what they know in their own first language, into English. Children learning English as a second language, however, may not feel the need to always communicate in English as often. They may only hear English in school and not at home.


When children are learning to speak at home, parents try hard to understand the meaning behind the words and do not pay attention to the form. ESL teachers may show the opposite behavior. ESL teachers may pay more attention to the form and less attention to the meaning of the words. Young children need to learn slowly over the years. There should be no undue pressure on the child. While in school, ESL learners will feel pressure from their peers and teacher to speak English. The children should be encouraged to practice speaking English, even if they make mistakes. When they make mistakes, carefully point out and correct it, while praising the effort. When the children make progress, they should definitely be praised. Such encouragement can give a basis for ESL learners to try harder.


photo credit: Google images

photo credit: Google images

What are some ways to help young ESL learners?

  • Learning centers give ESL learners chances to interact with one another, allowing them to develop social and play skills. Each type of center (i.e. science, math, ELA, etc.) give the children hands-on materials to use, allowing for visual and tactile stimulation.


  • A block center gives ESL learners an area to explore concepts such as shapes and patterns. This center should also provide cards with appropriate expressions and words on them for students to practice saying. Students may already have a grasp on numbers, shapes, patterns, size and colors in their first language, but lack the corresponding English terminology. Students can develop the English vocabulary as they work with the blocks in various ways. For example, teachers might ask, “Can you find a circle?”, or “Let’s put the square next to the triangle.” Blocks also provide for integration of other areas of learning such as science, social studies,  and mathematics.


  • Art is an excellent way to help develop creative thinking, visual literacy, and most of all… it’s fun! Art can also help students who cannot yet speak English to express their thoughts and ideas visually. Drawing, painting, sculpting, and cut-and-paste activities can help boost learners’ self-confidence.


  • A dramatic play center is an excellent way to facilitate L2 development. Children can reenact stories, practice speaking sentences and expressions, and develop sequencing skills (beginning — middle — end). Students also engage with one another and play with props. They develop thinking skills and social skills, too.


  •  Using a sensory table filled with sand, water, or other objects allow young learners to experience what they feel like. This is typically used in preschool classrooms, but they can be very helpful in the ESL classroom, too. Children can use this table to talk about and experiment with measurement, textures, what floats and sinks (if filled with water), and also adds a level of enjoyment. ESL students can practice naming objects in English; discuss how they use their senses of touch, sight, and hearing; practice making sentences about what they are doing, or how they do it.


  • A library is a very effective way to build literacy. It allows students to read books of all kinds, and build vocabulary skills. ESL students can also increase reading speed and fluency. They can also develop and increase their listening comprehension by hearing the teacher read to them. Some libraries may also be equipped with a listening center, where students can listen to a recording of a book, and follow along as they listen. Books also share a variety of ideas, cultural differences and folktales, illustrations, and help increase general knowledge!


These are but some of the ways we can help young learners in ESL, and no single method works for every type of learner and every teacher. I’m sure you have your own methods and resources. Young learners need support in many forms, both at home and at school. If you are unsure if you’re ideas work, discuss it with a fellow teacher and get his/her opinion. By sharing our ideas with one another, we become better suited to helping our students achieve their best!

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Filed under Education, English, ESL, Languages, Literacy Skills, Teaching, Young Learners

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