Designing Activities for both ESL and non-ESL Students


In most school settings, both ESL and non-ESL students are in the same classroom; so, you need to be skilled in designing activities that are equally effective for ESL and non-ESL students. When you are trying to balance this component of lesson planning, along with the fact that all students are different types of learners to begin with, you might end up feeling overwhelmed.

Fortunately, understanding some important tips and strategies to ensure high levels of achievement throughout will help you to reach your goals as a teacher and assist students in reaching their goals as students.

Advantage of Multiple Strategies

When you are trying to develop effective lesson plans, you have to remember that all students are different. Not only are you looking at the needs of the ESL students in your class, but you are also working with non-ESL students who have different learning styles as well as potentially having physical and learning challenges.

Combining a variety of learning strategies often means that you will have to diversify your lessons a bit to meet the needs of all your students. It also means that your students' needs can overlap in many areas. One student with a need for visual learning can be very helpful to an ESL student.

Buiding strategies to encourage this overlap of needs helps to build a community in your classroom, which is crucial to developing activities for both ESL and non-ESL students.

Practical Suggestions for Multiple Strategies

In order to become proficient at developing activities for both ESL and non-ESL students, you need to know what to include in your lesson plans to ensure high levels of success in the classroom.

Create Two Sets of Lesson Plans and Activities

When you are working on the lesson plans, create one set that is going to be used for the non-ESL students in your class. Since this lesson plan is likely going to be more involved, it will be easier for you in the long term to start with it. Then, you can simply eliminate or revise the elements that are not appropriate for an ESL audience.

You can do the same when you are putting together activities and worksheets. You can modify activities and worksheets for ESL students in several ways:

  • Include less questions for the ESL student to answer or less actions to complete. If the non-ESL students need to complete 10 fill in the blank questions, limit the ESL students to completing 5 questions.
  • Concentrate on fewer new vocabulary words during the lesson
  • Have ESL students report verbally, while non-ESL students provide written reports

The key to successfully using two sets of activities is to not alienate or embarrass the ESL student. Instead, you want to make sure that you have concentrated on the actions that will be of most benefit to the ESL student in completing the objective of the lesson plan.

You can accomplish this "two-sets of activities" process in several ways:

  • Divide the classroom into small working groups, and assign the abbreviated activities to the group(s) that include the ESL student(s)
  • Provide the ESL students with different activity handouts than the non-ESL students
  • Whenever possible, allow the ESL students to function as experts. If your class is studying the birth country of an ESL student, ask that student to talk about the country, prepare a collage of photos of the country or have the student help you prepare the activities for the lesson plan.

Find Alternatives to Written Assignments

You cannot eliminate writing entirely for your ESL students; but, you can modify some assignments to allow for other methods of creative expression.

Here are some suggestions to help you accomplish this goal:

  • Allow ESL students to present answers verbally as opposed to in writing.
  • Give ESL students the option of presenting group study projects or homework assignments using visual aids. For example, a collage of magazine photos can be just as effective as a written report in depicting a geography concept.
  • Use photos and drawings in your handouts and assignments to the students so that they have a better idea of what you want them to do.

Power of Visuals

Visual aids in the classroom help ESL students to better understand the concepts you are trying to teach, but they allow non-ESL students who are visual learners to obtain a better grasp of the material as well.

Here are a few examples:

  • Use images to describe a new vocabulary word. A photo of the U.S. Capitol Building could be a big help to students as they learn the word "capitol."
  • Use photographs and images to describe something being taught in a science class such as the parts of the body.
  • Encourage students to use visual aids when they present to the class or for homework assignments.

Working in Pairs

Non-ESL and ESL students are also able to help each other in powerful ways when they work together. The ESL students may be able to help the non-ESL students understand elements of the lesson, and the non-ESL students may be able to positively impact the language skills of the ESL student.

Here are a few tips:

  • Place an emphasis on group or pair assignments in your classroom. The ESL student might have a better understanding of the concept being taught than the non-ESL students. Being part of a group helps the ESL student practice their language skills in a more comfortable setting than if they were presenting to the class.
  • When you break the class into pairs, try not to have two ESL students together. Pair each of them with a non-ESL student.

Allowing students to learn from one another is an excellent teaching strategy. They are often more receptive to it as well because they do not necessarily view it as learning; they view it as interacting. These interactions can also improve knowledge, improve language skills and help to bridge cultural gaps.

Having separate sets of activities for ESL and non-ESL students in the same classroom might seem like a challenge, but you can certainly make it work.