Developing Effective ESL Classroom Activities for High School Students


High school-aged ESL students have many challenges that a younger ESL student may not face. In addition to learning the language and culture, they are also involved more with their peers, in their community and they may be thinking about their post-high school education and employment plans.

ESL classroom activities for high school students can provide the help these students need to perform well in society. No matter what the background is of your ESL students, they need help with vocabulary words, idioms, asking and answering questions and confidence buildling in order to be successful in and after high school.

High School ESL Students: An Overview

Whether you have been teaching ESL students for years or this is your first time doing so, it's important to understand the needs and issues of ESL learners in the high school setting. Students in this position are feeling a lot of pressure to:

  • Identify who they are now and balance that with their cultural identity
  • Fit in with their peers
  • Communicate well in their community
  • Maintain good grades
  • Sort through their diverse interests for future employment and education

These are major issues that should not be taken lightly, and they are all intensified for ESL students. Both academically and culturally, ESL students have struggles that their native speaking peers do not share. As a result, you need to implement teaching strategies that address these challenges and seek to overcome them.

Strategies to Use in the Classroom

Quite a number of useful tips can help to guide you toward developing the right teaching strategies, lesson plans and activities for your high school ESL students.

Concentrate on Vocabulary, Not Just Content

In high school, students have a multitude of subjects to explore. From geometry and chemistry to literature and creative writing, their classes range across the spectrum.

Teachers in the various subject areas must understand that ESL students:

  • May recognize the content and concepts they are teaching based on what they have learned before entering the classroom.
  • Are probably struggling with the vocabulary of the subject. Imagine trying to learn chemistry if you didn't know words like fusion, iodine, and nuclear. Anyone would struggle.
  • Are not familiar with cliches and idioms used in English.
  • Are not familiar with common knowledge and traditions learned in earlier years by students who were born in the United States by reading or seeing television programs discussing topics like American Indians, Thanksgiving, the Civil War, Abe Lincoln and George Washington.
  • Are likely to understand visual aids used, even though they may struggle with the vocabulary printed on the visual aid.

Therefore, teaching vocabulary before starting to teach a concept, as well as avoiding cliches and idioms, are crucial strategies for classroom success with ESL students.

Provide Scaffolding for Reading and Writing

At this point in their educational careers, high school students are involved in fairly in-depth reading and writing activities. They are likely reading novels and learning how to write a research paper. For students who struggle with English vocabulary and grammar, these tasks are particularly challenging. Therefore, you must scaffold reading and writing activities.

Ideas for scaffolding in reading include:

  • Previewing the story
  • Explaining elements of the story
  • Reading the story chapter by chapter

Ideas for scaffolding in writing include:

  • Brainstorming as a class. For example, the class could discuss a series of news clippings before the students begin their individual assignments. For more details, check out the lesson plan at the top of this article for Current Events News Reporting.
  • Creating individual outlines
  • Crafting rough drafts for revision before producing a final copy

These strategies help to break down the processes and make them more managable for ESL students.

Use Visual Activities and Tools

Simply lecturing in front of the class is not going to be effective for an ESL student. He or she is unlikely to understand a decent portion of what you are saying.

Instead of just speaking at your students, add visual aids to further explain your point. For example:

  • A poster with plates of food beautifully illustrates the proper nutrition that a person should have.
  • A video can clearly show how pollution affects the environment.

When you give out assignments to your class, do not always ask them to write something or orally present in front of the classroom. Instead, you can ask that they put together a PowerPoint presentation, draw a picture or make a model to demonstrate their ideas.

Encourage Use of Other Talents

Including activities that don't require speaking or writing can be excellent ways to get ESL students involved in a subject. Having the students draw a picture or play an instrument can be fun ways for students to interpret what they are learning and seeing using skills with which they feel comfortable.

History teachers can tell students about an event, teach them the vocabulary of the event, show them pictures or movies and let them ask questions. Then, instead of a written assignment, the teacher can ask the students to pick part of the event and illustrate it.

English teachers can read poetry to students, teach them the vocabulary and then ask them to illustrate the poem or its meaning with a drawing or by playing a musical instrument.

Build Their Confidence

If students are afraid to participate in the classroom discussions or believe that every answer they give is wrong, they are never going to get the confidence that they need.

  • Ask questions that have been asked in previous classroom discussions, so they have the confidence that they are right.
  • When they are correct in their answers, be sure to praise them.
  • Be sure to note improvement in writing assignments. You want your ESL students to feel as though they have progressed.

Creating Activity Modifications

When you are developing effective classroom activities for high school students, you can make modifications to assignments for the ESL students:

  • You might assign a 500-word essay to the native speakers, but you may reduce it to 400 words for the ESL students.
  • Give ESL students a word bank to use when you ask the class to write a poem.
  • Instead of developing an outline from scratch, give the ESL students a template with some parts already filled in.
  • When the class has a writing assignment, ESL students with very minimal English skills can be given a completed paragraph, story or essay with words or whole sentences missing, plus a word or sentence bank which they can use to fill in the blanks.

Remember that students are expected to meet certain standards, and they may have to pass important state tests at the end of the year. Without passing these state tests, they might not be able to graduate high school. Do not make so many modifications that you limit their knowledge-building. If so, you run the risk of ruining your students' chances of succeeding on these exams.

Following these tips will help you to better develop lessons for high school classrooms containing ESL students.

Developing Effective ESL Classroom Activities for High School Students
Developing Effective ESL Classroom Activities for High School Students

Developing effective esl classroom activities high school students

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