ESL Social Studies Unit


An ESL social studies unit can encompass a wide variety of topics. Often called content-based ESL, social studies lessons will help students incorporate new words into their vocabulary while learning valuable information about American culture. This knowledge will help them feel more comfortable interacting with other English speakers.

Subjects for ESL Social Studies Units

Make Connections

Making connections between their experience and your lesson will broaden their understanding of the content and expand their vocabulary. The discussion allows the students to practice conversational English as they learn about other forms of government and presidential power.

If you are teaching a lesson on U.S. presidents, for example, remember to be sure the student understands the concept of a president. Link the concept to something the students are familiar with such as:

  • Does their home country have a president?
  • How is that president's power different?
  • Is it a dictatorship or a democracy?

Include Visual Aids

ESL social studies units should also incorporate visual and textual aids. The student may not feel comfortable enough to engage in conversation or they may not fully understand the vocabulary you're using. These aids will serve two main purposes:

  • To assist visual learners as well as fill in the language gaps
  • To help beginning ESL students make connections between words and concepts

If you're teaching a mixed group, create opportunities for ESL students to participate even if they don't fully understand the content. Speak slowly so they can at least focus on your words. Also, give definitions of difficult words whenever possible.

Social Studies Topics

Social studies cover a wide variety of topics from history to geography. When choosing a topic for your ESL students, choose one they will be able to comprehend given their language proficiency.

For example, it is probably not a good idea to get into a discussion about slavery with a beginning ESL student unless you have a lot of time to develop the student's understanding of the concept. Because slavery is a complex topic that may be a foreign concept, that discussion will be more effective with a more advanced ESL student. Religion and geography on the other hand are great topics for beginners.

Consider some of the following topics:

  • History
  • Religion
  • Geography
  • Ethics and values
  • Multiculturalism
  • Politics
  • Western civilization
  • Social networking
  • Government
  • Economics
  • Current events

Finding and Creating Lesson Plans

There are a number of ways to create content-based ESL lessons. One way is to start with a standard social studies lesson and modify it to include concepts and language for your ESL student. This method is probably more effective for mixed classes. Because social studies is a broad subject, you can also incorporate the topics into your general ESL lessons, likely to be the more effective method for ESL only classes.