How to Teach an ESL Class

How to Teach an ESL Class
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Whether a teacher has one ESL student or a full classroom dedicated to English language learning, they need to provide a structure for assignments rich in the skills that ESL students need to master to become bilingual.

First Class Period

The first day of any class is critical as teachers establish the groundwork for the rest of the term. In addition to discussing classroom procedures, rules, and other classroom management details, ESL teachers must:

  • Assess students' widely varying language abilities. Assessment can be accomplished through a basic English proficiency test, one-on-one conversations, and reviewing students' files from prior ESL instruction.
  • Acquire background information that will indicate students' willingness to learn English. Teachers should ask about the students' native languages and learn if there are other English speakers in their home.

By understanding their language abilities and the support network students have for learning English, teachers can tailor instruction to meet students' needs.

Learning How to Teach an ESL Class

For the most effective instruction toward English proficiency, ESL teachers need to focus on the core areas of English language instruction, including reading, writing, vocabulary, and grammar.


Reading skills are necessary for ESL students to interpret assignments, research projects, and perform well in non-ESL classes. Reading also practices vocabulary, exposes students to sentence structure, and can introduce concepts in nearly any content area.

Strategies for teaching reading include:

  • Reading instructions aloud. This gives the teacher an opportunity to assist with pronunciation as well.
  • Book reports. Choosing books slightly below students' grade level will help them master English skills while still keeping reading in the curriculum.
  • Free reading time. Allowing students to read English language books, magazines, and newspapers of their choice can help them practice reading skills with less pressure.
  • Deciphering vocabulary context clues. This can help students learn vocabulary while they read and will reinforce their reading skills.
  • Reading comprehension questions. Discussions of plot, characterization, and other aspects of books and short stories can help students refine their reading and speaking skills.
  • Dictionary use. Allowing students to use translation dictionaries to complete reading assignments will strengthen their English skills while teaching them how to use valuable reference resources.


Writing a new language is far different than learning to speak it. ESL students must be able to write effectively in English to perform well in both classes and future employment.

Teachers who know how to teach an ESL class may use strategies and assignments such as:

  • Autobiographies and country reports. Students writing about themselves and their native country can practice writing skills while introducing themselves to their peers.
  • Journaling. Daily journal assignments can inspire writing practice on a variety of timely topics.
  • Complete sentences. Requiring students to respond with complete sentences on any assignment will continually reinforce English writing skills.
  • Wordless books. Teachers can use wordless children's picture books to allow students to make up an appropriate story. Stories could then be read to younger siblings or classes for more practice.
  • Essay questions. Incorporating essay questions into frequent assignments and tests keeps students' writing skills in the forefront.


Learning the vocabulary of a new language is essential for meaningful progress and mastery.

Vocabulary strategies include:

  • Using cross-curricular terms. ESL teachers can ask students' other teachers for appropriate words to incorporate into a vocabulary list. This has the added bonus of helping students study for other classes while they learn English.
  • Word of the day. Choosing a word of the day and discussing its definition is the perfect way to introduce unique vocabulary words to ESL students.
  • Flashcards. Quick practice can help students learn words efficiently.
  • Crossword puzzles. Another fun way to learn vocabulary, crossword puzzles can be an enjoyable assignment.


For many ESL students, learning grammar can be the most difficult part of adjusting to English. Teachers should pay particular attention to verb tenses, sentence structure and syntax, appropriate pronoun usage, and how to create plural words because these are often the most difficult areas of grammar for ESL students.


Fun projects can reinforce basic skills in creative ways. Projects can be used as special assignments, end-of-term assessments, or long term assignments.

Ideas include:

  • Multi-cultural bazaars to share with the school or community
  • Presenting speeches
  • Writing and presenting skits or plays
  • Creating buddy teams with students in foreign language classes that match ESL students' native languages
  • Holiday parties and presentations

Curriculum Ideas

While a specific subject teacher will need to focus their curriculum for ESL students around their subject, general ESL classes can use mini-units to reinforce language skills while presenting useful material to students.

Unit ideas for ESL classes include:

  • History and government overviews
  • State history
  • Popular culture
  • Holidays

More Tips for How to Teach an ESL Class

There is more to teaching an ESL class than giving appropriate assignments and assessing students' abilities.

Effective teachers will:

  • Create a supportive environment with a classroom that honors students' cultures
  • Be a role model for effective reading and writing
  • Minimize translation assistance to encourage students to learn English more effectively
  • Make classroom activities relevant to students' lives and other classes
  • Use abundant visual aids to reinforce written and spoken words
  • Adjust the pacing of their instruction to meet students' needs and proficiency
  • Encourage peer tutoring to allow students to interact and share tips with one another

ESL teachers generally need specialized licenses or certificate endorsements to teach English language learners, but knowing how to teach an ESL class involves more than just a special license. Understanding appropriate strategies and how to apply them to students will help teachers be more effective so their students can become confidently bilingual.