English Language Learners

English Language Learners in Preschool, Pre-K, and Kindergarten.
Working with English Language Learners in Preschool and Kindergarten

Tips for Working with English Language Learners

I have two great passions in life, one is teaching early childhood and the other is teaching English Language Learners.  I have been fortunate to be able to work in both fields as an ESL Pre-K teacher.  

I often receive requests for help from teachers who are new to working with Second Language Learners.  One of the most common misconceptions is that you have to stop and change the way you do everything if you have non-English speaking students and nothing could be further from the truth. 

As early childhood educators almost everything we do in the classroom daily is conducive to learning the English language.  Below you will find information and tips that will lay your fears to rest and make your ESL students feel safe and comfortable in their new classroom.

Communicating with English Language Learners

How can I communicate with a child who doesn’t speak English?
Use hand gestures and facial expressions  to communicate, you will be surprised at how much you can convey with these alone. 

Just like any other young child, ESL students will also pick up on your body language so be relaxed and confident, smile often, and give the thumbs up sign when things are going well.  

Speak clearly, enunciate your words, and avoid use of regional slang or colloquialisms.


Is there anything else I can do to help my ESL student(s) understand what I am saying?
I try to provide visuals and props whenever possible to help my ESL students better understand a concept.  For example, our classroom rules use pictures. 

When we sing a song I also try to have a prop or puppet, for example if we sing the song five green speckled frogs I try to have five frog props (stuffed animal type or puppets) to help my ESL students. 

I also provide a thematic word wall for each of our units of study with pictures of each word and lots of hands on learning with manipulatives whenever possible to strengthen understanding.

English Language Learners

ESL Teacher

Do I have to speak the student’s native language to be an ESL teacher?
No, this is a common misconception.   An ESL teacher is an English teacher, ESL teachers do not need to speak the student’s native language to teach English.  As an ESL teacher I often have students who speak several different languages in my classroom at the same time and there is no way I could master all those languages in order to teach them English.

Silent Period

Help!  My ESL students never talk, I don’t think they’re learning, what should I do?
Don’t worry, nothing is wrong. Most ESL students will go through a “silent period” that lasts anywhere from six weeks to three months.  During this time the ESL student(s) are absorbing their new language and are often afraid of speaking and making a mistake.  It’s very important that the teacher or peers do not force ESL students to speak during this time or punish them for not speaking, however lots of praise and encouragement often works wonders. 

I entice my ESL students into speaking through the use of props and music.  What four year old doesn’t love speaking into a microphone and hearing his own voice or singing along to a song with big alligator puppet?   By making English less scary and more fun my ESL students are often talking a blue streak by the end of the year.

Native Language

I have several ESL students who all speak the same language and they are always talking to each other in their native language, is this bad?  Should I put a stop to it?  How can they learn if they don’t speak English in my class?
I never discourage using the native language in the classroom or at home.  Often ESL students will discuss concepts they are learning in your classroom in their native language, thus helping them gain comprehension. 

We don’t want English to replace their native language, we want them to learn English as a Second Language.   Banning their native language in the classroom will force ESL students to lose their identity and feel “bad” for speaking their native language- thus feeling bad about themselves and their culture. 

Sometimes parents mistakenly think they are helping their children by banning their native language in the home, forcing them to speak English only.  However, this only results in children who have no native language or cultural identity which can lead to problems later in life.

Social Interaction

My ESL students are extremely shy and never interact with any of their peers, what can I do?
I prefer the buddy system.  Whenever I have a new ESL student I immediately buddy him or her up with an English speaking classmate.  The native English speaker acts as a shadow and a helper so I don’t have to worry about the new student getting lost on the way to the bathroom or wandering away during recess etc.  Of course, you have to choose your native English speaking “buddy” carefully.

Bilingual Teacher

What’s the difference between a bilingual and an ESL teacher/classroom?
A bilingual teacher is one who speaks the native language of the students and teaches in that native language and in English too. How much English is spoken in a bilingual classroom depends on the program. 

An ESL teacher is one who speaks English and teaches the students in English only. 

In Texas, a bilingual classroom usually refers to Spanish speaking students and teachers, however in other parts of the country it is common to have bilingual classes for Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, and many other languages as well.   Research shows that it is better to learn in ones native language if possible.

School Bear

Communicating with Parents

How can I communicate with the parents of my ESL students?  They don’t speak English!

  • I feel that it’s as important to communicate with the parents of my ESL students as it is to communicate with the students themselves.  In my weekly newsletter I make sure to use lots of clipart for visuals and break the info up into small bites.  I also provide lots of real visuals at parent orientation and conferences.  For example, to demonstrate what the school uniform looks like I use a stuffed bear dressed in the actual uniform (see picture above).  To explain that a backpack is required I hold up an actual backpack and for our “no flip-flop” policy I hold up a pair of real flip-flops and shake my head in the no motion and show a thumbs down sign.
  • Valentine’s Day is a perfect example, this is always a holiday that causes great stress and grief in my classroom as it’s a holiday that most other countries don’t celebrate and the concept of little boxes of school Valentine cards is completely foreign.   I stand outside the classroom door beginning a week or two before Valentine’s Day and hold up sample boxes of school Valentine cards.  I also Xerox the front and back of several boxes as examples and send a short note home telling parents where to buy the cards and how to address them.   I strongly suggest buying several boxes of school Valentine cards at the after Valentine’s Day sales each year because there are always a few families who still don’t get it.   Also, be prepared for students who bring in packages of cards for baby showers or birthday invitations because their parents just don’t understand the concept no matter how hard you tried.  Always be accepting of these situations and never scold the child or demand the parent send in the correct cards.  I save these cards and put them in my art center the following year rather than send them home and embarrass the family.

Oral Language Activities

Word Wacker
Word Wacker

Materials: poster board, clipart, glue, scissors, plastic microphone, fly swatter
For each theme I created a thematic word wall using Microsoft clip art.  Just insert the clip art into a word document and size it to fit your needs, next print it out, cut, and glue the pictures to a poster board.  I suggest laminating the poster board for durability.  Cut out the middle of the fly swatter with scissors or an Exacto knife, the hole will act as a “frame” for the pictures on the word wall.   Next, place the thematic word wall in your large group area and review the words daily with your class.  We do our daily vocabulary review by playing a game I call “Word Whacker”.  I have my “Leader of the Day” come to the front and choose either the fly swatter or the plastic microphone.  The leader gives the other to a friend, whoever has the microphone is the “caller” and whoever has the fly swatter is the “whacker”.  The caller calls out a word from the word wall and the whacker has to hit the correct picture with the fly swatter.  I leave this game out during centers and they line up to play it.  The picture above shows two of my students playing Word Whacker during center time.

Mini-Thematic Word Walls

Materials: cardstock, clip art, laminating machine
I create thematic word walls using the same clip art that I used for the large one. Print the word walls on 8 1/2 x 11 cardstock in your printer, one for each student or table depending on your procedures. Laminate the mini word walls and place in an area where your students will be able to use them when they write. I have found that these mini word walls really help inspire students to write and help give them confidence. You can find the mini-word walls on the literacy printables page.

Pass the Microphone Game
Materials: plastic microphone
This game is super simple and a great oral language developer. I select a question to ask that is related to what we are learning about, for example I might ask “Do you like cookies?” after we read the story “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie”. I ask the question to my Leader of the Day into the plastic microphone, and the leader must answer “Yes, I like cookies” or “No, I don’t like cookies”; then he asks the question to the person sitting next to him. Every student gets a turn to ask and answer the question and the person who is very last gets to ask the teacher- they think this is great fun and always laugh no matter what my response. This game gives students practice in asking and answering questions, using complete sentences, and sentence structure. The later in the year it is the more complex the questions become. For example, the last week of school I ask the children “What will you do this summer?” which requires more knowledge and vocabulary to answer. We also play this game after every major vacation, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and spring break, it gives them a chance to get back into the routine of speaking English and to share, which all young children love to do.

Color Game

Color Game
Materials: various colored items, colored poster board
I have 10 clear plastic shoeboxes or cubby bins filled with various items, each box is filled with items of a different color (see picture above). I collect the color items from various places, thrift stores, garage sales, Happy Meal toys, and Dollar Stores.

Each color also has a corresponding poster board shape, red is a circle, green is a square, yellow is a triangle etc.

When I introduce the color box (see colors page for details on how I teach colors) I have all the children sitting in a circle with the poster board shape the floor in the middle, then I pass the box around the circle and each child takes one item. The child names the item using a complete sentence such as “The shoe is red” and then placing the item on the shape. This is great for English sentence structure as well as vocabulary because in other languages the noun comes before the adjective (the shoe red) and it takes lots of practice to get them to put the color word first.

After I have introduced a color then I put the color box in a center and the students can work with it and play the color game on their own to practice their colors and vocabulary. It sounds so simple, but it is actually a favorite of every class I have ever had. They anticipate each new box and try to guess what might be inside, the first day the box goes into a center they are all fighting over who can play with it first. Lakeshore used to sell a similar item, but it is outrageously expensive, I prefer to make my own.

Resources for working with English Language Learners

More Teaching Tips from Pre-K Pages

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