3 Strategies for Engaging ESL Students

If you’re a teacher working in childhood education, you’ve probably experienced the following scenario: You walk into a classroom filled with children.  You struggle to engage the children in your lesson, using all of the energy you can muster.  You leave the class exhausted, happy if you succeeded in completing a portion of your daily learning goals.

Typical teacher stuff, right?

Now imagine that these little learners speak minimal to no English, and they are restless after a full day of their regular schooling. How can you win them over? What can you do to spark their interest in learning a completely new language?

Welcome to the life of an ESL teacher!

Challenges of teaching a second language to young learners

Contrary to popular belief, knowing English doesn’t qualify you as an English teacher. Although teaching ESL can be a fulfilling career, it isn’t easy, and it comes with its own challenges. Unfortunately, a lot of new teachers don’t realize such difficulties until they step off of the airplane and into the classroom.

One of the main obstacles of teaching English abroad lies in breaking from traditional learning styles. In East Asia, there is what can only be considered education fever. Students spend most of their free time studying or attending extra lessons in cram schools. In South Korea, for example, students spend between 16 and 20 hours a day studying.

Because of this heavy schedule, schooling traditionally relies on rote memorization methods. The aim is to remember the greatest amount of material in the shortest time possible, with the ultimate goal being high test scores.  

While this may help students to ace an exam, it’s placing them at a disadvantage when it comes to real world language application. It impedes any room for practicing critical thinking skills. If students merely memorize English, or any other language, they might do well on a grammar test but have trouble producing the most basic English utterances.

Fortunately, there are several teaching methods that go against the bore of memorization and aim to increase student interaction in the classroom. Studies show that only through student interaction will second language learners can increase their language proficiency. It makes sense, right? By interacting in a second language, students will become more interested. They will enjoy the process of second language acquisition.

Methods of language acquisition

What exactly is language acquisition, you may ask? Basically, it means picking up a language naturally. Think about when you were a child. How did you learn to speak?

I seriously doubt that your parents taught you the different parts of speech- “a noun is a person, place or thing, my son.” Instead, they likely modeled language, and you simply picked it up by listening and interacting with them on a daily basis.

Language acquisition is important in the ESL classroom because it prepares students to use English in everyday situations. It focuses on increasing communication skills rather than learning the rules of the language itself.

So, if you’re one of those teachers who has no idea what they’re doing. Don’t worry. Here are some teaching styles that focus on language acquisition and engaging young learners.  

Integrated Content-based method

Especially effective with young language learners, the integrated content-based method links second language acquisition with academic content. Simply put, the second language is the medium of instruction rather than the focus of the class itself.  You don’t teach about English; you teach IN English.

You can use the integrated content-based method in the classroom by choosing a theme suitable to the students’ age and interests. Although you won’t be explicitly teaching English language rules, you can plan some language objectives into the themed lesson. If you’ve ever looked at any educational resource sites, you’ll find plenty of thematic units based off of this methodology. 

For a simple example, let’s look at a daily routine in a kindergarten class. By talking about the calendar on a daily basis, teachers can elicit responses that involve phonics (highlighting the first sounds of the month or day), math (counting to reach the date), science (weather), and other basic language skills.  Students are using the language to fulfill a specific purpose: talking about the day. Doing so on a daily basis helps their confidence to increase and helps them to store sentence patterns in their long term memory.

This is an effective way to teach promote language acquisition without stressing about perfect grammar or pronunciation.

Communicative Approach

Similar to the integrated content-based method, the communicative approach focuses on communicative ability instead of grammar rules. You can use this method in the classroom by trying to mimic real life situations and have the students lead the classroom discussion. This method is usually practiced in adult classrooms, but it’s perfectly suitable for young learners as well.

The best way to use this approach with children is through all kinds of games such as flashcard activities, I spy games, matching, and vocabulary relay races, to name a few. By engaging the students in a fun, fast paced game, they forget the stress and anxiety of using a second language. As their confidence increases, so will their fluency. You can also use songs, role play activities, and dramas.

The communicative approach is successful for several reasons. First, it actively involves the students and peaks their interest in learning English. It can be used to teach new vocabulary or to review what has been learned before. Also, through exposure to sentence patterns, students will learn grammar naturally in a stress-free environment.

Total physical response

Total physical response, or TPR, is very effective with language acquisition, especially with young children. TPR pairs physical movement with language learning and encourages students to use both sides of their brains. It is especially effective with visual learners, and, most importantly, it’s fun! It really helps the kids to relax and enjoy the classroom environment.

This method might leave you feeling a bit like a clown, but the kids will love it. You can use TPR in the classroom by exaggerating actions or facial expressions, or by using props. If you find yourself teaching online, TPR is definitely a skill you’ll want to hone in on.

A simple way to use TPR during a coloring activity is to have the students hold up a simple crayon and follow directions such as the following: Pick up the red crayon. Put it on your nose. Put it on your friend’s nose. Wave it in the air. Draw a big A in the air. Now color the apple red.


Don’t let the terminology overwhelm you; the main point of the teaching methods above is to simply have fun. By creating a fun, stress free classroom environment, students will have more interest in learning and will acquire a second language more easily.


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