Vocabulary, Writing, Listening, and Speaking Activities for ELLs
Every student learns a little differently. This is especially true when it comes to ELLs who may struggle to sit through a lesson or reading they simply can’t understand. As an ELL teacher, you’ll need to find engaging and educational activities that help students learn the curriculum and grow social skills.
Luckily, there are hundreds of creative vocabulary, writing, listening, and speaking activities for ELLs to choose from. We’ve compiled some of our favorite tried-and-true activities for ELLs that get students excited about learning. While not every activity will be appropriate for your students’ age group or fluency level, many of these activities can work in your classroom with modifications. Just remember – you know your students best, so choose (and adjust) the activities that work best for your classroom!
Vocabulary Activities for ELLs
ELL newcomers must build their English vocabularies quickly and exponentially. Additionally, ELLs need support in developing mastery of academic language. Here are some of our favorite in-context and isolated vocabulary activities for ELLs.
- Previewing Text – Before reading, have students scan the text for words or phrases they don’t know. Create a list on the board and then work together as a class to see how many you can define based on context clues and prior knowledge. You may want to create a vocabulary word wall so that students can reference these terms. Celebrate the process of discovering new words and understanding their meanings.
- Word Bingo – If you have a large amount of vocabulary to cover at once, try playing word bingo. Call out the words to practice recognition, and as your students’ understandings grow, you can call out definitions or fill-in-the-blank sentences to check for comprehension as well. In order to check their winning board, students must read back the words they’ve marked. Games like bingo can also help students build confidence in their pronunciation alongside other listening and speaking activities for ELLs.
- Mad Libs – This simple game is a great way to test word recognition and teach definitions at the same time. Create a paragraph of text using your vocabulary words. Then, remove either the vocabulary words themselves or the context clues around them. Students take turns filling in the words or the context clue words that reveal their definitions.
- Picture Dictionary – Picture dictionaries are a great classroom resource, but having students create their own picture dictionaries is one of the best vocabulary activities for ELLs. Provide a template with words in place and then offer drawing materials, magazine clippings, clip art, or even a camera to help students create images that will help them remember each word. Since they choose what to draw and how to draw it, they’ll be more likely to create personal connections with each word, assisting with vocabulary retention.
- Categorizing and Connecting – Appropriate for all levels of ELLs, categorizing vocabulary and showing connections among words is easy and effective. Give students familiar and new vocabulary words in whatever platform you’d like. Students should categorize the words according to what makes sense to them. You can pair it with discussions or short writing activities. Throughout the unit, build upon the vocabulary and have students repeat the activity as many times as you’d like as a formative assessment. By the end of the unit, students should be able to make connections and categorize the vocabulary for the unit. This is a great way to scaffold a large writing or speaking assignment and can be modified for newcomers with the use of pictures.
Writing Activities for ELLs
In addition to listening and speaking activities for ELLs, writing is less time-depending and therefore offers unique opportunities to build vocabulary in context and demonstrate critical thinking. For many, writing activities for ELLs are one of the best ways to check their understanding without the pressure of speaking in front of the class. Here are some of our favorite writing activities for ELLs.
- Social Media Writing Prompts – Social media prompts are a great way to make writing more fun and engaging for students. Ask them to summarize a story they read in five “tweets” or short sentences. Provide photos and ask them to write an “Instagram” caption for each. The possibilities are endless and students love the tie-in to social media.
- Write an Advertisement – Ask students to bring in a favorite object (or a photo of it) and then write an ad that tells the class why they should buy one, too. This is a great way to introduce persuasive writing and allow students to share their passions and hobbies with the class.
- Practicing Proofreading – Proofreading can be stressful for students because they are often asked to correct another student’s work and identify errors on their own. Instead, create a writing sample yourself and ask for your students’ help as a class to take turns finding mistakes and correcting them.
- The “New” Student – This is one of the best writing activities for ELLs because it also tests their understanding of classroom rules and procedures. Tell the class you want to compile a list of tips for an imaginary new student joining the class. Then, ask each student to create a list, letter, or idea web of everything they think the new student should know. Review the final list as a class to reinforce any classroom procedures that still need practice.
Listening Activities for ELLs
Listening is one of the most essential skills students will need to develop to find success in the classroom. Listening activities test cognition, retention, and their ability to follow instructions. Check out these engaging and interactive listening activities for ELLs.
- Simon Says – This classic game is fun and practical. It can be played traditionally or with classroom-oriented instructions like “Simon says pick up your red marker” to practice relevant vocabulary. You can also extend the game by adding flashcards.
- Two Truths and a Lie – Students come up with three statements about themselves, including two true statements and one false. The other students discuss and choose which is the lie. This game can be played in pairs, small groups, or as a class. You can also provide groups of three statements about a current topic in the classroom.
- Back-to-Back Interview – This game is one of our favorite listening and speaking activities for ELLs because it eliminates facial expressions and gestures, forcing students to truly rely on their listening skills. Students sit in pairs, facing away from one another. One student is the interviewer and asks the other student questions to learn more about them. Then the students switch. Once both students have been interviewed, they share what they learned about the other student with the class. This game can also be played where you or a student play as a book character or celebrity and the other students have to figure out who you are.
- Flashcard Games – These games can be especially helpful with tricky vocabulary sets like minimal pairs. Students lay out a set of flashcards on their desk and listen carefully for the word the teacher calls out or uses in a sentence. Color code your flashcards for a quick way to check the class’s answers.
- I Spy/Scavenger Hunt – Instead of giving an object or a color, start by giving students phonemes or letter sounds (e.g. I spy something that starts with “ch”). You can then follow up with additional clues about the object until the class finds it.
- Long-Form Listening – In addition to short-form listening and speaking activities for ELLs, offer your students audio options during silent reading time as well. Audiobooks, podcasts, and even kids-oriented news shows provide engaging listening for ELLs of all ages and skill levels. Follow up the listening with a discussion or questions to check for comprehension.
Speaking Activities for ELLs
Speaking in front of the class can be difficult for many students, so fun and engaging listening and speaking activities for ELLs can make a big difference in the classroom. Here are a few of our favorite ideas to get your students talking.
- Question of the Day – This speaking activity for ELLs is a perfect option for morning work as students arrive. Each day, choose a simple, silly, or strange question and have students answer it as they enter the classroom. This is a great activity even for ELL newcomers since all eyes won’t be on them, and you have the option to ask follow-up questions or continue the conversation as much or as little as you want to.
To make this activity even more newcomer-friendly, offer a handful of questions all week long and allow students to choose the question they want to answer each day. This way they can get to know the questions better and practice their answers over time.
- Desert Island – In pairs, small groups, or as a class, students take turns choosing an object in the room. The next student has to come up with a way to use the object to survive on a desert island. There are no wrong answers, which can take some of the pressure off of speaking in front of the class. For another fun twist on this activity, have students role play and pretend to be a character instead of themselves, explaining how the character might use the item in their story.
- Mini Debates – Create a list of opinions you want the class to weigh in on. They can be related to a recent lesson or reading, or something random like “purple is the best color.” Create two groups: one to make an argument for your statement, and one to make an argument against. This is a great way of teaching persuasive speech and also helping ELLs learn to think on their feet. It can also be an exercise in empathy since the student may not agree with the stance they’re given.
- Similarities and Differences – Students pair off (or turn to the student next to them) and take turns asking questions until they discover one commonality and one difference between them. Then the students take turns sharing with the class. In addition to being a great speaking activity for ELLs, this is also a good way to explore and celebrate cultural differences in your classroom.
- Songs, Rhymes, and Responses – Especially for ELL newcomers, speaking in front of the class can be daunting. Group speaking can help take the pressure off, so don’t be afraid to experiment with different formats like songs, rhymes, and “call and response” to get ELLs speaking. Whatever you choose, use it often to help students learn and memorize their parts.
Structured activities in listening, reading, writing, and speaking help English language learners (ELLs) develop grade-level academic language needed for classroom success.
Structured activities in listening, reading, writing, and speaking help English language learners (ELLs) develop grade-level academic language needed for classroom success.View Product →
Thank you to Ellen Richardson, an ELL teacher at Abraham Lincoln Middle School in Lancaster, PA for consulting on this blog post.
This blog was originally published on May 28, 2021. It was updated on January 19, 2023.