The Ultimate Guide to ELL Support: 21 Ways to Show Your ELL Students Some Love

Teaching any kind of class can be challenging—and equally rewarding.

The results you get from your students are directly related to how much energy and enthusiasm you put into your teaching.

You want to do the best for your students, but as you face a roomful of youthful individuals, each with various abilities and idiosyncrasies, you know that you’re also facing a major challenge.

For your ELL students, the task of learning in a language that isn’t spoken at home can be extremely challenging, and so they’ll often appear distracted and may be lacking motivation. This degree of discouragement will, unfortunately, affect the tone of your whole class if you don’t nip it in the bud.

Your ELL students will need extra attention and special activities, while also learning the content you need to teach related to specific subject matter and linguistic details. Plus, there may well be students who need some extra individual attention beyond this, too.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could achieve all of this at the same time with the whole class, leaving no stragglers behind to struggle, seeing each student being enthusiastic about joining in to improve their English and while having some fun? Sounds like a stretch, or a fantasy even, but if you plan your lessons carefully you may well achieve this.

Here are three engaging things you should consider throwing in as you plan each lesson:

  • Surprises
  • Challenges 
  • Rewards

These all add huge motivational factors that get students seriously involved in the learning process. We’ll explore how throughout the rest of this post.

The Ultimate Guide to ELL Support: 21 Ways to Show Your ELL Students Some Love

First, let’s look at some great examples of helpful surprises you can add to your lessons and activities.

The Element of Surprise

Routines and stability are great for learning. But with surprises built in, learning can be even better.

Surprises make sure that learning never become mundane. Even when the students are expecting a surprise, it’s still a surprise! This keeps them on their toes, and helps keep them from dozing off in class.

Here are some ideas for how you can incorporate the element of surprise. Once you’re looking for these opportunities, and once you’ve been inspired by these great examples, you’ll surely come up with many more.

1. Surprise Object

Come to class with something (wrapped or disguised) that keeps them guessing.

They’ll soon start expecting that you’ll do this, and they’ll start looking to see where you’ve hidden the surprise when you walk into class. (Is it in your pocket? Under your hat? Have you hidden something in one of the desks or in plain sight on a bulletin board?)

Using your surprise object you can have short (or long) interesting activities that include everyone but with a special interest for your ELL students. It gives them a chance to participate fully and possibly even shine instead of feeling like the “challenged” students.

As an extra surprise you could play a game like “Pass the Parcel.” For this game, you’ll have an object wrapped in multiple layers, and there could be notes to read with questions (or a statement, fun fact, gap-fill or anything else) at each layer unwrapped. These notes could be relevant to your English lesson or any other subject that you’re teaching.

Doing this activity with your ELL students in mind, you can make it an opportunity to improve their basic vocabulary and also target specific areas.

While the item is still wrapped or hidden, some vocabulary practice based on the item could involve a guessing game (involving the whole class).

Once the item is revealed, a discussion and other activities could center around the following topics:

  • Prepositions: Where was the item was found/obtained? Where has the item been hiding? When and where did you obtain it?
  • Adjectives: Guess the color, size, shape, value and other descriptive details of the object.
  • Nouns: What is this thing? Maybe you could find and bring something unusual that even the other students have never seen.
  • Proper Nouns: Give it a name, like it’s a classmate or pet.
  • History and Science: Let the students research and share some background information on the object.
  • Art: Get the students to draw or photograph the object.
  • Creative Writing: Make up a story about the object.

This activity doesn’t have to happen every lesson, nor does it have to be done the same way every time. This doesn’t have to take up a lot of time, either.

There’s no harm in the students looking carefully at you and around the room every time as they try to guess if there’s something, where it is and when the “reveal” will happen. It’ll become part of the (positive) social climate of your classroom.

Once it has become part of your routine of surprises, you could occasionally task individual students with bringing in an interesting object.

2. Surprise Treat

The possibility of food or sweet treats always excites.

They can always eat their treats later, outside or at home, if there’s a problem with having food in the classroom. The treat could be your surprise object for the day, or it could be something separate.

It could be part of the daily challenge (see below) or reward (also below).

Whichever way you decide to introduce the treat, you know you’ll have a winning lesson if you have an occasional food surprise lined up. Students may participate just a little more on a regular basis, on the hopes that those treats will appear at the right moment.

Just be careful not to send them out on a sugar high, and don’t do it too often so that they’re angry and upset when it doesn’t happen!

The treat could relate to specific vocabulary (as above), or it could be something that begins with a certain letter of the alphabet. Alternatively, you could have an activity where they’re involved in helping to prepare a particular food.

3. Surprise Groups

Your students shouldn’t sit in neat rows listening to the teacher all day.

Depending on the activity, you may want them to work in pairs or groups. If you’ve established some good routines in your classroom you can say “get into pairs” and they’ll do so with a minimum of fuss. But sometimes you should surprise them by mixing things up a bit, allowing some new social relationships to develop.

If you’re in a subject class rather than a full ELL class, do non-ELL students like to pair and group up with your ELL students? Or do certain students always pair off together? You’ll definitely want to shake things up to ensure ELL and non-ELL students get to interact. You’ll also want to break up those dynamic duos and loyal friend groups from time to time, so students can see other perspectives.

It’s good if your students can have experience mixing with others and get help from them, without it seeming unfair to anyone. This is just as true in an ELL classroom.

You could try these ways to mix up students into new groups:

  • Put names in a hat: Get each student to write their name on a slip of paper and drop it in a hat. Then pull them out (or ask them to) in order to choose partners or groups. The social interaction is good for everyone including (maybe especially) the ELL students.
  • Use matching cards: Make sets of cards with pairs of identical words or pictures, or with pairs of words/pictures that somehow go together. Students are each given a card and then must walk around (talking) to find their partner or group. The cards could involve some relevant vocabulary to particularly help the ELL students.
  • Group according to characteristics: Get students to line up according to height, name initial, birth date, what they had for breakfast, color of their clothes…anything at all that gets them discussing and putting themselves into groups. Just watch to make sure no one is feeling left out.
  • Let the students suggest how to group. Open it up to their ideas. Maybe your clever, creative ELL students will have an interesting idea.

4. Surprise Story

Everybody loves a story.

Even ELL students enjoy a well-told story, regardless of whether or not they understand all the words. Hopefully you already have a storytelling routine as part of your lessons, no matter what subject you’re teaching. Whether you do or not, surprise them with a story at odd times, especially to keep your ELL students interested.

This is another opportunity to do something for the whole class while focusing on the needs of ELL students. It doesn’t mean that you should be “talking down” to the class for the benefit of the linguistically challenged. The lively flow of your story should keep everyone engaged, and you can use actions and images to help with understanding where necessary.

If you’re teaching a subject other than English—such as math, science or history—the subject matter can be a little overwhelming, and telling a story is a perfect way to lighten things up as well as help with understanding.

For example, in a math lesson you could make up a simple story about someone who goes shopping, and it could involve adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing numbers as you go along, with the students providing an answer at the end.

In history classes, there are lots of good stories to tell in interesting ways. In a science class you could make up a story that demonstrates the scientific principle that you’re teaching, or you can find science stories online.

5. Surprise Game

Just when they’re expecting a long and boring teacher talk session, or when they think they’ll be grinding their way through a textbook or workbook, surprise them with a game. There are many ways to develop anything into a game, getting every student engaged and involved.

The game involves the whole class—it could be long or short, taking up a whole class session or just a little warm-up—and the students can work in teams so that everyone has a chance to win. The subject focus of the game can improve ELL students’ language, as well as engage mainstream students. Students can also be given the opportunity to run the game themselves once they are familiar with it (and by then it is no longer a surprise).

One good example is the game called Typhoon, which can be quickly prepared and eagerly played over and over. (The more times you play it, the sooner the students can run the game for you.) Here are the steps for playing the game:

1. Draw an open grid on the board, maybe 5 X 5 squares, and label the axes with numbers along one side and letters the other way so that students can refer to specific squares. (You can also use relevant words to label the grid, if you like.)

2. Draw the same grid on a piece of paper (out of sight), and on this second grid mark a variety of scores (any numbers at all, large or small) in most of the squares. In a few squares (maybe 5 to 9, it’s up to you) mark the letter T for Typhoon.

3. Get the students into teams (any number in a team, but at least 3 teams is ideal) and draw up a space on the board to write in their scores.

4. Ask each team in term to answer a question, perform a task or do anything related to your subject. If they’re correct, they can choose a square. Then you should write the score marked on that square next to their team name on the board, and write the score in the appropriate square on the grid.

5. If the square they choose has a T, instead of a score they get to choose which team gets their score blown away (sent back to zero) by the Typhoon.

6. Continue playing until all the squares are used up. (If time is running out, just have a “No question, just choose” time for each team in turn to make sure the game ends.)

The thing about Typhoon that students really love is that it is, to some degree, a game of chance. Any team could win, and they don’t necessarily have to be the best.

6. Surprise Song

There’s something about the rhythm and tune of a song that helps many of us to learn things. If you don’t normally incorporate songs into your lessons, then this will be a surprise! If music is already a common teaching tool for you, then surprise them with a more fun, modern pop song that they wouldn’t expect to hear in class.

You might want to start with certain songs or a music style that you know is popular with them. This can help with anything you particularly want them to remember, such as:

  • Grammar rules
  • Math facts or times tables
  • Science facts or rules
  • Historical facts
  • Whatever else!

You can turn anything like the above into chants or raps, or you could get them feeling the beat in an instrumental piece (such as a drum solo), or make your own music, rhythm or beat with body percussion and classroom “instruments” (e.g., pencils and desk lids).

You could even develop your own motivational class chant that doesn’t necessarily have any relevance to what you’re learning.

7. Surprise Movie or Video

There are so many short videos available nowadays on every topic imaginable.

Have a mixed class with ELL and non-ELL students? While the whole class is watching the screen, you might sidle up to your ELL students and give them some extra help. Or if you have devices for the whole class, they could each watch by themselves, pausing if and when they need to, so no need for ELL students to get left behind.

This can apply to any subject area! You can find anything you want students to learn, especially things like science on sites like YouTube and FluentU nowadays.

Plus, with interactive learning options such as quizzes and flashcards, FluentU takes movie and video to the next level!

8. Surprise Art or Craft

Don’t just hand out a worksheet or ask them to write in their exercise books. Surprise your students with a blank piece of paper and the goal to make something creative as part of the lesson.

If you don’t have any fresh ideas, they can fold a piece of paper into a “Little Book” and then record important information in its pages or make their own comments. You could also use some simple puppets that can be made from a piece of paper and then used to enhance your lesson.

A quick search on the Internet will bring up lots of cheap, easy and quick craft ideas that you can surprise your students with to make sure those ELL students stay engaged right through the lesson.

9. Surprise Visitor

Maybe one of your students’ parents, someone else in your community, another teacher or even an excellent student from another class could come in and talk to your students.

The opportunity to listen to a different voice and accent is especially good for your ELL students, and will serve to widen their outlook if they then meet the person later in a different context. All of your students will benefit from the new perspective. (You could even invite a whole non-ELL class and pair them up with your ELL students.)

It’s a great opportunity for all of your students to listen and ask questions, and find out how what they’re studying—whether math, science, history or language—is relevant outside of school.

10. Surprise Outing

The inside of your classroom can become deadly dull after a while, even if you do decorate the walls well. Get out of the classroom and surprise your students by making their learning more relevant, especially your ELL students.

If you feel that taking a class on an excursion away from school is a major headache with endless forms to fill, legalities to adhere to and precautions to take for the safety of the students and teacher, remember the saying “a change is as good as a holiday” and go smaller.

Look around the school and find places you can visit without leaving the grounds:

1. Another classroom

2. The library

3. The cafeteria (outside of usual eating time)

4. The administrative office

5. The gardens or grounds

6. Anywhere outside of your classroom

Your main purpose is really the surprise of it, and the accompanying motivational burst of interest.

However, I’m sure you can find ways to relate your outing to whatever you’re trying to teach. It doesn’t have to be a long excursion, maybe once around the grounds. You could even make it into some kind of treasure hunt or scavenger hunteither hunting for clues you’ve already placed, or hunting around to notice specific things that are already there.

All the while, you’ll be finding opportunities to help your ELL students add to their English experience.


Everybody enjoys a challenge—as long as they feel that there’s a good chance that they can succeed and prove to themselves how good they are or (better still) how much they’ve improved.

ELL students may be feeling that they aren’t making any progress, or that the process is taking too long, so an appropriate challenge can be very encouraging for them.

11. Presentation or Performance Challenge

Have students speak, sing, tell a story, read aloud or introduce themselves in front of the class.

Record it and do it again later to compare. Set up a portfolio for each of your students, ELL or not. Depending on the size of your class and your workload, you could add to their portfolios frequently, or only at the beginning and end of each term.

You can also have them record themselves on a device to add to their own portfolio.

Regardless of what subject you’re teaching, it’s really valuable to get students individually or in pairs or groups to stand up and present to the class something they’ve learned or discovered in their research. This helps to consolidate the learning in their minds, and knowing that they’re going to be presenting information helps them to make sure they understand it clearly. Of course, this may be particularly scary and intimidating for your ELL students, so reduce the task for them as much as needed by letting them present with a friend to help, letting them use a puppet to do the “talking” for them or anything that works.

12. Writing Challenge

Save it to compare with later work. Set up a portfolio. How will you know—and be able to prove to your students—that your students have improved in their writing unless you do something like this? It could be kept in a folder as a physical portfolio, or you could scan pieces and keep a digital version.

Every time your students write a new piece, they could be offered the opportunity to compare it with the original piece, or you could wait until a suitable time a month or term later. This could be very encouraging especially for your ELL students as they can see how they’re able to write longer pieces and with less mistakes.

13. Dictation Challenge

Setting a dictation task can give you—and your students—a good indication of how well they listen and understand. There are many different types of dictation activities, so it doesn’t have to become boring at all.

The material in the dictation script could be related to any subject area that you’re teaching. Making it into a dictation will allow you ELL students to focus on the words and listening carefully. Surprise them with different types of dictation, like dictating a simple song or play dialogue.

As you students get used to dictation you could ask the more confident ones to actually dictate the text for their classmates. Or it could be a team game where one from each team publicly writes the text up on the board—with encouragement from team mates—as you (or a student) dictates.

14. Competition Challenge 

Young students especially respond well to “Let’s see who can be the fastest / loudest / slowest / neatest / biggest …” The trick is to make sure that each student succeeds at least sometimes, and this is where your ELL students may have a chance to shine. Maybe they can run the fastest, or throw something accurately into the classroom bin. Use these skills to make sure they’re encouraged and confident.

For example: If you’re practicing vocabulary, and you have two teams lined up. One from each team, in turn, has to pick up a piece of paper, read the word or sentence correctly (or answer the question on it), and then crumple it up and throw it into a basket. The added challenge of a good aim can engage your students with an otherwise mundane task.

15. Personal Challenge

Young children are often amazed at themselves as they watch themselves grow and develop, needing new clothes and becoming stronger and more capable.

Just like with establishing a portfolio, giving the students a chance to compete with themselves rather than each other can really level the playing field and build their confidence. Some students will be able to go ahead in leaps and bounds, while others might progress more slowly, but will still gain confidence as they see their own improvement.

Just as with the challenge above to compete with one another in any or all areas, they can be given opportunity to beat themselves in areas other than the obvious ones. For example, instead of trying to beat their own score in the number of words written correctly, see how quickly they can write the words even if they aren’t all perfectly correct.

16. Cooperative Team Challenge

Rather than challenging them to compete against each other, ask them to cooperate as a group to create something and beat a previous score.

For example, sitting in a circle, each person around the group says a sentence about…something you’ve been learning about. Can they go right around the circle with each person mentioning something new? Or maybe twice around? Allow them to help and encourage one another to make sure no one feels bad by letting the team down, especially the ELL students.


If you manage to do the first two, then to some extent at least the surprises and the satisfaction of beating the challenges will be their own rewards. But there’s so much more you can offer your ELL students to keep them engaged and on track.

Although your students are all individuals and all want something different, what they all want from you is your attention and the assurance that you care about them personally.

Although, in a way, they all want the same thing, they recognize it in different ways.

That why you should be aware of the 5 Love Languages.

The idea of the five languages of love is well known, and many people have written about how it relates in different situations. Each of your students will feel drawn to each of these to varying degrees, so if you can cover them all then you should reach all of your students, especially your ELL students.

If a particular student appears to need an extra boost, then try to determine especially what their main love language is so that you can focus on it.

We’re not talking about “bribing” your students to be good—although some would argue that there’s a place for that too.

We’re talking about rewarding your ELL students especially (but of course the others as well) when they try hard, or when they complete a challenge.

And we’re also talking about increasing their sense of self-worth so that they know that you care about them (even when they fail) and they’re able to keep believing in themselves.

The following five ideas for ELL support are based on the 5 love languages.

17. Words of Affirmation

This sounds really simple, but you can’t afford to be flippant or insincere. A student whose main love language is this can be deeply influenced and strengthened by a few words from you. Try not to waste your words by just throwing them out to the whole class. Look directly at the particular student and speak sincerely.

18. Acts of Service

If this is their love language, it will mean a lot to students when you do something for them, when you help them out in some way, even if it’s something very small. Again, it needs to be something specifically for them, not just something for the whole class.

19. Receiving Gifts

We aren’t talking about using bribery here! For some students, the only thing that really touches their heart is when they’re given something, even if it’s very small. You can usually tell by the look in their eye when this is their language of love.

Of course, you may find that all students like to receive gifts! But for some it’s much more meaningful.

20. Quality Time

When there are about thirty children in the classroom, and you only have forty-five minutes to deal with them, how is it possible to give any number of them “quality time”? Again, every student likes a bit of attention, but there are some for whom it’s particularly meaningful.

21. Physical Touch

When dealing with your own children or partner this should come naturally, but in the classroom the teacher needs to be very careful with touch. A lot of teachers give their students a high five or a fist bump.

Depending on the students’ age and the cultural situation it can be suitable to gently put your hand on their head (be careful as there are some religions that frown on this), or their shoulder, arm or back. You might even find some students appreciate a serious handshake from the teacher. In some cultural settings the whole class lines up at the end of the lesson so that each student in turn can take the teacher’s hand, kiss it and then touch it to their forehead.

You can’t give all of the students everything they want or need, but if you’re particularly aware of the needs of ELL students, you can really give them the extra boost of support they need to thrive.

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