Successful Field Trips with English Language Learners

A girl looking at flowers through a magnifying glass.

Field trips can have lots of benefits for ELLs as well as their classmates – students get in-depth, hands-on experiences and a chance to build background knowledge that can contribute to their academic success. While organizing a field trip for students and families who speak multiple languages can take some exta effort, a little bit of planning can go a long way. Kristina Robertson offers some insight into ways to make the field trip experience with ELLs go more smoothly and to provide a meaningful academic experience.

The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884 — 1962)

Early in my teaching career I had the opportunity to teach English to foreign-born college students. Many of them had come to the U.S. to study for a semester or two in order to improve their English skills. In order to increase their knowledge of U.S. culture, every Friday we created a "Classroom on Wheels." We went to a variety of locations. Some were educational — museums, theater and historical sites, and some were more recreational — the mall, parks, and festivals.

One of the most memorable (although I'm not sure who chose this activity) was our trip to a taxidermist. I'll never forget the students' faces as the taxidermist enthusiastically demonstrated how to stuff the creature and select realistic eyes from a tray. Needless to say, wherever we went the students had a memorable experience and learned new concepts.

ELLs in the U.S. public school system also benefit from field trips, because they provide a live experience that enhances classroom learning. I'll always remember my field trip to an apple orchard with ninth-grade ELL students. All the students were so excited and ran wildly into the orchard. One boy sat alone under a tree, like Ferdinand the Bull. I asked him if he was okay. He said, "Oh yes, teacher. This place reminds me of my farm in Mexico, and I haven't been to a place like this since I left. I like the smell." My heart went out to him as I realized how many simple things we miss when we move to a new place.

Many ELLs live in urban areas or are relatively isolated because their parents are working long hours or they need to care for siblings and they don't get the opportunity to explore like other children their age. Regardless of whether students were born here or arrived recently, they will gain valuable knowledge from the opportunity to physically explore a location that demonstrates what they've been learning in class.

It can be overwhelming to a teacher to think of organizing all the details of a field trip, trying to manage groups of students who don't speak much English, and who in the end may not get a lot of information from the field trip. However, with some planning beforehand and a few extra steps, field trips can be very successful! I will offer some insight into ways to make the field trip experience with ELLs go more smoothly and to provide a meaningful academic experience.

Before the Field Trip: Prepare!

Academic preparation

Preparation is key to a successful field trip. The field trip should tie in with a unit or concept students have been studying in class. This will ensure that they have learned the appropriate English vocabulary and concepts necessary to make meaning from the field trip experience. Teachers should introduce the field trip by stating how the field trip aligns with the concepts learned in class, and the educational goal(s) of the activity.


If vocabulary is key to the field trip experience, teachers can prepare a vocabulary sheet and have students write in definitions, draw pictures, or translate terms into their own language. Students can bring the sheet with them on the field trip in case they need to refresh their memory on a vocabulary word.

Activity goal

Before the trip, determine what kind of meaningful activity the students will engage in on the trip that supports the big idea of the unit. The activity should be something interactive that requires some analytical thought, and it should be explained to students before the trip.

I highly recommend that the assignment for the field trip is simple and meaningful rather than a fact-finding mission with a checklist. I still recall my son's trip to the zoo where each child had a booklet of information to "find." I'm sure the intention was to make sure the students visited many areas of the zoo, but I watched as my son and his friends raced around the zoo looking for the interpretive signs and copying out scientific names for animals, totally missing the tiger on the other side of the fence watching them.


Depending on the field trip setting, students may need to be instructed or reminded of appropriate behavior. Whether it's the State Legislature, the science museum or a nature center, each location has expectations for visitor behavior. Make sure to familiarize yourself with the expectations by visiting the website and/or speaking with the tour guide a few days prior to the visit.


Work with students to determine standards of behavior and write the rules on the board. Have the students practice appropriate behavior in the classroom by asking questions such as:

  • What does "hands to yourself?" look like?
  • What does an "indoor voice" sound like?
  • What do you do when I say, "buddy up?"

Many of the rules will be similar to behaviors students follow at school, but sometimes when visiting a new environment, students forget that it is really a school event and they need to follow the same rules. Reviewing behavior expectations and acting them out in class will increase students' understanding of the expectations and the chance for appropriate behavior on the trip.


Taking care of logistics can be tedious but will ultimately provide the students with the best field trip experience. Planning ahead regarding the following will help preparation and the trip go more smoothly.

Parent Information and Permission Slips

When sending home permission slips, be sure to include information about important details of the trip, such as the date and time, where students will be going, what they should wear, and whether they need to bring a lunch. For a great example of a field trip notice, take a look at We're Going on a Field Trip, which is also available in Spanish (NAEYC, 2008).

Translate the field trip information and permission slips, and send everything home three weeks before the event. To encourage timely return of the forms, offer students a little reward for returning the form before the deadline. It could be extra computer or recess time, a "skip coupon" on a homework assignment, a pencil, or sticker.

Some students will not return their forms, and it is important that you call home to get permission from the parents so the student can be included in the field trip. If possible, have a bilingual staff member contact the parent and discuss the field trip with them. There may be a variety of reasons that the form is not returned, besides the usual — the child lost it, forgot it, or can't remember to bring it home.

I once counseled a teacher who had one bilingual student who could not go to Valley Fair because he had not returned his field trip slip. She said, "He's just being irresponsible. I sent the permission slip home in Spanish too." I pointed out that some families don't read that well in their first language, or they may be so busy working and taking care of life problems that the field trip slip never gets discussed, or they may not have the money and are embarrassed to ask for help. I encouraged her to make a call home to get permission and discuss any concerns the parent may have.

Required documentation

If there are any questions about required documentation for a school field trip, consult with district leaders and attorneys as needed. A principal in Maryland was placed on leave after sending home a bilingual notification related to a trip to the White House stating, "If a scholar is not classified as a U.S. Citizen, they will not be able to attend the field trip." While there were requirements for documentation for the White House visit, the district released a statement after the incident saying it "would not have approved any form or activity that 'excluded students based on citizenship, race/ethnicity, sexuality, religion or ability.'" It is also worth noting that immigration status has no bearing on a student's right to participate in activities such as field trips.


Some students may have financial difficulty and may think they won't be able to participate. Try to have a few different options for extra funding available to cover these students' participation fee if possible. Some ideas include:

  • Grant funding to support the field trip from the PTA, classroom donation websites, and field trip programs (such as Target)
  • Asking families for a small donation by including a box on the permission slip that says, "I would like to contribute to the participation of a student in need." You might also encourage families to round up the payment. If the field trip requires $8 per student ask families to contribute $10 if they have the means.

For students who think they won't be able to pay for the field trip, it is important to let them know that there are scholarships available. One way to do this is to include a box on the field trip form stating, "I need a scholarship." Many families are embarrassed or uncomfortable asking for money, though, so encourage students to turn in their permission slip even if they don't have the money. If they don't turn in money by the day of the field trip, then grant them the scholarship. Sometimes teachers may know which students have economic need, but given the current economic climate, there are more students who may need the support, and teachers may be unaware of the change in status. My experience has been that families don't take advantage of this process, and if a family doesn't turn in the money it is most likely due to need.


On the field trip slips, include a space for parent or community volunteers to accompany the students on the field trip. If possible, provide the volunteers free entrance to the event and encourage bilingual parents to volunteer. Bilingual parents will be a great help in organizing ELLs and helping them understand information shared during the field trip. It is also a good idea to recruit volunteers through phone calls and face-to-face conversations when some parents drop off their children. Bilingual parents may not understand how much their participation will be valued, and they may think there are already enough parents volunteering. A personal invitation to be a volunteer chaperone will be very appreciated and effective.

Prior to the field trip be sure to go over the agenda for the day, logistics, and specific responsibilities you need the chaperone to cover. For example, tell the chaperone if you want him or her to make announcements in another language during transitions.


Make sure students know what the lunch situation will be. Often students need to bring their own lunch. For ELL students, the teacher should make a special reminder by sending a note home with the child or placing a sticker on their shirt or some method to help them remember. Many school lunch programs also offer box lunches that teachers can bring on the field trip for those students who don't have a lunch from home. These often need to be ordered in advance so the teacher needs to communicate that clearly to students if it is an option.


If the field trip requires specific clothing such as warm jackets, mittens, and hats for a winter outing, the teacher should send home reminders (translated) and also show examples of appropriate items to the students. For example, a windbreaker is a jacket, but it's not the right kind of jacket for a winter outing. Knitted mittens are okay, but snow gloves are better. Some students may not have all of the kinds of clothing needed for this type of outing, so it's a good idea to get extra items ready for the day of the trip. Some of these may be borrowed out of lost and found, or other students may be able to bring extras — just be sure to label all items.

If the trip is to a museum or other crowded event, it's a good idea to have a way to visually keep track of the students. Teachers may give the students brightly colored field trip bandanas or t-shirts to wear while they are on the trip (Moser, 2009). The teacher may also want to have a large item that can be held up above the crowd if students need to gather. I've seen some teachers use a large daisy or a "cat-in-the-hat" hat. Whatever the system for staying together or dressing appropriately for the field trip, the teacher should model it in the classroom before the field trip day.


Be sure to review the schedule or itinerary of the day with students (Hobgood and Richardson). This will help students understand how much time they will spending on each activity, and know what to expect from the day's events.

On Field Trip Day


Divide the students into smaller groups and assign them an adult chaperone. If possible place ELL students with a bilingual chaperone. Ensure that all students understand who their chaperone is and the chaperone is introduced to his/her group of students. Some teachers like students to wear nametags with a number or color of their group on them for easy identification. Make sure each chaperone knows the agenda for the day and where to meet if groups will be on their own. Getting cell phone numbers is very helpful as well in case you need to find someone quickly.


Make sure to follow the school policy regarding carrying forms and emergency contact information. The teacher may need to have information about any students who are on medication, have medical concerns (such as bee allergy), or if there is an accident what form to fill out. It is also a good idea to have a parent name and emergency contact number available in case it is necessary to contact a parent due to an emergency.


If possible, talk to the guide before the tour begins and tell him/her that some students do not speak English as a first language; let the guide know it would be helpful if he/she slowed down speech and simplified sentences. Also, guides should refer to any visual support that is available and make sure to stop and face students while speaking. Some guides get very comfortable talking while walking and it can sound like mumbling to the students. Don't be afraid to stop the guide and provide clarifying information to the students if you think that will be helpful.

After the Field trip

After the field trip is over, students will benefit from thinking about and discussing their experiences, as well as what they learned and how the trip tied in with what they are studying in class. These activities will help students process the day's activities.


The next day, have the students write about the day — a 15-minute quick write where the students do not stop writing for 15 minutes. For ELL students who may have difficulty writing on their own, the Language Experience Approach is beneficial. The ELL students work in a group or with the teacher to write the experience in their own words. The teacher or a more advanced student can be the scribe to write down the ideas. After it is written, students will be able to read it because it is in their own words.

In small groups students can fill out a graphic organizer that asks them to list, "What I liked, What I learned, What I recommend to others, etc." They can share some of the things on their list, and then the class can discuss their answers to the class assignment for the field trip.

Thank-you notes

Finally, it is a good idea for students to write thank you notes to anyone who especially made the field trip successful — chaperones, site guides, donors, etc… Bilingual students can write the thank you notes in their first language for the bilingual chaperones. If an ELL student has very low level English skills the teacher can give him/her a template to fill in the blanks with the person's name and one thing they liked about the field trip. Students can choose items from their graphic organizer to share in the thank you note to let the person know what they appreciated and learned. The teacher may also want to keep notes about what went well and what should be done differently next time so each field trip becomes an increasingly smooth and successful experience.

Bulletin boards

Students may enjoy posting photos or mementos on a classroom bulletin board or website.

Other good follow-up activities after a field trip can be found on the Camp Silos website.

I recall being pretty exhausted after field trip days, but I also felt rewarded by the fact that some of my students would never have gone to the science museum or apple orchard if I hadn't arranged that experience. After speaking with my student in the apple orchard, for example, I was happy that I had taken the time to arrange the field trip and expand my students' lives and learning experiences. The work that goes into field trips for ELL students can be well worth it — you never know what they'll take away from the experience or how they will be able to apply it in the future!

National Summer Learning Association

The vision of the National Summer Learning Association is for every young person to experience enriching, memorable summers. To realize that vision, their mission is to ensure that children and youth in high-poverty communities have access to quality summer learning programs by engaging in research, developing policy, and delivering professional development.

Field Trips and Other Adventures

This booklist from Reading Rockets offers a selection of children's titles that take children on an adventure, from a trip to the zoo to a trip on the Magic School Bus!

NAEYC: We're Going on a Field Trip!

This worksheet from NAEYC's Teaching Young Children magazine offers an easy template to use when sharing information with parents about upcoming field trips. A Spanish version, Nos vamos de paseo, is also available.

Scholastic: Five Tips for Successful Field Trips

Alyssa Zelkowitz gives advice on how to prepare special needs students for a successful fieldtrip. The advice shared supports ESL student participation as well.

Learn NC: Planning a Successful (and Educational) Field Trip

This article by Bobby Hobgood and Lesley Richardson provides detailed information on how to prepare for a fieldtrip and ensure a meaningful experience.

Camp Silos: Why Take a Field Trip?

A thorough checklist of field trip preparation and logistics for a successful experience.

Museum of Science: Field Trip Activities

The website from the Boston Museum of Science offers examples of field trip activities that students can try, as well as downloadable worksheets and chaperone guides.

Discover North Carolina: Field Trips

This website from the UNC School of Education offers an effective example of a statewide database of field trip ideas. The site offers a guide to local educational resources throughout North Carolina for field trips, classroom use, and student research, as well as related lesson plans and websites to help teachers integrate the experience into classroom teaching.

Minnesota Zoo: Virtual Wolfquest Game

Students learn about the life and habits of wolves by creating a wolf "avatar" and playing a survival wildlife game on computer.


A menu of virtual reality experiences from exploring the Amazon to experiencing a black hole. Sites are set up like computer games and allow users to interact with the material.


Teachers establish a website with information about their classroom activities, students, and needs. Donors can review the different classrooms and make a donation to support the teacher and students.

Donors Choose

This site matches teachers and donors for small projects and supplies. Teachers post a specific project on this website and donors then choose the projects they wish to support. The site links to other grant funding opportunities as well.

Target: Field Trip Grants

Target offered 5,000 fieldtrip grants of $800 or less this year. Teachers can apply through this website.

Outdoor Field Trips with Preschoolers

Tip sheets available in Spanish/Polish from the Illinois Early Learning Project.



Camp Silos. Why Take Field Trips? Retrieved May 10, 2009 from the Camp Silos website:

Hobgood, R. and Richardson, L. Planning a Successful (and Educational) Field Trip. Retrieved May 10, 2009 from the UNC School of Education's Learn NC website:

Moser, K. (2009). Ten tricks for a successful field trip. Retrieved May 10, 2009 from Bnet website:

National Association for the Education of Young Children. "Message in a Backpack: We're Going on a Field Trip." Teaching Young Children, October 2008. Retrieved June 1, 2009 from

Zelkowitz, A. (2009). Five Tips for Successful Field Trips. Retrieved May 10, 2009 from Scholastic website:


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