Teaching Tips: Summer School for English Language Learners

The summer is a great time to work with English language learners (ELLs) and focus on individual student needs, help students catch up, prepare them for the following school year — and even have some fun! Veteran teacher Sharon Eghigian from Utica, NY shares a number of her favorite activity ideas and resources for teaching ELLs in summer school.

The summer is a great time to work with English language learners! During summer school, you can focus on individual student needs, help students catch up, and prepare them for the following school year. The time is short, though, so it's important that students spend as much time as possible in meaningful and engaging activities.

Here are some ideas to get you started, as well as tips for differentiating instruction since you are likely to work with students at varying levels. Most strategies are geared towards elementary ELLs, although many can be adapted for older students.

Student Age/Level

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Before jumping into assessment and instruction, it's important to remember that lessons during the summer may need to be adjusted to the age/grade level of students. For example, a SIFE student who is 13 has much less time to "catch up" than someone who is 7. Summer school may be a good time to help assess and attend to some of those topics. The content and format of a summer school class must be developed for students based on age, educational background, and the time available. However, some basics still hold true:

  • Develop a shortened version of a schedule that mimics one at their grade level(s). For new arrivals, this will offer consistency and confidence when they know what to expect. For students with more U.S. educational experience, the structure may help with classroom management.
  • Differentiate instruction. You may have everything from non-speakers and students who have never been to school to students on the cusp of proficiency or limited-proficiency students with strong academic backgrounds.
  • Begin to familiarize students with academic content. Include mini-lessons or themes from one or two content areas, as well as note taking.

Informal Assessment

At the beginning of the summer, I usually assess the students rather than using a "canned" program each year and then focus on their particular needs during the rest of the program. The first step of that process is to review a brief form we receive about each child, completed by the child's ESL teacher. It includes the most important information that we need to know, including any valuable health information (allergies, if the student wears glasses, etc.) and a very brief description of the child's English ability.

Next, I do some quick informal assessments to gauge student ability in the following areas:

  • Writing: With students going into Grade 3, for example, I ask them write their names on a name plate for their desk. This gives me immediate feedback about anyone who may lack the most basic literacy/writing skills.
  • Language: I read aloud a story and ask a variety of comprehension questions. Not only does this help me quickly evaluate language level, but I begin to get to know students' personalities.
  • Reading: I give students time for self-selected reading and then ask students, one at a time, to read out loud from a variety of leveled readers. I also show flashcards of the alphabet, various sight words, and photo cards to check for vocabulary and basic reading skills.
  • Math: I show students flashcards with numbers and ask students to complete a very basic math worksheet to see which students may be lacking beginning math skills.

I can't do this all at one time with 20-25 students in a class, but I do it throughout the first day of activities so that I have a good idea of my students' academic skills as soon as possible.

Academic Skills

Once I know what my students need to work on, I begin to plan specific activities that will target those areas, such as the following:

Reading/language development

  • Independent reading: I try to have at least 10 minutes a day for self-selected, independent reading. I bring in a plastic crate of library books (all levels and genres) and then change them in the middle of the week.
  • Peer discussion: I ask students to share what they have read or seen in their book with a classmate. I often "participate" in the activity to make sure that everyone is on task, but usually most students will start to read and talk about the books they select with other students on their own. As students get more comfortable, they often come up to me and ask me about a new word or photo.
  • Group work: One program I like to use is Working with Words from Four Blocks, a program that can be used with individuals or a whole group. It offers good activities for a mixed level group as well, and you can adapt the pre-made materials to suit your students' abilities and levels.
  • Skills practice: If you have a budget for "kits" from publishers, two options are the Carousel of Ideas from Ballard & Tighe (good for newcomers for handwriting, vocabulary and some basic commands and grammar), and the reading skills kits from Scholastic. They are short and have good comprehension questions as well as completing a graphic organizer. Other websites with helpful activities include ReadWriteThink, ReadingAtoZ (subscription required), and Starfall.


In a perfect classroom, students would eagerly open up their journals and begin writing their own thoughts! Nevertheless, with some prompts and encouragement, journals are a great way to build students' writing skills over the summer. I try to buy spiral notebooks from stores at the end of the previous summer when they're on sale, and then work on writing prompts that fit the level of my students.

  • For non-speakers or beginners: We will recite the days, months, and numbers and then discuss flashcards of the weather — you can make any flashcards you need with images from Google Images or National Geographic Photography. Then we write a brief paragraph on the board including the information we discussed. This gives students a chance to take notes and helps them get used to the idea that they will be expected to take notes in their mainstream classroom, even if they don't understand everything. It also gives them a chance to practice letter and word formation, spacing, etc. Many beginners will begin to recognize sight words or words we start to use a lot like "sunny."
  • Low-intermediate to advanced: Usually I prepare short prompts for more advanced students. This may be something related to what they did at home (e.g. attending the fireworks) or our daily read-aloud activity. I also like to find pictures from a magazine or the Internet, and then glue it into their journal and ask them to describe it. Of course the students can choose their own photos too, but it's also fun to surprise them and have them wonder what's in their journal. With more advanced students they can also write responses to stories.
  • Feedback: Time is limited for both students and teachers in summer school. Feedback consisting of one sentence may be sufficient for students, or sometimes reading the entry with the student and giving verbal encouragement is helpful.


I like to make folders of various math fact problems. As students go along and complete an activity, they get a sticker. Then they can take a problem from the next folder. It's a good way to differentiate instruction because some have no idea how to add and others can already multiply.

There are a number of websites where you can create your own worksheets, or you can print worksheets from websites such as:

For more math strategies and activities that you can use with ELLs, take a look at:

Building Vocabulary and Background Knowledge

One of the most important areas to focus on during the summer is building vocabulary and background knowledge. I try to focus on content in science, math, or social studies that my students may have missed in the classroom. If I teach higher grades, this becomes even more important. Anything I can do to provide background knowledge or review is helpful. It's also the perfect time for students to preview what lies ahead in the next grade, even if they can't comprehend all of the vocabulary during the summer.

Here are some resources you can use to increase vocabulary, build background knowledge, and bring forth students' existing knowledge. There are so many wonderful ways to use technology and multimedia resources with these goals in mind, but since access to equipment or the Internet can vary greatly from one summer to another, I have included a number of low-tech options as well! The good news is that I have found that hands-on math and science activities seem like a game for most elementary ELLs, especially if they come from a culture where that is not expected in the classroom — so rest assured that students can still have fun without lots of computer time and video.



Picture, non-fiction, reference, text, or chapter books can be used to generate conversation and questions. Leveled social studies books with photos are great for reading and for total non-speakers. I don't buy these; we can order them from our local Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) center as they have multiple copies to use.


My students have also enjoyed the books listed below. These titles have kept my ELLs' interest with accessible reading and vocabulary levels, and in some cases, humor. Based on the content and text, you can ask questions about these readings that students can answer verbally or in their journals. Favorites include:

You can find more great selections for kids and young adults in Colorín Colorado's Books and Authors section.

Audiobooks, Music, and Photos

Games and Activities

  • Vocabulary questions: I often have my students use a ticket to get in or out the door. To get the ticket, they must answer a question. I show them a card with a photo of vocabulary we've been working on or I ask for the definition of a word (for more advanced students), and it seems like a game!
  • Noncompetitive games: These build social language as well as class "spirit" and students can participate without fear if they do not like competition. There are many books on the topic (e.g. Everybody Wins by Jeffrey Sobel). Your PE teachers can also help you — and don't forget that students need physical activity during summer school!
  • Board games: Try Guess Who? or "Guess What I Am" from Techno Source, a game that includes twenty questions with masks of animals. These games encourage students to ask different kinds of simple questions — you could probably make your own versions if you're creative with a computer!


Craft projects with some meaning (as opposed to coloring sheets and busy work) can prove engaging for students. During these projects, students are listening and following directions; when they work together, they practice speaking. I do the following:

  • Student photos: I take each student's photo on the first two days and get the photos developed. They design a frame and give it to their parents on the last day.
  • Origami: Short projects such as origami encourage listening to directions and student interaction to build social skills.
  • Story pictures: Students paint their own pictures to accompany a story. This is a good way to check student comprehension of a story the class is reading, especially for beginners.
  • Playdough: I make my own playdough and have students make characters from the stories.


  • DVDs: I have started to borrow portable, flip-top DVD players from friends (or their kids) and use them for "virtual field trips." I borrow great DVDs from the public library, and I am accumulating my own collection from School Videos that I use each year. I have purchased those that directly relate to curriculum (communities, the water cycle, life cycles, etc.), as well as some that are good for my newcomers on "U.S. Celebrations" and "U.S. Symbols."
  • Websites: When we have access to the Internet, computers, and SmartBoards, there is a lot out there to explore! I have found some great websites, including these vocabulary games and the media center attached to the Oneida Madison County BOCES. Through their site, I have access to hundreds of digital media programs that I can show my students for free. A list of other recommended websites for students follows at the end of the article, which includes a number of interactive/virtual tours of museums, zoos, and historic sites. Be sure to preview everything you use and choose what works best for your class each summer.

Beyond the Classroom

  • Field trips: Field trips can be a highlight of the summer — when you have the funding! I've rarely had enough funding for field trips, but the ones we have been able to take have been very popular. In our two-week program for the Bureau of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance, we took trips to the zoo, local children's museum, fire station, and a park. The students' two favorite places were the Oneida Nation Cultural Center and Fort Stanwix. These two places are part of our Social Studies curriculum. We had interpreters with us to help explain everything, and a year later, the students still mention what they learned on these trips.
  • School visits: For newcomers, a field trip to their new school is quite valuable. This depends on accessibility and funding, but can make an important difference at the beginning of the school year. Visiting different areas of the school such as classrooms, the cafeteria, and main office and talking about what students will do in each place will boost their confidence in the fall.
  • Around the neighborhood: Even if you can't go far, something simple like an activity or lunch outside in fresh air and sunshine can energize students and staff! You may be able to even do some science or social studies activities in the school's immediate neighborhood.

Follow-up activities to field trips may include journal writing, thank you notes (also a cultural component), putting together a bulletin board of photos and mementos, or short discussions reviewing what students saw and learned. For more field trip resources, as well as information about ELL parent chaperones and field trip grants, take a look at Successful Field Trips with ELLs.

Cultural Experiences

One of the best parts of summer school is the cultural component — after all, those 4th of July fireworks are interesting!

Culture also goes beyond holidays and celebrations. For students who have not yet attended classes during the school year, or have perhaps attended for only a few weeks, everything may be a new cultural experience, including:

  • school routine
  • using lockers
  • lunch
  • bus safety
  • fire drills
  • school rules
  • hygiene

Help students familiarize themselves and build confidence with these new parts of the school experience. If you have some students who have already been attending the school, pair newcomers with a buddy who can show them around. Older students, who are new arrivals, may need the opportunity to go through sample schedules where they change classrooms throughout the day. You may find some other helpful ideas in How to Create a Welcoming Classroom.

Last But Not Least: The Schedule

While the resources and curriculum are important elements during summer school, I have found the schedule to be crucial.

  • Morning: I divide my mornings into small blocks of time in which I hope to integrate listening, speaking, reading, writing and cultural components. It mimics a regular classroom, and for some newcomers, that is an important part of their cultural orientation.
  • After lunch: We have about 15 minutes before the buses arrive. I use that time for jigsaw puzzles, BINGO, or crafts. I find that's when the kids relax and try and talk to each other (most of our classes are mixed language groups). It does take some planning, however, so that it's organized and meaningful. I also use the non-competitive games so students get to know each other and communicate with each other. This has worked well with newcomers that have different home languages.

Final thoughts

Summer school can be a time of great fun and learning for both the students and teachers — even when teaching in crowded rooms with limited supplies and technology! Each summer school session brings students with various language backgrounds, school experience, and needs, as well as funding concerns. The time is short and not all of these tips can be used in one summer with one class. But, if we look at it as a time in which to give the students a positive school experience and help them feel more confident in the upcoming school year, we will be sure to have a very positive impact for our students throughout the summer.

About the author

Veteran teacher Sharon Eghigian from Utica, NY more than 15 years of experience teaching in a variety of ESL summer programs. Some of those programs include ESL summer school (Grades K-5), "Jump Start" classes at non-profit agencies (ages 8-16), and cultural orientation/ESL classes for newcomers (K-5).


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Thank you for sharing your ideas and resources. I will put this article in my favorites!!

Fantastic advice and very helpful links.I am teaching a 2 week summer reading program for ELL kids and this will be a great help. Thanks so much!

Excellent advice....extraordinary compilation of online resources. Thank you!

Great!really I like your ideas and they will be helpful for me

Great! really I like your ideas. this will be helpful for me thanks so much

Thank you so much for this advice! I am not getting a lot of direction and this was exactly what I needed to prepare for this summer!

This is so useful! Thank you!

Absolutely fantastic! Thanks for sharing.

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