Teaching Literacy to ESL Students: How to Make the Best Lessons and Lesson Plans

Literacy is important for all students in every subject, but particularly for ELLs (which includes ESLs). When teaching literacy to your ELL students, there are a few tips on making the best lessons and lesson plans! 

LessonWriter was made for this: to create literacy-focused lessons that support ESLs, as well as any other students that need extra literacy practice. That’s why we have teachers all over the world using our platform

Through years of teachers collaborating on their lessons and seeing what worked best for them and their students, LessonWriter was designed to support literacy for students of all levels. Literacy lessons can be a little tricky though, so let’s dive in! 

How to Write a Lesson Plan for ESLs and English Language Learners  

When you’re making lessons and lesson plans for your ESL students, there are a few steps you should follow to make the most effective lessons for teaching literacy, close reading, and writing skills. 

1. Decide Objectives 

Your first step is always going to be determining the objectives of your lesson.  This not only guides the lesson-writing process, but also helps you evaluate what the students should learn from f the lesson, and evaluate whether or not that lesson was successful.

For example, if you’re looking to support closer reading, an objective might be to correctly answer deeper comprehension questions. Or, if you’re trying to determine how to teach literature to your ESL students, your lesson objective might be to identify the themes in a novel’s passage. It also may be much more specific, like a particular grammar term or vocabulary set.

lesson objective example
On LessonWriter, we let the teacher select their lesson objective, student aim, keywords, and standards before making each lesson. Learning objectives are good information for not only administrators, but also to help guide your lessons.

2. Choose Your Activities/Exercises

Next, select the activities and exercises that the students can complete in order to reach your lesson objective. For example, if your lesson objective is to teach that specific set of vocabulary to your ELL students, the activities you’re going to choose should reflect this objective.

So for the vocuabulary objective, it will make sense to include multiple exposures of the vocabulary you’re teaching, which means you’ll have to find several different activities that can teach vocabulary in different ways. This could include pre-teaching vocabulary, using flashcards, creating a “matching worksheet” with vocabulary and definitions, and perhaps even a vocabulary game or two.

You can also make some of these activities interactive; they do not all have to be done independently! Have your students test each other with the flashcards, or upgrade those  flashcards into a game of Charades. There are many ways to diversify the way you teach vocabulary to your ESL students, and studies have shown that multiple exposures to new vocabulary is the best way to reinforce this learning.. 

3. Outline Your Lesson/Lesson Plan 

The next step is outlining your lesson and lesson plan. This includes all of the tasks that the students will do, whether or not they are individual, working in a group, or working at a class. 

At LessonWriter we include several different exercises for the students to complete, and any of these can be done in a manner of ways. Additionally, our lesson plans include suggestions for additional activities to help reinforce student learning . 

Often, effective ESL lessons will often include some peer-practice exercises, like: 

4. Make the Lesson

Alright! Now it’s time to make your lesson. The goal here is to make an effective lesson without taking up too much of your precious time.

This is where lesson writing websites and internet downloads can come in handy. However,  quality is important. You don’t want to distribute lessons that don’t either follow your lesson objectives, or are just busy work for your students. 

ESL teaching definitely has different challenges, so finding ESL common core lesson plans or literacy-specific lesson plans might take some time. Make sure you aren’t spending more time finding a lesson online than making one yourself! 

How to Make Your Own Literacy Lesson for ELLs

Step 1: Choose Your Text

Choose the text you are going to be teaching or using in your lesson.

Step 2: Choose your pre-reading literacy and language support tasks.

Explicit instruction and modeling specific skills is incredibly important when teaching ESLs, so be clear and down be afraid to refer back to your lesson objectives! 

Some important literacy tasks to include in your lessons would be: 

  1. Key vocabulary from the passage: This can either be the specific vocabulary set you’re basing your lesson on,  academic terms, or unusual vocabulary introduced in your lesson. 
  2. Pronunciation practice: Pronunciation is a particularly difficult skill to teach to non-native speakers, making it one of the most-demanded skills by schools that hire foreign teachers. Proper pronunciation can improve not only students’ fluency skills, but also the placement in future classes, the ability to get a job, and confidence in their speaking skills (which can lead to more openness to practicing on their own with native English speakers)! 
pronunciation example
Pronunciation example.

Step 3: Choose your comprehension-support literacy tasks. 

  1. Comprehension questions: Text comprehension is hugely important when creating ESL lessons, so taking the time to create the right questions for your students can have a huge payoff later. It’s helpful to begin with questions that reinforce knowledge and understanding, and then progress to those that promote higher order thinking. You don’t want to skip the basic identification questions (what time period is this?) and go right to deeper comprehension questions (what is the author’s motivation in writing this piece?). 
  2. Graphic organizers: Providing an appropriate graphic organizer can help expedite student learning and understanding, and make new lessons more manageable and less overwhelming. Learning is aided by organizing and recording information, and graphic organizers provide students with several options on how to record and study this information in a way that works for them. Plus, studies have shown graphic organizers increase reading comprehension, students’ understanding, and the ability to retain and use new knowledge. Check out ten great graphic organizer options here

Step 4: Choose your post-reading literacy and language support tasks.

Some of these will be similar to your pre-reading tasks, but with more opportunity for practice. 

  1. Vocabulary practice: Like we discussed above, good vocabulary instruction is when students have the opportunity for multiple exposures to the new words they’re learning, such as matching, flash cards, or even word searches. 
  2. Pronunciation practice: Here you can have students review their pre-reading pronunciation task, and then identify all of the words in the passage that includes the phonemes your lesson is focused on. 
  3. Grammar review: English grammar can be incredibly challenging for many ESL students (and non-ESL students!). Students might enter your classroom with little to no previous knowledge of English phonetics, grammar, or vocabulary, so spending the time getting to know their ability levels is helpful here. 
grammar pronunciation
Grammar points can vary from lesson to lesson.

Step 5: Teach the Literacy Lesson!

What is the best way to teach your ESL students? Though there may not be one “best way,” there are a couple of ways that can help. One, we mentioned above: teach skills explicitly! Be clear about the goals and skills your students are trying to gather in each lesson.

However, that being said, it’s also important to add context to those skills, not just teaching them in a vacuum.

In content-area courses, ESLs must learn both language and content at the same time. This is why ESLs may struggle in content-area courses like science, math, and history, because they haven’t necessarily acquired the literacy, language skills, or background knowledge necessary to understand the content presented. 

So, when teaching your students, including skills within a passage or subject will help them in all content areas

(Note: we are of the stance that literacy can—and should—be taught in every subject area for every student (not solely ELLS)! Students must be as literate to read a math textbook or science worksheet as they have to be as they have to be to read a novel in English class.) 

Teaching literacy skills in a broader context (rather than isolation), is one of the best strategies teachers can employ for their students’ education.

Step 6: Include Some Post-Lesson Activities

Now it’s time for some post lesson activities. This is optional, but if you want to help your students practice the skills that they’ve learned, you could create homework packets or worksheets reviewing the same vocabulary or grammar you learned in your lesson.

You can also get creative with these post-lesson activities such as sharing a video on the same topic or covering the same vocabulary words, finding songs that correspond to the lesson you’ve been teaching, or creating fun interactive activities for your students, such as vocabulary charades mentioned above, or an “I-Spy” game with words from the lesson. 

Step 7: Assess Your Students

assessment example
An example of a LessonWriter assessment for the pronunciation skill we reviewed above.

Making time for assessment is incredibly important when making ESL lesson plans. This allows you to determine whether or not your lesson was successful. However, to get the entire picture…

Step 8: Get Feedback Too!

Feedback, like in most things, is such an important part of teaching. Whether you’re giving the feedback to your students, or they are giving it to you, it helps both parties grow.

You can use the assessments to give you data about how well your lessons are working, but it’s important to also note potential gaps in your instruction, not just in student understanding. 

When we gather data and feedback on our own instructional practices, we can then marry that information with the student outcomes, and create a more complete picture of what is needed for improvement. 

What Should Teachers Use When Making Literacy Lessons for ESL students?

If you’re just starting out as an ESL teacher, or just looking to save some time, you can always use a lesson writing service that can help make these lessons for you. 

LessonWriter creates literacy-supported lesson plans from any online text of choice, and our premium accounts even offer lessons from video! 


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