Teaching High Level Kids (by Randy Poehlman)

Children's literature

Photo: Anyaka

Teaching high-level children can be a challenging endeavor, fraught with various drawbacks and difficulties for a teacher. Students who are returning from an English speaking country, who have become bilingual through intensive children’s language programs, or those who come from a household where two or more languages are spoken require a program tailored to their unique needs. Designing lesson plans and implementing them effectively will allow the students to continue to develop their language skills. Using a number of approaches and activities in the classroom helps to keep these high-level elementary students engaged and on the right path. Sharing opinions, debating, writing stories and various other writing styles, expanding the curriculum to include other subjects and moving beyond vocabulary lessons, will allow students to continue their development.

Language with a purpose

Sharing opinions, delivering presentations, debating and questioning each other are important aspects of language ability that are often neglected in the elementary classroom. Allowing students to practice these skills from a young age will allow them to become more confident and improve their ability to openly communicate. Presentation skills can be introduced in a variety of ways including show-and-tell, reading aloud at the head of the class, explaining a particular answer or fact to other students, introducing a group project or interviews. As one of the main goals of presentation practice in the initial stages is to inspire confidence, the teacher should ask only questions that the student can answer easily. To take the pressure off students who display shy characteristics, a good initial tactic is to give the first presentations in small groups. When students are comfortable with these short presentations, or reading assignments the teacher can interject with questions and comments thus leading the class to more advanced presentation projects.

Don’t forget writing!

Writing is often an afterthought in childhood language programs, but making it a central component will improve children’s language skills. When students are able to use the language in context, read the language and then write the language they will progress quickly and expand their skill set. Students who are expected to take notes of classroom content will improve their grammar and knowledge of the language. Student generated stories are an exciting way to introduce a writing component to classroom activities for higher level  learners. Simply starting with a character and soliciting answers from the class to make a story will build interest and will lead to dialogue within the class. Pen-pal programs with students from abroad will also build writing skills and add excitement to high-level classes. Pen-pal programs have the added benefit of peer to peer learning, cultural education and using the language for practical ends. Teaching students various forms of writing, including; poetry, news reporting, letters and stories will also prepare them to write proficiently.

Vocabulary in context

Moving beyond vocabulary heavy  lessons is also a challenge with higher level students and something a teacher should consider when planning a program. If students are not comfortable using a word, lack fluency, or are unable to frame a conversation or a sentence around introduced vocabulary, then spelling that word and knowing that it exists are of little good in their pursuit of effective communication. Rather, introducing a few new words in a lesson, using those words in context, creating a story that includes those words, discussing those words, having students use a dictionary or thesaurus to find those words and using those words in subsequent lessons will cement their understanding of presented vocabulary and increase their lexicon.

Teach language through content

A great way to expand language skills in elementary school students is to teach other subjects through the prism of a second language. These programs are most often referred to as immersion programs and widen the breadth of language children are exposed to. Immersion programs are often built on significant blocks of time that are sometimes unrealistic when teaching condensed language programs, where a teacher might only have an hour or two with their students in a week. However, condensed immersion programs can also be extremely productive. Including Math, Science, History and other academic subjects into an advanced language program undoubtedly benefit the students. With these condensed immersion programs, striking a balance between content and ability might be a challenge in the early stages. Keeping the content of the class slightly under ability and native-language classroom material is a good rule to follow. Simply put, if you have a group of third grade students, teach them second grade math in their second language and focus on word problems and basic calculation, as the main target is the language behind the concept, not the concept itself.

Using a broad array of teaching methods will allow your higher-level second language learners to expand their knowledge of language, and opening new paths of communication can inspire confidence and progress. Employing expanded writing programs, presentation components and diverse subject matter are just a few of the many tricks for propelling high-level elementary school students forward.

Note: This article by Randy Poehlman originally appeared on Teaching Village, and is licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution-Non Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License. If you wish to share it you must re-publish it “as is”, and retain any credits, acknowledgements, and hyperlinks within it.

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4 Responses

  1. Barbara says:

    Wow! There’s so much here, Randy! I wish I could be a fly on the wall of some of your high level kids’ classes.

    I’d never thought about using oral reading as a confidence builder in developing presentation skills, but I can see how it could work that way. I’m doing a workshop at JALT this year about using student-generated writing for literacy development, and really enjoyed reading your ideas for student writing with high level students.

    Thanks for sharing this!

    • Ben Shearon says:

      Great stuff, and great timing too. I just finished a class with a nine year-old who has completed immersion schooling in English and was wondering what to do with her going forward -you’ve given me plenty of ideas!

  2. Jim George says:


    Very much agree with your angles of attack. I’ve found the best parental support comes from returnees’ parents, and gettting them into the learning equation a massive bonus – map out a realistic mid-term goal with them and involve the children in that chat. These children usually more worldly and adaptable to less frequently used lesson plans.

    Nightmare scenario is doing all the good stuff (writing, projects, readers, video etc) then be presented with the “Now he needs to pass Eiken whatever Q” or prep for entrance exams…off come the wheels.

    All the best,


  3. kalim says:

    Thanks Randy; you answered quite a few of my questions. Your suggestion of ‘keeping the class content slightly under ability’ is very much practical.
    I’m going to apply it in my ESP class.