Guided Play for ELLs

Guided Play for ELLs

guided play for ELLs

Children learn about the world around them through play. They also gain important early literacy and math skills. When children are playing, they are less on guard about if what they are doing is correct or not. The ELLs affective filter is lowered. This results in them being more easily able to retain language.

Through observing my own children and joining into their play, I am witnessing how much language, pre literacy skills, and creative thinking they are gaining. Having time for both open ended play and guided play is important for a child’s development. Partially for ELLs, guided play is a engaging tool for increasing their vocabulary and creativity.

Guided Play

During guided play, the adult has a specific learning goal in mind. They set up the environment and then use questioning and their own participation to guide the play.

Introduce Materials

Before playing, read a book about a topic that you are studying to the students. For example, read about animals that live in the arctic. Then introduce the names of toy animals and telling where they live. For example “Here are animals that live in the arctic. This is a bear. It walk on the ice.”

Act As a Coach

When a child is building or working on a puzzle, you can give assistance such as “Try to turn the piece.” (along with a hand motion of your hand turning). This way the child still has ownership but you are scaffolding their learning (Toub, Rajan, Golinkoff, Hirsh-Pasek, 2016).

Act As a Participant

When a child is playing, you can take part following their lead. As you play, talk about what you are doing. This lets them hear correct grammar in context and additional vocabulary words. The Case of Brain Science and Guided Play: A Developing Story shows an example of an adult joining into a group of children playing to reinforce a vocabulary word and then leaving so that they can continue playing on their own.

High Motivation

Children are highly engaged when they are playing. In addition, when new vocabulary words are included in a meaningful context, ELLs are more likely to learn them (Sousa, 2011). Set up play sessions that include toys to practice new vocabulary words or concepts.

Requires Careful Design

As important as play is for children, simply allowing time for play will not necessarily lead to an increase in language skills (Sousa, 2011). There is a high chance that children will play, but not use any English, or only minimal English. They might not feel comfortable interacting with classmates if they do not know what to say. This leads back to setting up guided play situations. In these settings, you can give your ELLs background knowledge about English words to use and supports as they are playing. They are able to benefit from the creativity and low stress environment of play and gain new English skills.


After a read aloud is a great opportunity to give students props for retelling. Students can act out the story. They can also use the props to create their own stories. This is a great activity to do before writing. Read more about Retelling with ELLs.

Retelling with ELLs


Miniature animals- If you do not have a large amount of space, miniature toys are the perfect solution. I use Toob Animals sets with my own children, and have been happy with the quality and details found on the animals. There are themed sets for different locations and habitats. One tip to save money, Michaels often has these sets, and there you can sometimes find a 50% off coupon.


Blocks are a fun way to practice prepositions. You can review prepositions, and put out a poster with the words students are practicing (or just use a whiteboard to draw a few words). Also consider having students talk and write about projects that they make with the blocks. To get started I have a set of Winter themed Building Blocks that come with building task cards,  a vocabulary sheet, speaking cards, graphic organizers, and writing pages.


* Toub, Rajan, Golinkoff, Hirsh-Pasek,

David Sousa, How the ELL Brain Works

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