The Reasons for the Seasons: Making Holiday Activities for ELLS

When I was a student, I planned my months around the holidays. The abbreviated weeks were much needed breaks from the classroom routine and milestones towards summer vacations. I’d like to say I used that extra time to do some homework, but honestly the only thing I caught up on was sleep.

As a teacher, I still plan my months around holidays. Now, though, I use these to think about how to design lessons to make the classroom routine less boring. Many ELLs are either unfamiliar with American holidays or accustomed to seeing them practiced in different ways, which makes each one a potential teachable occasion.

Understanding holidays can make someone feel more accultured in a new place (Lvovich 2000), but at the secondary level we have to tie our activities to output-based standards. That actually isn’t a problem, because focusing how we want students to demonstrate language progress can guide our instruction. There’s enough context with each holiday for us to create a wide range of activities for all language levels, including:

Compare and Contrast

Practically every country has some sort of harvest festival, although no two countries seem to celebrate it the same. That means Thanksgiving gives you the opportunity to compare and contrast the American traditions to Chuseok, Mid-Autumn Festival, Pokrov, or any other feasting holiday. You can start from the traditional American table setting, then slowly replace each item with something from the students’ cultures to show the difference. It may also be interesting to ask students who have been in the USA for a while about their Thanksgiving experiences.


What is a Jack-o-Lantern? Why do we have little boys with wings for Valentine’s Day? What is with the shamrocks in March? After you answer these questions, your students may be interested in talking about some common symbols from their cultures and what they mean. You can follow up by having students design a holiday that commemorates their target culture, complete with how people would dress and act for those occasions.

Political Holidays

Most American teachers won’t see students on the 4th of July, but they will see students during Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, and Election Day. These can give you the opportunity to do civics/social studies/history activities and make connections to news stories or even advertisements.

The Stories Behind Holidays

Now that you’ve seen how holidays are practiced, you may want to teach students the reasons for Christmas and why it involves trees and what eggs have to do with Easter. Many of your students may not be familiar with the pre-Christian ancient world, and that’s the kind of background information most teachers will not think about reviewing after the student exits your program. A few questions about ancient times will let you assess how much you’ll need to address.


Lvovich, N. (2000). Becoming a cultural insider: How holidays can help ESL students’ acculturation and language learning. The Internet TESL Journal, VI(12). Retrieved from

About Nathan Hall

Nathan Hall
Nathan Hall, MA TESOL, MS Education, lives in Pottstown, PA with his wife and two daughters. He has been involved in ESL since he volunteered as a tutor in 2001, which inspired him to leave the field of journalism for education. He has since taught English language learners in a variety of settings ranging from community programs to colleges as well as in several different types of middle schools and high schools. He is currently an ELL specialist at Achievement House Cyber Charter School in Exton, PA.
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4 Responses to The Reasons for the Seasons: Making Holiday Activities for ELLS

  1. Meghan says:

    I love the idea of creating lesson plans around the holidays that will be more meaningful to the students. We have to teach these holidays as part of our curriculum and I love the ideas you have mentioned. I teach kindergarten and will definitely be using some of these ideas in my own classroom. As I write this post I am thinking about ways to use it in my classroom. With the winter holidays coming up I may be comparing and contrasting Christmas with Hanukah and Kwanza! If I had EL students in my classroom it would be very interesting to ask them what they do in their houses for the holidays.

  2. Ashley says:

    I love the idea of creating lessons around holidays. Comparing and contrasting is a great way to include holidays many students celebrate as well as an EL student. This would be a great opportunity to have a Holiday’s Around the World celebration if your school would allow it. Currently, my school allows us to have a fall party, winter party, and spring party. If we celebrate, we must make sure we include other holidays around the winter months.

    I believe we can celebrate and learn together. When learning about a holiday, we can discuss the background, meaning, symbolism, and history behind it. We can celebrate by celebrating the way they would in their home country. However, we must remember while we are celebrating the reason for celebrating and the history behind it.

  3. Sarah says:

    I think this is a great way to merge our ELs with our non-ELs together by being able to share their thoughts and responses through oral, written, or visual language. By using “symbolism” and “compare and contrast” methods, you are also teaching them a variety of literary terms and concepts which easily can be integrated afterward into instruction. I like that these activities are fun and engaging for all students, but they employ writing and reading skills which is ultimately, helping them become better literacy leaders.

  4. Edie Mileham says:

    Our public elementary school is very restrictive about teaching about Western holidays, which is a real pity for our ELLs who want to learn more about the US’s traditional holidays. The idea is that we may be restricting students’ religious freedom by “celebrating” holidays. I understand that “celebrating” a religious holiday (or one with a religious background) does cross a line, but with young students, simply reading about a holiday is not as meaningful as making a craft or sampling traditional foods, etc. So, what exactly is “celebrating,” vs. “learning about” a holiday?

    We are not allowed to do anything to commemorate holidays like Halloween, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Chanukah or Christmas. However we are allowed to discuss & do activities related to non-religious holidays such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Day, Thanksgiving, Kwanza, New Years, and Presidents’ Day. I’m wondering what other teachers have come across or how they have found ways around these types of restrictions?

    Thanks! Edie

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