Adding to Our Lexicons

Vocabulary is best learned in context, we all know this; but did you know research shows it can take seeing a word as many as ten times in context for it to be truly known? (If you’ve read my previous post on accommodating ELLs you might have.) It is hard to create that many contextual encounters for words we only have a few short weeks, or even days, to teach! I try to provide at least some context with my various vocabulary activities, our word wall cards, and of course class readings, but it’s still a fairly impossible task to provide 10 contextual encounters for every vocabulary word we study. Sometimes it becomes necessary to return to some “old school” techniques and make a formal study of vocabulary. When that point comes around there are two graphic organizers I tend to use (both are free and linked below–just click the pictures or headings). While both require students to copy definitions and write example sentences, they also go beyond that to consider other aspects of the word and its usage.

Circle Graphic Organizer–FREE

Circle Graphic Organizer

I tend to use this graphic organizer with my lower proficiency English language learners. As you can see, the organizer asks students to fill in sections for the definition, part of speech, synonyms and antonyms, an example sentence, and other forms of the word. After the students complete the graphic organizers, we cut out one organizer for each word and post them on our wall (unlike our word wall, we rotate these frequently, usually taking them down and starting over for each new unit). Sometimes, when we have a few extra minutes and aren’t playing Spin & Spell or another fun game, we’ll use our word wall spinner (something I picked up years ago and can’t find anymore, I guess I need to make one). The sections asked students to do things such as “find a noun” and “choose a word and use it in a sentence.” It was a quick and easy time filler that helped them review the vocabulary from the unit.

Master the Term Organizer–FREE

Master the Term Graphic Organizer

This vocabulary graphic organizer, which I tend to use with my higher proficiency students, helps students to track everything they could possibly need to know about a term on one page. There is space for them to write the term, dictionary definition, definition in their own words, an example sentence, create a visual representation for the word, note other forms of the word, affixes used with the term, synonyms and antonyms, the number of consonants and vowels, and even a place to break the word into syllables. Sometimes I will copy or print this graphic organizer at a larger scale (a poster printer makes this easier, if your school has one) and work with the students to better understand important vocabulary. The finished graphic organizer then becomes and anchor chart we can refer to throughout our unit of study.

Helpful App/Website

I’ve used a lot of different dictionary and thesaurus websites throughout the years, but one has stood out as particularly helpful. Whenever I introduce my students to Word Hippo they are instantly impressed. It doesn’t matter if they are beginners or advanced English language learners, they love this site and always say they wish they’d known about it sooner (and not just because it’s free). Besides the normal dictionary and thesaurus features, the site also has a section for translation, pronunciation, and even word forms (which is great when you have to fill out those charts stating the adjective, noun, and verb forms of a particular word). There’s also an app version (Apple, Google) that may very likely be on every phone in my classroom at any given time.

These free graphic organizers don’t inspire the same level of excitement as many of my other activities, but they are helpful to students. I’ve also been known to assign the completion of them as work to be completed with a substitute, especially when I was teaching the National Geographic Inside series in middle school (get my free lesson plans from this post). By forcing students to consider more aspects of a vocabulary word than the definition and possibly an example sentence, they better understand the word and experience it in something a little closer to actual context. I hope you’ll find them useful as well. Happy teaching, everyone!


Here are the links for the free graphic organizers one more time:

Body Parts

Whenever I have to teach vocabulary for parts of the body I end up feeling as though I’m some kind of strange model, or playing a twisted game of Simeon Says, or doing the Hokey Pokey…or some weird combination of all three! Let’s just say it’s always an adventure teaching this very necessary vocabulary. Through the years I’ve tried a lot of different activities, these are some that have become favorites.

Body Part Magnets

This is a simple activity to practice labeling the most basic body parts. I printed the pictures of the students (be aware they print on ledger size, 17″x11″, paper) and laminated them. I then printed the body part labels, laminated them, and attached magnets to the back of each. I placed magnets on the student pictures that corresponded to the body parts. Students then placed the labels on top of the correct body parts. If you don’t want to do magnets, Velcro would work as well.

Body Drawings

This activity requires a partner and some thoughtful setup. I recommend you tell students ahead of time they will be laying on the floor and tracing one another so they can choose their clothing appropriately. I also suggest you allow students to choose their own (same gender) partners so they’ll be more comfortable. You will need a large sheet of paper (I use bulletin board paper supplied by the school or large rolls of craft paper) for each student. The paper needs to be at least a little longer than the student is tall. Students take turns laying on the paper while a partner traces a rough outline around their body. After completing the rough outlines, students tidy up the silhouettes and add in details such as eyes, nose, fingernails, ears, clothes, etc. Finally, students label as many body parts as they can (including eyelashes, earlobe, fingernail, etc.). Students tend to get very detailed in their labels and have a lot of fun looking up words such as “pinky finger” and “nostril.” The finished products make for fun classroom displays!

Sort Cards: Paper

Sort Cards

We also do more traditional activities such as sort cards. Students match the picture cards to the name cards for 35 different body parts. Besides the matching activity, we also use these as flashcards, prompt cards for Body Boggle, and to play a Memory-style game. Sometimes we’ll even adapt the math fact practice game Around the World for a fun speed competition. When we were fully online I transformed this into a drag-and-drop activity so my students could still practice their vocabulary.

Clip Cards: Paper

Clip Cards

Another practice activity I was surprised my older students would like is clip cards. Students look at the picture in the center of the card and clip a clothes pin over the correct word. Maybe it’s the fact that middle schoolers enjoy clipping the clothes pins to their fingers, noses, ears, and other body parts, but they always seem to enjoy working with clip cards. These also make a great center activity–place a big basket of clothes pins and sets of the cards in the center and let students clip away. Students can check one another’s efforts or you can do it yourself later.

Parts of the Body Board Game

Board Game

Board games are always popular with my students, and this one is no exception. In this game, students draw a card before rolling the die. If the card has a picture of a body part on it, the student must name the body part. If the card has the name of a body part on it, the student must point to it on his/her own body. If successful, the student rolls the die and moves his/her piece. This game was yet another one I converted to digital, though it (unlike most of my games) requires students to leave their cameras on so their classmates can check if they are pointing to the correct body part or not.

To go along with these activities I have others such as magnet spelling strips, spinners, worksheets, and more. They are my standard vocabulary practice activities and are more completely described in the post Vocabulary Activities. These activities are bundled together into a discounted single download (also includes the sort cards, clip cards, and board game) and a digital version is also available.

Are there other activities out there? Absolutely! I’ve even tried quite a few of them, but these are the ones I’ve found to be the most successful on at least two levels: students like them and they result in vocabulary acquisition. I’m sure other activities are just as good, but by the time we finish with all of these activities and worksheets my students have a good grasp of body part vocabulary and don’t need much further practice. Does that mean I’ll never become inspired and create something new? Well, let’s just say you don’t know me very well if you think that! 🙂 Happy teaching, everyone!

Phonics Based Vocabulary Acquisition

Set 1
Set 2
Bundle: sets 1 & 2

One year, soon after returning to the USA and K-12 ESL, the intervention dean at my school told me to, “do whatever it takes to improve our ELL’s reading scores.” We had a large number of beginning and low intermediate English language learners in upper elementary and middle school who were reading at a kindergarten or first grade level. Most of these students were classified as having limited or interrupted formal education (SLIFE) and fewer than half of the students (and their parents) could read or write in their first languages (primarily Bengali and Arabic). Many different research-based curriculums and interventions had been tried, none produced significant results. Our students were falling further and further behind. Since I was taking an action research course as part of my second master’s degree studies at the time, I decided to make this problem the focus of my research. The question I finally settled on was, “Will intensive and direct phonics instruction help English language learners become better readers more quickly than the general English language development that has been provided to them in the past?” I then spent the next year developing a word family based phonics program and implementing it. I tracked student data for a total of three years and the results were staggering.

The year before I began using my phonics based vocabulary acquisition program, the students’ average growth on the NWEA reading test was 82% (100% is equal to one school year). At the end of the first year, students showed an average growth rate of 245%. The second year of implementation yielded an average growth rate of 336%, and the final year I tracked scores had an average growth rate of 268%. Needless to say, my dean was very happy with the results! After leaving that particular school, I used the same program quite successfully (average growth rate of 123%) with my primarily Spanish-speaking middle schoolers in a different district. While this second population of students were also classified as SLIFE, most could read and write in their first language, as could their parents. I believe the students’ first language literacy, and familiarity with the grapheme system, explain why the average rate of growth was lower.

Enough about the data, let’s talk about the program! The two levels consist of ten units each and begin with a focus on vowels. Set one covers the word families AT, AN/AD, AP/AG, OG/OP/OT, EG/EN/ET, UG/UN/UT, IG/ILL/IP, R-controlled vowels, and VCe (ake, ore, ine). Set two deals more with blends and diagraphs and includes the word families SH, CH, TH, WH, ST, QU, OI/OY, AW/AU, KN, and TION. I typically did a unit, or word family, each week, though I’d stretch it to two weeks for the longer units (those that include 20 words, rather than 12). We typically spent between 20 and 30 minutes a day on the different activities, and we met five days a week. Our typical daily lesson included a review of the sound we were focusing on (particularly the difference between short and long vowels), a read aloud (students would signal when they heard a word with the target sound), a student-read book (list of suggested books for teacher read aloud and students read times is included in the units), a word work game or activity, and a worksheet. Each Friday we’d do an assessment, testing students’ spelling and use of the words.

Some of the word work activities we did included:

  • Sort Cards- students would match a picture care with the corresponding word card. These cards were also used as prompts in other games, as a Memory-style game, and as flashcards.
  • Magnet Spelling– it was during the development of these units that I first discovered my middle schoolers enjoyed using magnets to practice their spelling. I eventually made picture strips for each unit and it became a regular part of our word work routine. You can read all of the details, and get a free digital template version, in the blog post from June, 2021.
  • Match Up Cards– these are cards I designed to go with the match up boards my father designed and built for me (get the free building plans in my TpT store). Students slide the picture cards into the left slot and the word list into the right slot. They then use rubber bands to match the picture to the correct word. (A blog post describing this activity in more detail is planned for May, 2022.)
  • Clip Cards- students use clothes pins to indicate the correct word for the picture in the center of the card. This is another activity I was surprised my middle schoolers enjoyed, but they did and so it too became part of our regular rotation.
  • Scrambled Words– described in the “Trash” section of Toys, Trash, or Teaching Treasures?, this activity involves students choosing a plastic egg and then using the Scrabble tiles inside it to spell a word. Students then record the word next to the correct picture on their recording sheet.
  • Spin, Spell, Sentence– this game was a favorite the students asked to play whenever we had five minutes left at the end of a class. As I explain in a previous blog post, I print CD labels with pictures from our list of target words. I then affix these labels to old CDs and DVDs, and use the CD Spinner my dad designed and built for me (free building plans in my shop). The student spins the spinner, states the word represented by the picture, spells the word, and uses it in a sentence.
  • Body Boggle– it was this set of units that also inspired Body Boggle and its many variations. It was my second group of middle schoolers (almost entirely boys) who came up with the team version–where each person on the team would take turns jumping to the next letter, sometimes running into one another in the process.

The worksheets we did each week were always the same.

  • Cut and Paste: students cut out pictures and glued them next to the target words.
  • Alphabetical Order: since most of the students were still working on mastering the English alphabet, this was an excellent way for them to practice writing their words and an important skill at the same time.
  • Crossword
  • Word search
  • Cloze (complete the sentences with the target words)
  • Journal: though not technically a worksheet, each student had his/her own journal with 1-2 pages for each word family. Each week the students used each of their words in a sentence. It didn’t take long before my middle schoolers began competing to see who could create a sentence with the most target words in it and still have it make sense.

Every Friday was assessment day. I always started by reading the words in random order, as one would when giving a spelling test. The students would write the words next to the appropriate picture in the table at the top of their test papers. This allowed me to asses their understanding of the vocabulary, as well as their ability to spell the word (they received one point for spelling it correctly and one point for placing it next to the correct picture). The second half of the test was a cloze, requiring students to write the words to complete the sentences.

When I first began this adventure I never could have imagined where it would end up. My dean and I were simply desperate to help our students improve and so decided to try something different. Ending up with a complete curriculum involving spinning CDs, plastic eggs, muffin tins (another review game), and jumping middle schoolers is definitely not what I expected! This past summer I spent some time updating this program. I added more links to supplemental resources and reading books, updated all of the images, and included a few extras (like the Jeopardy review games). I hope the program is helpful to many more students and teachers. Happy teaching, everyone!


Need the links again? Try these buttons, one for each set and one for the bundle (a 20% savings):

30 Weeks of Academic Vocabulary

Is there a teacher anywhere in the world who hasn’t been told to focus on academic vocabulary? It seems I can’t look at social media without seeing at least one post about a teacher wanting to include more of it in his/her instruction. There is good reason for this, especially when it comes to our English language learners.

A few years ago I too wanted to include more of a focus on academic vocabulary in my classes. I had noticed my intermediate and advanced students were struggling with tests, standardized tests in particular, not because they didn’t know the answers, but because they didn’t understand the question. They were constantly asking me to define certain words and I wanted to help them. Since I can’t help them during a test I decided to do my part to prepare them better. I took a look at the fifth through eighth grade Common Core ELA academic vocabulary lists and developed 30 weeks of vocabulary practice. Why 30 weeks when the average school year is 36 weeks? Because 30 is about how many weeks I (an average teacher) actually get to do instruction in an average year. Once you take out testing weeks (and as an ESL teacher I had an extra test to give), the first week of school, the last week of school, and other specialty weeks where regular instruction just doesn’t happen/work (i.e.: the week before winter break), 30 weeks is about all that’s left.

Each week’s unit consists of five vocabulary words, which I tried to theme as much as possible. On Monday my students and I would fill out the definition part of the graphic organizer for the week. We would also discuss the first word more in depth (see the next paragraph for what was included in our daily discussions). Completing the graphic organizer took the longest, but in total we spent about 20 minutes working on our new set of words each Monday.

Each day we discussed a new word in depth. We talked through the definition and example sentence (which I displayed on half-page posters clipped to small clipboards near our vocabulary wall, taking them down every Friday after school and putting up a new one each day of the week). We also talked about the part of speech for the word of the day and added its word card to the appropriate section of our word wall (these I left up all year). I’d give another example sentence and would allow several students the opportunity to share their example sentences as well. Finally, each student would write his/her own example sentence in the appropriate location on the graphic organizer. In total, our daily discussion took about five minutes.

Typically we would finish with our five words on Friday and students would take the graphic organizers home for the weekend. The next Monday we would have a short quiz over the previous week’s words, before starting on the new set. Our quiz consisted of several parts: 1. me verbally giving students the words and them writing them, 2. students writing a definition for each word, 3. a cloze section with the vocabulary words completing the provided sentences, 4. a writing section where students wrote their own example sentences for each word. Starting with week two, each quiz also included one word from the previous week’s list to review.

Another way we reviewed words was by playing Context Clues Academic Vocabulary Connect Four. This game allows students to practice both context clues and academic vocabulary in one game! Each version of the game (A and B) uses the 75 words and example sentences from one 15 week set of the academic vocabulary units. Played similarly to the classic game Connect Four, students choose a card and read the sentence. They state a definition for the underlined word (if necessary their opponents can check the definition in the provided glossary) and, if correct, place a marker on the board. Our preferred markers are milk jug lids, but anything can be used, including X’s written with dry erase markers. My students enjoy the game and it’s a great way to help them remember previously learned words and introduce new words, all while practicing context clues. While the academic vocabulary units themselves have not been digitized, a digital version of the Context Clues Academic Vocabulary Connect Four games does exist (you can read more about it in the linked blog post).

I would love to say that implementing this vocabulary instruction/practice instantly changed everything and all of my students flew through their exams, passing with flying colors. That would be a lie though. However, I did notice an increase in the use of academic vocabulary in our class discussions, a decrease in the number of terms I was asked to define during tests, and an increase in test scores overall. I’ve also noticed a difference in my adult students’ vocabulary and writing, so this approach continues to be a win for me, even after leaving the middle school classroom. Happy teaching, everyone!


Here are some buttons to help you get to exactly what you want. The buttons in the third row, and those in the third column, are all bundles. The bundles allow you to get multiple products at a discount.

Magnetic Spelling

Free Digital Magnetic Spelling Template

When I returned to the USA and started working with middle school students who, due to limited or interrupted education, were struggling with literacy in English, I increased my use of hands on activities. Many of my students were coming to me with first languages that were not based off the Latin alphabet, most had script or symbol based first languages. Most couldn’t read or write in their first language, and neither could their parents. They were struggling with new skills, a new language, and a new alphabet. Hands on activities were a requirement and I tried as many as I could find. I was pleasantly surprised when magnetic spelling became a hit with my middle schoolers, then later my adult learners as well.

I was so convinced that magnetic spelling wouldn’t be a hit with my older learners that I didn’t even buy magnetic letters at first, I borrowed them from the kindergarten teacher. Then we tried it and the students enjoyed it. Later we did another vocabulary lesson, this time without magnetic spelling, and the students asked about it. When the students asked about doing magnetic spelling during yet another vocabulary unit, and then another, I knew it was time to bring it back, permanently this time.

Magnetic spelling is really a very simple activity. All you need are some magnetic letters (as you can see in the picture, mine are a mixture of capital and lower case, but it really doesn’t matter), a metal object to place them on (I use cookie sheets from the dollar store), and some way to communicate the words you want students to spell (I give them a strip with pictures and/or definitions of the terms). Pass out your materials and let the students go to work. Since we always have more words than I can fit on a single strip, students will spell their words, raise their hands (and probably call out “Miss!” or “Teacher!”), I quickly look over the spellings, and if correct take the first strip and give them the second. Once they’ve finished all of their words I recruit them to help me check the work of other students.

This activity is now a standard part of all of my vocabulary units and I automatically create magnet spelling strips to go along with all of our other vocabulary activities. My older students all enjoy digging through the boxes of letters and chatting with one another as they work. Since I have multilingual classes it provides students with the opportunity to practice speaking in English in a very low pressure environment. The use of the magnet letters also provides students who are new to the English alphabet, especially those whose first languages have a very different alphabet, the opportunity to practice distinguishing between similar letters such as U-V-W, B-D, o-a, and E-F. I’ve also been impressed by their creative problem solving skills, such as turning a W upside-down to make an M or using a lower case L in place of an uppercase I.

Covid restrictions and regulations might have made this activity impossible (even if we could have met in person, sharing the magnets would not have been allowed), but I created a simple digital version of it instead. It doesn’t produce quite the same interaction and results as the physical activity, but it does get the job done. You can get your own free digital “magnetic” spelling template using the links here in the text, or by clicking the picture above. Make copies of the slide, add your pictures or definitions, share it with students, and you’re ready to go. The letters are “infinite” piles of 20 (later this summer I’ll do a blog post that explains how to make “infinite” piles) that students can drag and drop onto the slide to spell the words.

If you’re interested in how this fits into my overall vocabulary units, you can read about all of the various activities in the blog post Vocabulary Activities, or you can get the ESL Vocabulary Practice Bundle that covers many different topics. Also available are the Phonics Based Vocabulary Acquisition Units that I developed and was using when I first tried out magnetic spelling (freshly updated this past winter). I know this seems like a strange activity for middle, high school, and adult learners, I was surprised at their interest as well, but it really is one of the more popular vocabulary activities we do. Happy teaching, everyone!

Compound Words

Compound words can be a language learner’s best friend or worst nightmare. On the one hand, if you know the two smaller words, you can usually guess the meaning of the larger word (Doghouse = house for a dog). On the other hand, the combination of the two smaller words doesn’t automatically result in an understanding of the larger word (Honeymoon? You need some further understanding to make sense of that one!). Since compound words are inescapable, I have developed a plethora of games and activities to help my students practice them. Here are six of the most popular and effective ones.

Total Physical Response

Total physical response, or TPR, is a well known technique in language learning circles. In short, language is learned by using movement to respond to verbal prompts. It is based off the theory that by involving movement, getting more of the body involved, learning will be increased; not a new concept for most teachers. I use it to help my students remember what a compound word is.

The verbal aspect is a short sentence we repeat: “You take one word, you take another word, you smash them together, and make a new word.” Physically we demonstrate this by holding out one hand, palm up, when saying the first phrase (“You take one word…”). We then hold out the other hand, palm up, when saying the second phrase (“…you take another word…”). While saying the third phrase (“…you smash them together…”) we press the palms of our hands together (my middle school boys tended to be a bit more vigorous with this part than absolutely necessary). For the final phrase (“…and make a new word.”) we’d lace our fingers together, essentially folding our hands, and put up just our index fingers to form the number one.

It may seem like a very silly activity, but it really helps students remember the basic definition of a compound word. I have even “caught” a few of them making the hand gestures and whispering to themselves during standardized tests when asked about compound words.

Compound Word Guessing Game: FREE

Guessing Game

Another whole class practice activity, the Compound Word Guessing Game, is a great introductory activity as well. Each slide of the PowerPoint starts by showing two pictures. Students must identify the pictures, put the words together, and state the compound word (which is revealed by clicking once anywhere on the slide). There are 15 different compound words included and you can download a free copy by clicking the picture on the left of the above link.

Compound Word Flashcards / Sort

Flashcards / Sort Activity

I prefer to use these flashcards as an individual or pair sort activity. I print, laminate, and cut the cards ahead of time. I then mix them up and place each set of cards into a Ziploc bag. Students then work, either individually or in pairs, to sort the cards into 22 compound word groups. Each group has both smaller words as well as the full compound word. The activity takes up quite a bit of space, but not too much time. My students love spreading out on tables, rugs, and even the bare floor to do it! This activity can be done with any set of compound word flashcards, but I have never found a set I liked for my older learners. Everything I’ve ever found commercially available were puzzles, not flashcards, and were very childish in their look and feel. They were also simply the two individual words, no designation for the compound word, and most included extra hints as to how they went together (usually in the shape/joining of the puzzle pieces). The straight flashcard nature of the set I use provides more of an “adult” learning experience and reinforces the new meaning of the compound word.

Compound Word Memory

Memory Game

Who doesn’t have fond memories of playing Memory as a child? I loved laying the cards out in neat rows and columns before trying to find all of the matching pairs. This game uses the same concept, but with compound words. Each half of the compound word is shown on a card. Each card also includes a picture and word for the half of the full compound word, which is represented only by a picture, and a question mark for the second half of the word. Students turn over two cards, see if the compound word pictures match, and read the two halves of the word to make the complete compound word. It’s a relaxing, slower-paced game, and perfect for early practice because there are a lot of supports provided through both pictures and words.

Compound Word Spoons

Compound Word Spoons

Spoons is the game with the greatest potential for action, and is a favorite of my older students, especially the boys. I give a full explanation of how to play the game in the post Collective Noun Spoons, but the short version is repeated here. The goal of the game is to collect a compound noun triplicate (two small words and the full compound word they form) and grab a spoon. The last person to grab for a spoon will be left empty-handed and receive a letter. Gain enough letters to spell S-P-O-O-N-S, and you’re out of the game. Directions for an alternate version of play, one that doesn’t involve grabbing and wrestling for spoons, are included, and tend to be preferred by my less competitive students. Similar to the flashcards/sort activity, this game (which includes 40 compound words, rather than the 22 of the flashcards) can be played with any set of compound word flashcards that includes cards for each of the smaller words and a third card with the compound word, if you can find such a set, which I never have.

Egg Pairs

Similar to Eggcellent Contractions, this next activity is a great way to use and reuse those plastic eggs you see at the store every Easter season. Write one half of a compound word on each half of an egg. Separate the egg halves and toss them in some kind of container (I use an old shoebox, but you could also use a plastic container of some kind). Students then work individually, in pairs, or in small groups to put the halves of the eggs together to form compound words. This activity is more challenging than the others because it lacks the picture support. You can increase the difficulty level again by making sure the egg halves that form a compound word aren’t the same color.

Six different activities may seem like a lot for a “simple” concept, but I regularly use them all. I’m not really sure there is such a thing as too much compound word practice, and by using all six activities I am able to find something appropriate for students of multiple proficiency levels. Give some of them a try and see how your students like them! Happy teaching, everyone!

Body Boggle

As you can read in my bio, I am an adjunct professor and currently teach adults (or almost adults). It was in 2018 that I very reluctantly gave up my first love, teaching middle school, to move into this section of education, and I enjoy it quite a bit. What you can’t read in my bio is that I very briefly taught K-3 ESL. I am a middle school teacher who is happy working with adults, but when I moved back to the USA the only position available was K-3, so I took it (the next year I was promoted to head of program and my first act was to reassign myself to middle school and hire the best little people teacher I could find). That was quite the year and I learned a lot. I was constantly searching for new activities and games to engage my students, and get some of their limitless energy out of them. Body Boggle was one of our favorite games. Now, before my fellow middle school and above colleagues move on, let me assure you–Body Boggle has also been popular with my middle schoolers, and even my adults. I just don’t have any pictures of them playing because they made me solemnly swear to never take or share any. I can assure you though that the competition among my older students was much fiercer and there were more than a few times they requested the game!

Body Boggle is a very simple, virtually no-prep game to play. It’s perfect as a movement break and even Covid-regulations friendly (as long as you don’t allow team jumping, which is something my middle schoolers came up with and I’ll explain at the end). All that is required is some form of a alphabet mat. When I started playing the game I was doing pull-out instruction and did not have a classroom of my own. I taught wherever I could find an empty spot, often in the hallway, so I needed something very portable. Therefore, a foam puzzle play mat was my playing board of choice. You could also use an alphabet rug, or even circles with the alphabet written on it, anything that can be laid on the floor and stepped/jumped upon will work. Lay your playing board out on the floor, grab your spelling or vocabulary list, and you’re ready to play!

The first student stands anywhere along the side of the playing area. You call out a spelling word and he/she then steps onto the first letter of the word, jumps to the second letter, jumps to the third letter, and so forth. So if the spelling word is “cat,” the student would step on C, jump to A, jump to T, and then jump off the playing area. Students who correctly spell the word get a point. Students who are able to jump to all the letters, in order, without touching any other letters, get a second point.

My older learners also like playing Body Boggle to practice their vocabulary words. I will either show them a picture representation of the word (I use the picture half of our sort card activities) or read them a definition of the word. The student then has to state the word and jump out the spelling. They are given one point for knowing the correct word, one point for correctly spelling it, and one point for jumping without touching any extra letters. It makes for a fun, and more active, alternative to another of their favorite games, Spin & Spell.

This game was perfect for the end of the year! I’d take the students outside and we’d play on the sidewalk or in an empty corner of the parking lot. Since we were outside I didn’t even use my traditional playing mat, instead I used sidewalk chalk to draw out a grid and label it. I’d grab our vocabulary lists for the entire year and the students would play in teams. Sometimes they’d even jump as a team, with the first person stepping onto the first letter, the second person onto the second, and so on until the first person had to jump to the next letter in the word. That was especially challenging because they had to make their jumps with 2-3 other people on the playing surface, but they loved the challenge (especially my middle school boys)! It was a great way to review an entire year’s worth of vocabulary, keep them engaged after testing, and a perfect excuse to get out and enjoy the nice weather after a long winter. Give the game a try, I bet your students will enjoy it as much as mine do. Happy teaching, everyone!


My older learners love playing Body Boggle with their vocabulary words. My new arrivals who were just learning to read and write for the first time (they couldn’t read or write in their first language) asked to play it almost every week. I’d show them the picture sort card from our phonics based vocabulary unit for the week, and they’d name the word and jump out the correct spelling.

Digital Scattergories

A long-time favorite game of my students is Scattergories. We’ve enjoyed it as a warm up, time filler, and just for fun on game days. It’s a great way to get the brain juices flowing and practice vocabulary. The game is easily adaptable for different proficiency levels, making it perfect for an ESL classroom. When playing with beginning level students I extend the time and/or do away with the letter requirement. Having extra time, and being able to start their words with any letter, allows my beginning students to concentrate on vocabulary and nothing else. As the proficiency level of my students increases, I reduce the rule modifications. We shorten the allotted time to write answers (until my advance students are playing with the standard timer). I adjust the required starting letter constraints (from no required letter, to one of two or three letters, to the standard rules). Ultimately my advanced students play by the standard Scattergories rules.

After over a year of being online, we’ve all gotten a lot more creative with playing games. There are online options for playing Scattergories, such as the Swellgarfo Scattergories List Generator, but none of them were as adaptable as I wanted. I knew I could always simply share my own screen with a list of categories while students wrote on paper, but I wasn’t thrilled with that idea either. Many of my students still struggle with utilizing online tools such as forms and collaborative documents/presentations, so I try to give them as much low-risk practice as possible. I considered using some kind of shared document, slide, or whiteboard, but then students could potentially see one another’s answers. I finally settled on using Google Forms for several reasons (given here in no particular order):

  1. Anyone on the internet can complete a Google Form, no Google account is necessary.
  2. I have multiple options for sharing the form. I can email students, post a link on our LMS, put a link in the chat feature, create a QR code for students to scan…
  3. I’m able to control when people can and cannot submit answers using the Accepting Responses button. This means more technological students don’t have an advantage, I can turn off Accepting Responses until I tell students to begin. Then with a single click of the button on my end, students are able to start working on their form. Shortly before time will be called, I warn students that they have 10 seconds left and remind them to hit the submit button. Then, once time is up, I turn off Accepting Responses, and no more responses will be accepted.
  4. Student answers are organized by question and easy to display by sharing my screen. We can go question by question, see who had the same answers for each category, and add up our points. One advantage of this, if you have a group of students very concerned about cheating (not my current situation, but I did spend quite a few years in middle school), is everyone sees everything–no one can claim someone else changed an answer or added a late response.
  5. I can quickly make new forms or reuse the old. To reuse an old form I simply delete the responses and resend it out.
  6. I am fully in control of required (or not) letters, time limit, and even categories. The game is 100% customizable and, since I also control when a form is accepting responses, students can’t start a round early while I am explaining the parameters of the competition.

I happen to own a copy of the now out of print Scattegories Junior, and often use its lists for our games. There are times though that I make my own sets, particularly when we have a theme or unit topic that I want to focus our vocabulary practice on. The button above has a force a copy link for a Scattergories round I created titled At School. When you click the link you’ll be prompted to sign into your Google account (if you’re not already signed in) and asked if you want to make a copy. Click the blue Make a Copy button and it will be added to your Google Drive.

If you decide to try Scattergories in Forms, there is one tip you’ll want to remember: don’t make any of the questions required. Forms are not able to be submitted until all required questions have been answered. You don’t want your students missing out on being able to participate because they couldn’t think of an answer to one or more categories. You also don’t want them having to waste valuable thinking/typing time by placing some type of response in every box. I’m still working the kinks out of this particular digitized activity, but thus far it seems to be working well. Give it a try and let me know how it goes for you! Happy teaching, everyone.

Baseball v. Cricket

Baseball Vocabulary Sort
Who’s On First Listening Comprehension Activity: PDF (FREE)
Play Ball, Amelia Idiom Sort Activity

For most of my career I’ve had students who were cricket fans with limited exposure to baseball. They could go on for hours about wickets and bowlers, and knew the current possessor of the Cricket World Cup (yes, that’s a real thing, if you didn’t know, and as of 2019 it is England), but had no clue about the great American pastime. One year I had a particularly avid group of cricket fans, so my summer school co-teacher and I decided to use this to our advantage.

That summer we planned an entire two week’s lesson plans around baseball and cricket. The first week the students were the experts, teaching us all about cricket. The second week we turned the tables and taught them all about baseball. The entire experience was finished off with our own playoff–first a game of baseball and then a cricket test match.

Our math was full of probabilities, statistics, fractions, and percentages; things we’d tried all year to get the students interested in and suddenly they couldn’t get enough of. Batting averages, error calculations, runs and outs….it was a frenzy of math calculations.

Science class involved learning about things such as aerodynamics, force and motion, even fulcrums and levers. My co-teacher even snuck in some health studies by talking about air pollution and how it can affect our breathing and athletic performance.

During social studies, we learned geography by mapping out team locations. This connected back to math when we started talking about time zones and travel distances for certain teams to compete (though not baseball or cricket related, the students enjoyed playing What Time Is It In? during this lesson). Going further, we did short biography projects on famous players from both sports, and looked at the changes in each game throughout history (they really got a kick out of looking at old uniforms!).

But, being ESL teachers, we really kicked things up during our ELA class. We started both weeks with vocabulary. The students worked on their own to find the English words for cricket equipment and rules they wanted to teach us. When it was time for baseball, we introduced the terms and used a vocabulary sort activity to help them practice. Beyond vocabulary, there were reading comprehensions on the rules for each game. Each day we did read alouds of books such as Baseball Saved Us and The Berenstain Bears Go Out For The Team. As a longer reading comprehension, we read Play Ball, Amelia Bedelia, and worked on baseball-related idioms.

Students gave oral presentations about technique, famous players, and the history of each sport. We also had fun listening comprehension exercises each day such as Disney’s How To Play Baseball and Abbott and Costello’s Who’s On First routine (get a graphic organizer for free). Of course there were plenty of writing activities as well, such as the previously mentioned biographies.

Those two weeks were unanimously voted as the best two weeks of summer school ever by students and teachers alike. We had so much fun, and learned a lot more than I ever thought possible in just two short weeks. Several years later some of the baseball activities and materials ended up reappearing in my lesson plans for National Geographic’s Level B Inside curriculum, unit seven, More Than a Game (get your own copy of my plans for free using the link). It was the end of the year, after state testing was finished, and no one was feeling very motivated. Once again, these activities got everyone’s energy going again and ramped up engagement. Maybe they can do the same for one of your classes? Happy teaching, everyone.

Descriptive Shape Vocabulary

Free Shape Vocabulary Poster Set
Free Shape Vocabulary Poster Set
Free Shape Vocabulary Poster Set
Guess My Shape Game

Last fall I saw a Facebook post asking if anyone had a shapes vocabulary poster that included the adjective, as well as the noun form, of each shape name. I realized that I had no such poster, the value of such a thing, and decided to make one. The one turned into a three page set (tabloid size, 11 x 17 inches) as I decided to include some 3D shapes, as well as 2D. The posters are free to download, simply click one of the pictures or links.

Shape vocabulary isn’t something I think about much anymore, but it is something I’ve had to teach quite a bit in the past. I spent a lot of time with it when I was teaching a middle school self-contained class of newcomers and we had to do a geometry unit (geometry is my math nemesis). I tried everything that semester from a very basic shape book for my newest arrivals (it’s actually something I developed and used the year I taught kindergarten, first, and second grade beginning ELLs) to a version of shape quotations that I read about on another blog. I had a shape vocabulary poster, of course, and my students all had shape vocabulary stickers in their math notebooks, but the idea of including the adjective form of the words never occurred to me. Looking back on it, I wish I’d thought of it then, but it’s going to have to be one for the “better late than never” pile and I’ll do it from now on.

When I was teaching that dreaded geometry unit, my students’ favorite game to practice the various vocabulary they were learning was Guess My Shape Game. The game was inspired as I was watching students play Guess Who to practice their vocabulary for describing people. They were doing a great job, using a lot of the vocabulary we’d been learning for body parts and clothing, and it got me thinking about the shape vocabulary we’d been learning. My students were doing fairly well with basic shape names, but were struggling with vocabulary for shape attributes, such as edge, vertices, etc. I thought, “This would be the perfect game to practice such vocabulary, they’d have to ask questions that use the vocabulary words to guess the correct shape.”

That night I went home and started work on my first ever Cover Up Game. The game was created by making a game board for each student with twelve different 2D shapes on it. Since students would be choosing different shapes to be the “mystery shape” from a pile of cards, both boards could be identical and had no need of the numbers my other cover up boards have (this also means the game doesn’t require the 12-sided dice the other cover up games do). The shape cards were just a slightly larger version of the shapes on the game board and without the name labels. I printed everything on cardstock and laminated the boards and cards for durability. (Side note: as much as possible I use cold lamination for my games and activities. It is thicker than hot and never peels, even as it ages or after you cut through it. I have some games that I laminated, cut, and have been using for over two decades. The students have bent the pieces and I’ve wiped them down with disinfecting wipes and they still look brand new!)

The game is simple to play:

  1. The students each draw a shape card, keeping it secret from their opponent.
  2. Students take turns asking yes or no questions about the mystery shape’s attributes.
  3. Students use the information gained from their questions to mark off shapes that don’t fit the criteria. (example: If the mystery shape has four edges, it cannot be a circle or a triangle, so those shapes would be marked off.)
  4. When a student thinks he/she knows what the mystery shape is, he/she asks, “Is your shape a _________?” If correct, he/she is the winner. If not, the game continues.

Since students can draw multiple cards, the game can be played over and over with the same partners. Sometimes we’d have a tournament and students would change partners every round based on if they won or lost.

Marking off the shapes that don’t fit the given criteria can be done in different ways. I suggest either using dry erase markers to X them out or some type of cover. Favorite covers in my class include milk jug lids, mini erasers, and plastic counters. Ultimately it doesn’t really matter what you use as a cover, but since there is the potential for needing as many as 11 covers per student, you want something that is cheap and easy to replace when lost or damaged.

I can’t remember who posted that question about a shape vocabulary poster on Facebook, but I wish I could. I’d like to thank him or her for inspiring me to create something new and starting my trip down memory lane. It’s been years since I thought about that geometry unit! Whoever that might have been, if you read this post, thank you! Happy teaching, everyone!