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:

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.

Context Clues Four in a Row

Context Clues Connect Four Set A: Digital
Context Clues Connect Four Set B: Digital
Context Clues Connect Four Set A: Paper
Context Clues Connect Four Set B: Paper
15 Weeks of Academic Vocabulary Set A
15 Weeks of Academic Vocabulary Set B

Every semester I spend a lot of time teaching context clues. Knowing how to recognize and use context clues is an important skill for any student, but it is especially crucial for English language learners. I have several different games and activities that I have collected over the years and like to use, but they are all paper-based, and my class is 100% virtual this semester. Since I still needed to teach context clues I was originally intending to convert these paper-based activities to digital games, as I had several others. When it came time to actually do the conversion though, I realized it was going to be much more difficult to convert these particular activities than I had expected. I really wasn’t looking forward to doing the work and was also thinking that it was high time I created my own context clues activity. About that time I was also involved in a Facebook conversation about teaching academic vocabulary and it hit me: why not kill two birds with one stone? I could teach context clues and review academic vocabulary all at the same time.

I still didn’t have a lot of time (my semester was starting in less than a week), but I no longer need it. I had previously created 30 weeks of academic vocabulary units, so all of the research and content was finished. All I needed to do was take the existing list of 150 vocabulary words, and example sentences, and create a game that allowed students to practice context clues with them. Thus, Context Clues Academic Vocabulary Connect Four was born. Before I describe for you my creation process (very easy, don’t worry), let me give you a quick demo of how the game is played.

To create the game I started, as I almost always do, in PowerPoint. As I’ve stated before, in order to prevent things from being accidentally (or accidentally-on-purpose) edited or deleted by students as they play, I put as much as possible into the background. Thus, I start creating my games in PowerPoint and design all of the elements that I don’t want students to change or move on the slide. I then save my slides as images (File-Save As-choose .jpg or .png-all slides). In this case, the slide creation was quite simple. I needed a title slide, a game board slide with directions, question slides, and answer slides. My questions were sentences using the academic vocabulary words, the answer slides were definitions for the words. Since I didn’t have time to create 150 new example sentences I decided to use the sentences I’d already written for my 30 weeks of academic vocabulary posters. Transferring the sentences was easy. I set up the text box on my first question slide (changed the font, size, and made it bold), opened my original file, copied the sentence, right clicked on my question slide in PowerPoint, and under paste chose the A symbol (text only). This pasted the text into my slide but kept the formatting I’d just set up. I added a rectangle shape that said “Answer,” and my first question slide was finished. In order to keep everything the same, I then created a duplicate slide to be my answer slide. I changed the text in the rectangle shape to “Game Board,” and changed the question text to be the definition (also copied from the original file) instead of an example sentence. For each subsequent word I created a duplicate of the question or answer slide preceding it and changed only the question or answer text. 

The one thing I had to be sure to do while creating the question and answer slides was keep my question slides together. In other words, I couldn’t have my first question on slide three and the answer for that question on slide four. If slide three was question one, then slide four needed to be question two, and so on. This is for two reasons: 1. the game has to remain in edit mode when students play it and I don’t want them to be able to see the answer in the slide sorter on the left, and 2. I knew I’d be using the “draw” a card function in the game play script my husband wrote me and it requires all of the question cards to be sequentially numbered. This meant I had to do some scrolling as I set up the slides, but it wasn’t difficult. 

Once my slides were all designed and saved as images, it was time to insert them into Google Slides. The easiest way to do this is to use Slides Toolbox. The toolbox add-on has an insert tool that allows you to make slides from images and set the image as the background. After opening the toolbox and selecting the images I wanted it took about 2 minutes for everything to be uploaded and set up. Two minutes may seem like a long time, but it is much faster than trying to set over 150 slides’ backgrounds individually!

The next step was to set up hyperlinks to make my “Answer” and “Game Board” buttons functional. To do this I used the shape tool to draw a box over the “Answer” button on my first question slide. I then changed that box’s border and color to transparent. Then I copied the box and pasted onto all of the following question slides. Then, noting the number of the first answer slide, I went back to my first question slide and hyperlinked the “Answer” button to the first answer slide. To do this I clicked on my transparent box, clicked the link button in the toolbar, chose slides in this presentation, and chose the slide number for the first answer. I then repeated these steps for each of the subsequent questions, simply adding one to the slide number I was linking to (question one linked to slide 79, question two linked to slide 80…). Making my “Game Board” button functional was much easier. I simply added a clear box to the top of my “Game Board” button on the first answer slide and linked it to slide three (my game board). I then copied this linked rectangle and pasted it onto each subsequent answer slide.

I was now ready to install the game play script. This script adds a menu item to Google Slides that says “Game Play.” The sub-menus are “Draw a Card” and “Roll the dice.” This game does not require dice, so I had my husband take out that part of the script. Both written and video instructions for installing and using the script are included with the download. You can get your own copy of the script by using the button below.

Finally, I needed markers for the game board. I first inserted an X shape (I use the one found under the equation section of the shapes too.). I then copied and pasted it 41 times, so I had 42 X’s in total. To get it the size I wanted, I selected all of the shapes, clicked arrange, align, and center. This put all of my X’s on top of one another and I was able to easily drag the corners to get them to be the correct size. I then changed the color and distributed them across the bottom of the screen. Finally, I selected half of the X’s and changed the color again so each player would have his/her own set.

This is the first digital game I’ve created that does not have a paper-version as well. While there were other activities that changed format or type when they were converted to digital, this one is the first that is completely new. I did end up creating a paper version, and it is played in a very similar way, but includes cards to draw and a glossary to check answers. You can get either Context Clues Connect Four game by clicking the pictures above, or a discounted bundle of both (digital or paper). You can also get the paper-based 15 week academic vocabulary units by using the pictures above, or a bundle of all 30 weeks. Also available is a bundle that combines both paper Connect Four games and all 30 weeks of academic vocabulary.