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!

ELLs Can Common Core

There is an erroneous idea floating around educational circles. Not everyone believes this, but many do, and some unconsciously allow this idea to affect their lesson planning and teaching. It is the idea that English language learners (ELLs) can’t meet the Common Core (or any) State Standards. As we discussed in my last post about accommodating ELLs, the vast majority of ELLs have grade level knowledge and abilities, the only thing they lack is the ability to express their knowledge in English. They CAN meet Common Core Standards, they simply need to do it in a different way.

In order to assist our colleagues in their instruction of ELLs (because as was also addressed in my last post, the vast majority of the work falls on the general classroom teacher, the ESL teacher is there to assist), a fellow ESL teacher and I developed a reference tool. We took the Common Core State Standards for K-8 (we were at a K-8 school) ELA and the WIDA Can Do Descriptors and combined them into a chart (available via the download button on the left). For those who are not familiar, the WIDA Can Do Descriptors “highlight what language learners can do at various stages of language development” (taken from the WIDA website). In other words, they describe what ELLs are able to do at various proficiency levels to communicate their knowledge in English. 

Within the document you will find a page (there are 358 pages, so I wouldn’t recommend trying to download it to a phone) for each of the CCSS ELA standards. On each page you will find the standard, the cognitive function (I can) statements for that standard, a chart showing the reading/listening and writing/speaking can do descriptors for each of the five WIDA levels (level 6 is considered grade level proficient), and academic vocabulary words relating to the standard. If a teacher has an ELL, he/she is able to look up the standard that will be taught in a given lesson, find the student’s proficiency level in the chart, and read the can do descriptors for how that student can demonstrate competency with that standard. This not-so-little document has unequivocally become the most helpful, most requested, most beloved teaching resource I’ve ever created. 

The good news, if you haven’t already discovered it, is the document is available for download with this post. You can click the download button above to get a PDF version for yourself. Remember, it is over 300 pages long and 2.81 MB in size, so you might not want to try this on a phone. Feel free to download, print, use, and share with your colleagues. All we ask is that you please give proper attribution. While the standards and the can do descriptors aren’t ours, the alignment and formatting are, and it was a lot of work to put together. The bad news is no, there is no document for grades 9-12. I always meant to create it (my colleague was our little people expert, so this is my fault, not hers), but never got around to it. The highest grade I taught after WIDA came to our state was 9th, and I just referenced the 8th grade standards for them. Then a couple years ago I migrated to the college level and haven’t done much with Common Core or WIDA since. 

Since I don’t want to leave you on a negative point, I’d like to share with you about another resource that my middle school colleagues may find useful. I spent most of my K-12 career in middle school (and loved it, I still miss it), and one of the greatest needs my students had was academic vocabulary. I was the ESL teacher who believed my students could understand and use the “difficult” vocabulary if someone just took the time to teach it to them. Hence my new arrivals knew words such as “consequences,” “appropriate,” and “stupendous” before they knew much more basic vocabulary. Since I couldn’t find a way to fit all of the academic vocabulary into general everyday interactions (I may have been known to use behavioral correction discussions as opportunities to teach parts of speech: “What verb did I ask you to use? What verb were you demonstrating? What adverb did I use to describe the verb? What adverb did you demonstrate?”), I developed a program to explicitly teach the CCSS academic vocabulary words for grades 5-8. The program only took about fifteen minutes a day to implement, but by the end of the year my students had learned 150+ academic vocabulary words, and were much less intimidated by standardized tests. I also developed a context clues game to practice these words. There are buttons below to link you to these resources if you think they’d be helpful for your students. Happy teaching everyone, and remember: ELLs Can Common Core!

Vocabulary Activities

Parts of the Body: Digital
Occupations: Paper
Community Places: Digital
Household Items: Paper
Rooms in a House: Paper
Family Relationships: Paper
Weather: Digital
Ecology: Paper
Animal Classification: Digital

Vocabulary is never ending. If you are the student, especially an ESL student, you never stop learning it. If you are the teacher, especially the ESL teacher, you never stop teaching it. Over the years I have taught students at all different levels, but beginners (low proficiency language learners) hold a special place in my heart. I love teaching them! They, of course, have the greatest vocabulary acquisition needs, and so I have spent a lot of time developing vocabulary instructional materials. 

One thing that is important when teaching beginning language learners, especially in an immersion setting, is to reduce the cognitive load as much as possible. You want to create as much free brain power as possible for engaging with, processing, and learning the vocabulary. In order to do this, I developed a standard set of vocabulary activities that I use over and over again, the only thing that changes is the terms. This means students don’t have to use any of their cognitive powers to understand directions, they can focus solely on the vocabulary.

Besides striving to reduce the cognitive load by using the same activity types over and over, I also try to provide two other things ELs need: visual supports and context. To do this I use a lot of pictures in our activities (Pixaby is a great place to get royalty free, commercially usable pictures). This allows students to create connections between the terms and images, thus enhancing understanding, retention, and connections to prior knowledge. Context is a little more difficult to provide in single activities, but I do include things such as clozes, crossword puzzles, and other small context activities. None of our vocabulary learning is done in isolation, so they also get context from the various texts we read and interact with.

Each vocabulary activity has slight differences, but here are descriptions for the basic set that is almost always included:

  • Sort Cards- students match the term to the picture or the picture and definition; this is a drag and drop activity in the digital format, and card-based in paper
  • Clip Cards- students identify the correct term for the picture or the picture and definitions; in the digital version they do this by moving a circle around the term, in the paper version they place a clothes pin over the correct term
  • Match It- students match the term to the picture or picture and definition; in the digital version they do this by extending a provided line to connect the term with the picture/definition, the paper version is specially formatted to go with the match up boards that my father made me and students connect the terms using rubber bands
  • Spell It- students practice spelling the term when given the picture or picture and definition; in the digital versions they do this by typing the word into a table, in the paper version they are given strips with the pictures/definitions and use letter magnets to spell out the terms on metal cookie sheets
  • Cut and Paste- this activity is only in the paper version; students cut out boxes with either a picture or a picture and definition, and paste them next to each vocabulary word
  • ABC Order- another skill that low proficiency English learners need to practice a lot, putting words in alphabetical order; in the digital version students type the words into a table, in the paper version they write the words by hand
  • Crossword Puzzle- a worksheet in the paper version, in the digital version students drag and drop the terms next to the correct clues in a table
  • Cloze- students will complete sentence with the correct term; in the digital version they click in the text box and type the correct term to complete the sentence, in the paper version they simply write the correct term on the line
  • Word Search- the puzzle is the same in both the digital and paper versions, for the digital version students can draw circles or lines to mark the words
  • Scrambled Words– only in the paper version, in this activity students are given a piece of paper with the pictures/definitions on it and a set of numbered plastic eggs (eggs not included with download), inside each egg is a set of Scrabble tiles that when unscrambled will spell one of the vocabulary words, students unscramble the letters and write the egg number and vocabulary word next to the correct picture/definition
  • Assessment- only included in the paper version, the assessment has two parts; in the first part students have a table with the picture/definition for the various vocabulary words, I read the words aloud one at a time (similar to a spelling test) and students must write them next to the correct pictures, in the second part students use the words to complete sentences

As I said, the activities vary slightly for each set, but those described above compose the core set of activities for each group of vocabulary words. Many of the sets have both a paper and digital version available, and you can access both versions by clicking the pictures on the left. A couple sets have bundles that allow you to purchase groups of activities (including games not described here), and those can be accessed by using the buttons on the left. Three of the sets have not been digitized yet: rooms of the house, household items (mostly furniture), and family relationships. I am hoping to get digital versions of these sets made soon.

National Talk Like a Pirate Day

Pirate Vocabulary Treasure Hunt: Sheets Version
Pirate Vocabulary Sort
How I Became A Pirate Sentence Sequencing Activity: Paper
How I Became A Pirate Sentence Sequencing: Digital Version
Noun / Verb Sort: Paper
Noun / Verb Sort Digital
Are/Our/Hour Homophone Paper Activity
Are/Our/Hour Homophone Slides Task Cards

September 19th is National Talk Like A Pirate Day. This is always a great opportunity to act a little silly and have some fun at the beginning of the school year. It was also a horrible day for many of my English language learners though. All of the strange voices and unfamiliar words were extremely confusing to them and they largely felt left out of the fun. In order to help my students feel more included, and to allow everyone to still have some fun with the day (and advance their learning), I developed some ELL-friendly pirate themed activities.

Pirate vocabulary was one of the biggest frustrations for my ELLs. Native speaking students grow up hearing phrases such as “Shiver me timbers!” in movies and cartoons, so they already have a decent working knowledge of the vocabulary, but not so for ELLs. Since this is not critical vocabulary, I really wanted the kids to hear and have some fun with it, not necessarily master it. As with all of the activities, this first activity has two versions: paper and digital. The paper version is a basic sorting activity. The words are on ships and the definitions are on flags. Students match the flag to the correct ship and write down their answers. The written record becomes a glossary of sorts for them to reference as needed.

When I went to create the digital version of the vocabulary activity I wanted something more than a basic sort. I wanted the students to practice a skill that is critical to their success as language learners: context clues. This time I decided to use conditional formatting to create a game that became kind of a cross between my self-grading task cards and my Integer Fishing Game. The game is all on one page and students read the sentence and choose the vocabulary word from the word bank to complete the sentence. They type their chosen word in the box, hit enter, and the box turns green when they are correct. If correct, they choose a spot to dig for treasure and collect their points. The second tab of the game is a glossary that they can reference as needed. Here’s a short video showing the digital game in action:

The digital version of this game comes in two formats: Google Sheets and Microsoft Excel. So no matter if you’re a Google school or a Microsoft school, you can have fun with this game!

No doubt one of the most popular books to read on Talk Like A Pirate Day is How I Became A Pirate by Melinda Long. Activities two and three both relate to this book. The second activity I have for our celebration is a set of sequencing sentences. In both the ​paper version and the â€‹digital version, students read the sentences and put them in order to retell the story. The paper version needs to be cut ahead of time (I recommend printing on card stock and laminating before cutting so you can reuse the same sets each year.), but the digital version is a drag and drop activity that is ready to go.

Our third activity, which also relates to How I Became A Pirate by Melinda Long, is a noun-verb sort activity. While all of the words in this activity are taken from the book, it is not necessary to use this activity in conjunction with the book, it can be a stand-alone activity. In the ​paper version, students sort the word cards into the correct columns on the sorting mat: people nouns, place nouns, thing nouns, and verbs. In the digital version, students drag and drop the words into the correct columns. 

The final activity I like to use to celebrate National Talk Like A Pirate Day is not directly related to pirates, but is a play on the pirate word, “Arg!” Since the word “arg” sounds so much like “are,” I decided to make a pirate-themed homophone activity to practice distinguishing between are, our, and hour. The paper version of the activity is what I like to refer to as a triple play, because it can be used three different ways: as response cards, a task card/scoot activity, or a slap game. To use the response card version, the teacher reads the sentence and students hold up a card with the appropriate word to go in the sentence. Task card scoot can be played by hanging cards up around the room and having students move from card to card, writing down their answers, or by having students pass cards from person to person as they write their answers. Slap is probably my students’ favorite way to play these games. I use strong magnets to attach the large response signs to the board and divide the class into two teams. One student from each team comes forward, takes a fly swatter, and listens as I read the sentence aloud. The first person to slap the correct answer with his or her fly swatter earns a point for his or her team. It’s a lot of fun and students love the competition aspect of the game.

The digital version is an independent digital task cards activity. Students read the sentence on the card and click the ship representing the correct word to complete the sentence. Students are then taken to a slide that tells them if their answer was correct or incorrect, and shows them the correct answer. The best thing about these task cards is unless students click on the boats to answer the question, or the map to go to the next question, the slides will not advance. Take a look and see for yourself:

Nice, huh? No more having students just randomly click through slides without at least paying attention to where they are clicking. As with the vocabulary game, the digital version of this game is available in both ​​Google Slides and Microsoft PowerPoint, so it doesn’t matter where your school’s affiliations lie. 

Thinking that all of these activities sound great? Want to try them all? No problem, they are available as bundles, as well as individually. The bundles allow you to get all of the activities together at a discount. Three different bundles are available: all four paper activities, all four digital activities, all eight paper and digital activities. Happy National Talk Like A Pirate Day, everyone!