55 esl activies to Promote Literacy

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55 ESL Activies to Promote Literacy


Angelica Molero

Shira Wrightman

Brook Mackin

Aubrey Korneta

Chris Donohoe

Eric Eagon

Jennifer Timm

Bhagli Suren

Melissa Katz

Matthew Holzgrafe

Allison Wolf

Instructional Activities Guide
Compiled by Shira Wrightman and Angelica Molero

1. Vocabulary Dice (elementary, beginner-advanced)

  Activity Description: This activity requires a pair of teacher-created dice. On each side of one of the large dice the teacher tapes target vocabulary words. On each side of the other die the teacher tapes tasks such as "write a sentence," "act it out" or "draw a picture." A student rolls the pair of dice in order to receive a vocabulary word he or she must work with and a task to complete. Small groups can collaborate in order to perfom the designated task for the vocabulary word that they have rolled.

 **This activity was adapted from Townsend's 2009 article entitled, Building Academic Vocabulary in After School Settings: Games for Growth with Middle School English language learners.

    Implementation:This activity can be adapted for any language level and age, provided the teacher chooses appropriate words and appropriate tasks. The activity came from an article about vocabulary games for middle-school, but I have implemented it in an after school program for third and fourth graders. For beginning ELLs tasks such as drawing pictures or acting the words out would work best. For advanced ELLs, more linguistically demanding tasks such as writing the word in a sentence can be incorporated. Some suggestions for further adapting this activity include changing all of the sides of the task die to "guessable" activities such as charades, pictionary or describing the words and having students play in teams. One could vary the activities on each side of the die in other ways. Alternate activities could include completing a sentence starter such as "this word reminds me of..." or looking the word up in a dictionary. This activity can be used to reinforce recently taught vocabulary or to cycle through and review older vocabulary words.

2. Vocabulary Journal (elementary, intermediate-advanced)
Activity Description:  Students use individual notebooks to maintain a record of new vocabulary words encountered throughout class readings.  After the text's reading is completed, students enter the new vocabulary words into their vocabulary journals. Each word entry consists of writing the word on top of a fresh page, defining it in a short way (when applicable), drawing a picture of the word or a related association, and then using it in a sentence (if applicable). Depending on students' language levels, criteria for each entry is altered. For instance, a beginner student would focus on drawing the picture and recopying the word that matches it. Intermediate students often draw a picture and use the vocabulary word in a new sentence, but may struggle to create a self-constructed simple definition. Therefore, they are not required to do so. Finally, advanced students usually fair well completing all tasks.

**This activity was adapted from "vocabulary logs", as cited in Herrera, et. al., Teaching Reading to English Language Learners: Differentiated Literacies (2010).

    Implementation: To implement this activity, key vocabulary terms are pre-selected by the teacher, and students use them interactively before entering them into their own vocabulary journals. For example, prior to beginning reading a text, the teacher previews the chosen vocabulary  by providing a direct, simple definition of the word accompanied by a visual representation. It is then reinforced through the use of total physical reponse (TPR) before and during reading.  The teacher's explicit definition of the word is meant to ensure understanding and meaning, and TPR is then utilized to reinforce it. Thus, by the time the class completes reading a given text, students have had multiple opportunities to interact with the word. At this point, vocabulary journals are passed out and students begin the process of entering each new word (usually 3-5, depending on the text). Students usually enter new words into their journals once a week. Because there are several words, students can work at their own pace as they add them to their journals, and ask clarifying questions to each other and the teacher as they work.

3. Word Splash (elementary, beginner-advanced)
    Activity Description: A vocabulary word is written in the middle of a large piece of chart paper by the teacher. Students are then asked to brainstorm related word or pictorial associations that come to mind when they hear and/ or read that word. Preferably, the word chosen is related in some way to a text read in class, whether through direct exposure or through a connection clearly explained by the teacher. Since a large piece of chart paper is used, with the chosen word written in the middle, several students may work on it at the same time. Students at different language levels may respond differently, though all are encouraged to show as many associations as possible. Beginner students may draw pictures only, intermediate students may show a picture, word definitions, and sometimes a sentence. Advanced students often write synonyms, definitions, and sentences using the word or related associations.

**This activity was adapted from Herrera, et. al., Teaching Reading to English Language Learners: Differentiated Literacies (2010).

    Implementation: This activity works best in small groups, as teachers may have up to six or seven students working on the same word simultaneously. In my classes, I choose a key word from a text in order to prepare students prior to engaging in the actual reading. This type of free association allows room for building background knowledge, as students are able to see that they already have connections to something from the text. Furthermore, students seem to enjoy the simultaneous peer work. The piece of chart paper can be placed in the middle of a table, for instance, and students sit around it, carving out their corner on the page to express their word or pictorial associations. This activity can be completed in about 5-7 minutes, with a group share at the end. Providing students with an opportunity to share their respective associations is an excellent opportunity for their connections to be validated and/ or clarified by their peers and teacher, as necessary.

4. Free Journal Writing (elementary, intermediate-advanced)
 Activity Description: Students use notebooks to write freely both in the classroom and beyond. Prior to beginning this type writing, students and teacher should engage in a conversation about what appropriate free journal writing entails. As a group, students can create a list of possible topics to write about, including how they are feeling, what they did in school, where they want to go next weekend, etc. The point the teacher must stress is that their journals provide students with the opportunity to write freely, about whatever is on their minds. Writing can and should be an enjoyable experience that enables us to express our thoughts, ideas, and feelings, without continuously being utilized in strictly project-specific tasks. Because this journal is meant to be a personal form of expression, teachers must make sure to engage in dialogue with students about this purpose, so that they understand the freestanding nature of their journal writing. This activity can be abbreviated or extended, depending on instructional time availability. It can also be adapted to students across language levels, though I have seen that intermediate and advanced ELLs respond better to this type of open-ended exercise.

**This activity was adapted from Davies-Samway, When English Language Learners Write: Connecting Research to Practice, K-8 (2006).

    Implementation: The way in which this activity is implemented may vary from classroom to classroom, as it will depend largely on the curriculum and school model followed by the teacher. For example, I have utilized free journal writing as a mainly beyond-the-classroom activity because I am a push-in ESL teacher with limited instructional time. Therefore, I have determined that giving my students ample free journal writing time is not the most effective use of the one-two daily blocks I have with them. Therefore, we have engaged in the conversation about how and why we keep journals, as described above, and students often take the journals home to write their entries. Additionally, though we focus on content-based reading or writing lessons in class, students know that if they finish a given independent practice early, they can get their journals and begin writing.

5. Bilingual Alphabet Chart (elementary, beginner)
Activity Description: This activity provides students with an opportunity to isolate the phonemes that exist within the English language and connect them to phonemes that they are already familiar with. It is intended for beginning ELLs of any age. The teacher gives each student a blank bilingual alphabet chart and instructs each student to complete the chart with a parent at home. The chart includes a box for every letter in the English language with space to write words under each letter. Students, along with their parents, must identify words in their native languages that start with each letter on the alphabet chart. Finding cognates is especially helpful, and not every language will have a letter sound that corresponds directly to an English letter. Those boxes can be left blank. Upon completion, students share the words that they found with the rest of their class. Students can use bilingual alphabet charts as a reference when reading or writing.

**This activity was adapted from Herrera, et. al., Teaching Reading to English Language Learners: Differentiated Literacies (2010).

    Implementation: This activity gives students a chance to engage in cross-lingual transfer and places value in the students' prior knowledge. It celebrates the students' native language and allows him or her to engage parents in the learning process. On the flip side, if parents do not participate in the process, it can be especially difficult to engage those students with whom the teacher does not share a language other than English. When implementing lessons which include phonemic awareness objectives, it is useful to refer back to these alphabet charts as a supplemental way to emphasize letter sounds. Students can also tape them to their desks as a resource to use when writing.

6. Cognate Chart (upper elementary, intermediate-advanced)
Activity Description: This activity requires a copy of the same text in English and in Spanish. At first, students are asked to look through the English text, picking out any words that look like words they know in Spanish. Each time they find one of these words they write the Spanish word that they are reminded of on a post it. Next, the students read the same text in Spanish, now filling out the post its in English by referring back to the word from the previous text that matches the Spanish word that they know. After finishing both readings, students place their notes on a T-chart where each English word is placed in line with its Spanish equivalent. The teacher leads a discussion of which words are cognates, which are false cognates and any nuanced meanings.

**This activity was adapted from Herrera, et. al., Teaching Reading to English Language Learners: Differentiated Literacies (2010).

    Implementation: In order to facilitate this activity, the teacher must be a speaker of some of his or her students' native language. Also, an increased number of cognates can be expected to be found by speakers of romance languages. As such, this activity is best suited for a certain segment of any given ELL population-mostly likely Spanish and French speakers. By emphasizing the body of knowledge that students already possess from their native language, it is possible to create a high degree of investment among learners. Also, encouraging students to actively look for cognates while they are reading will allow ELLs to feel empowered by the amount of words they already know.

7. Sentence Completion Activity (elementary, intermediate-advanced)
     Activity Description: As part of this activity, students are given a weekly handout containing sentences that are missing a word. In order to complete them, students must utilize the vocabulary words of the last week or two (taken from texts read) in order to fill in the appropriate words. Vocabulary word choices are provided in a work bank on top. This activity is particularly beneficial to assess how students are acquiring new vocabulary words, as it measures how students are able to process the words in contextualized, meaningful sentences. The sentences may be created in a definition style for beginners, but may also be scaffolded up by being used in a sentence in which the meaning can be applied, without the explicit structure of a definition-style sentence.

**This activity was adapted from Beck's, Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (2002).

    Implementation: Students work independently while engaged in the sentence completion activity. They are each given a copy of the worksheet and instructed to read each sentence carefully so that they can make the best choice. Prior to being asked to use the target vocabulary words in sentence-context, students should have had several opportunities to interact with the words (through the teacher's explicit instruction, vocabulary journaling, TPR, etc.). Having these multiple opportunities to interact with the words enables students to be more successful at completing this activity. This activity is intended for intermediate-advanced ELLs, though it may be scaffolded for beginners by providing shorter, simpler sentence completion exercises, such as the definition-style sentence mentioned above.

8. Show and Tell/ Share (elementary, beginner-advanced)
Activity Description: This activity pushes students to actively engage in dialogue with one another by giving them the opportunity to speak, listen, and respond to one another. Students bring in an object that is special to them in some way, and that they would like to share with the class. Objects can range from a small teddy bear or a favorite book, to a family photograph or a self-made illustration. In order to share their object with the class, students are prompted with several questions, including "what are you sharing with us today?"; "where did you get it?"; "who gave it to you?"; and "why is it special to you?". Students are encouraged to use complete sentences, and re-directed to use the question to create a complete answer as necessary. Once they feel satisfied that they have told us what they wanted about their object, other students have the opportunity to ask any burning questions they have, or make a connection to what was shared.

**This activity was adapted from Kriete's The Morning Meeting Book (2002).

    Implementation: In order to execute this activity, the teacher may choose a time that is not intrusive on instructional time. For example, my students engage in this type of whole-group share during Morning Meeting. The day before, a volunteer is chosen to share the next day, and this rotates daily so everyone has a chance to participate. Since we have had a class discussion on what kinds of things we can bring to show and tell/ share time, the student has already been prepped on what types of objects he/ she may bring. Once it is time to share, the student comes to the front of the room and begins to tell us about their chosen special object. It may be helpful to have a chart up with the list of questions that can guide their share, though I have found it is more helpful to simply remind students if they feel stuck. Additionally, many students will have a great deal they want to share, and do not need to rely strictly on the guiding questions listed above. An important component of this activity is to open it up to questions the attentive peers may have once the share is completed. Students often are intrigued by what is shared, and ask insightful inquiries. This activity may last 4-6 minutes, depending on the student's speaking abilities. It can be an enjoyable activity for students at all language levels, as it allows them to share something of value to them, in addition to helping them develop their speaking skills. In turn, peers learn to be sensitive and attentive listeners so that they can ask follow-up questions, or make a connection to what was shared. 

9. Academic Taboo
(upper elementary, advanced)
    Activity Description:  Teachers create cards with vocabulary words on them (modeled after the popular game "Taboo.") Students must describe the word on their card without saying the word itself with the goal of having their classmates guess the word on their card. They can give examples of the word or give any clues about the context in which one might find the word. In the original game of Taboo, there is a list of forbidden words that can not be used as part of the description. Since this game takes place within the context of English language learning and considering that the nature of academic vocabulary is to be somewhat abstract, there are no forbidden words in this version of the game. The class is divided into two teams and one student at a time from each team is called up to the front of the room. Each of these students goes through as many cards as his or her team can guess in one minute.

 **This activity was adapted from Townsend's 2009 article entitled, Building Academic Vocabulary in After School Settings: Games for Growth with Middle School English language learners.

    Implementation: Vocabulary must be pretaught or explained in context so that students are familiar enough with words in order to be able to guess them. If students have learned the game words only recently, a word bank can be provided so that students have a frame of reference for words they should be thinking about. This game encourages students to make connections between words and creates an exciting, fast-paced atmosphere of friendly competition. Much encouragement and a supportive environment is necessary so that students are not fearful of being singled out to give clues in front of their peers. As students become more comfortable with this game and more advanced in their language abilities, the teacher can include "taboo" words on the cards. For example, if the vocabulary word was "swift," some of the taboo words might be run and race. The student would have to describe the word "swift" without using the taboo words. If beginning ELLs are to be incorporated into this game, they could be allowed to use gestures instead of only words.

10. Picture Puzzler (upper elementary, beginner-advanced)
    Activity Description: Many of the words that ELLs (and all students) must learn in order to be successful in the classroom are academic words or Tier II vocabulary. These words are often abstract and cannot be easily explained using pictures. Picture puzzlers utilize pictures in order to spur discussion and have students make connections with those words. In order to make a picture puzzler, the teacher puts up pictures (on a smartboard or flashcards) that relate to academic words. For example, Townsend's article suggests using pictures of a kitchen sponge or a screwdriver as a starting point for a discussion about the word "function." Students are expected to explain how the picture that has been presented related to the vocabulary word being studied. Picture puzzlers connect to much of the current research on vocabulary acquisition since they provide for multiple exposures to words, give students opportunities to make personal connections and provide visual support.

 **This activity was adapted from Townsend's 2009 article entitled, Building Academic Vocabulary in After School Settings: Games for Growth with Middle School English language learners.

    Implementation: The reason this article is appropriate for all language abilities is that it gives intermediate and advanced students opportunities to really internalize Tier II words that they might be struggling with by discussing and grappling with different meanings and connections. Picture puzzlers are great for beginners because they expose them to sophisticated words by providing visual support instead of creating a situation where beginners are only exposed to Tier I words since those can usually be easily translated into visual representations. It is important to ensure that students recognize the flexibility of the pictures used in this exercise. In other words, it is important to clarify that academic words do not translate directly into the pictures being used and to explain how the words are related to the pictures. If teachers are ambiguous about this point, they run the risk of leaving students with a skewed perception of what these academic words actually mean.

Word Roll

Grade Level(s)


Language Level(s)





            The following activity is a dice game that allows students to engage with and personalize the meaning of vocabulary words in creative and interactive ways.  While the activity was originally geared toward middle school students in an after school setting, this activity can also be effectively implemented during lessons and for a broader range of grades.  The creators of the game focused on the development of specific academic vocabulary that appears across multiple content areas (see below).  However, this activity could also be used to reinforce other vocabulary units relevant to teaching standards and linguistic levels. 

Target Words for Language Activity






























































            The Dice Game requires some basic initial preparation, but with quick and easy implementation after these steps are taken.  First, the teacher must make/acquire two large dice.  On one die the teacher attaches a different vocabulary word to each face and then a task to each face of the other die.  Tasks may include directions such as draw a picture, write a sentence, act it out, define it, etc.  Students work in groups to complete the vocabulary tasks directed by the roll of the dice. 

            This game may be adapted in many ways to expand its uses.  For example, this model could be used as a competitive game between teams, as one student from each team comes to the front, rolls the dice, then performs the tasks quickly enough for his/her team to guess the word.  Teachers may wish to replace each vocabulary word as it is used with a new word to cover more vocabulary.   This activity allows students to interact with the meanings of words through a variety of different expressive outlets. 


Townsend, D. (2009). Building academic vocabulary in after-school settings: Games for growth

with middle school English-language learners. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 53(3), 242-251.


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