10 Vocab Strategies for ELLs (and all learners!)

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Vocabulary Strategies

Vocabulary development is an important component of language acquisition.  If you’re ready to explore new strategies, jump into any of these.  They are teacher tested (self-included!), cross-curricular and can be modified to suit all grade and language levels.  Best of all, each strategy is low-prep and places students at the center of their own learning- which is exactly where we want them.  


This activity encourages vocabulary development, especially that which builds throughout a unit or text.  Students draw a set of perpendicular lines on a paper to create four equal segments (or fold a piece of paper into fourths). 

In the upper left section, students will write a vocabulary word.  In the upper right quadrant, they will illustrate the word.  The lower left section will contain a sentence with the vocabulary word underlined or highlighted.  In the last quadrant, students will produce a definition. 

Older students may create smaller versions of this exercise in a personal notebook, with multiple 4-square organizers per page. Alternatively, students can work to complete these organizers in groups of 2 or 4 to encourage cooperative talk and collaborative skills. 



This activity allows students to study content vocabulary and practice speaking and listening skills in a fast-paced game format. Begin by dividing the class into two teams. Arrange teams so that all but one student from each group is facing a whiteboard or Smartboard. Position two chairs (one for each team) so that they face the members of their group, with the backs to the whiteboard or Smartboard.

One student from each team sits in the chair so that he or she can see their teammates, but not the writing space. He or she is the "captain". The remaining team members form a line facing the chair. The facilitator records a vocabulary word from a familiar unit of study on the board. The student at the head of each line aims for the captain to name the correct response without actually saying, drawing, or spelling the target word. The team whose "captain" says the word first gets a point. Line leaders from both lines move to the end of the line and the next student steps up, repeating the process.

Once all students have described a word to the captain, the chairperson moves to the end of the line and the line leader becomes the next captain. This process repeats until all vocabulary words are used.



Closed sorts allow students to process new information and vocabulary in a guided, structured way. Sort decks can be made ahead of time, and for very young learners this may be ideal. Generally, it is best to have students create their own sort decks as a means of practicing reading and writing skills. Sorts can be completed independently, but partner work is even more beneficial in that it encourages collaborative problem solving and exercises listening and speaking components. To create sort decks, students can use a class generated list, personal dictionary or unit vocabulary wall to write individual vocabulary words on index cards (or halved index cards).

In a closed sort, the facilitator clearly defines the sort groups for students in advance. For example, an animal sort might include the categories: mammal, reptile, bird, fish, amphibian. An earth sciences sort might include the categories: rock, mineral, fossil. Students work to organize their cards in alignment with the pre-determined categories. Students’ work should be validated by a teacher, textbook or pre-made answer key.



The Object-Verb Match activity reinforces the relationship between nouns and verbs. It encourages students to share existing vocabulary knowledge and to explore new language in an interactive context. The activity is best suited for students up to 5th grade and emergent higher-grade learners.

Facilitator uses sentence strips or sticky notes on pieces of butcher paper to post various nouns around the room. As an alternative, images of various nouns (ex: horse, towel, archaeologist) may be posted. *Note: vocabulary that is specifically related to a text/topic of study is suggested.

Students are invited to walk the room, visiting each noun. Learners use the space on each piece of butcher paper to identify and record as many corresponding verbs as possible for each noun posted. Once completed (a timer is recommended), students may be invited to compose sentences using the identified vocabulary, act out the verbs at each station, or discuss contributions in an inside-outside circle format. Examples- Horse: gallop, trot, run, glide, prance, jump, leap, eat, walk, canter, race.  Towel: wipe, dry, clean, mop, wring, wash, dry, hang, use, share, spread.   Archaeologist: dig, explore, discover, search(ing), examine, think, brush, study, write/record, travel, talk, save/preserve, protect, carry, store.



Sorting activities allow students to process new information and vocabulary in a guided, structured way. Open sorts are similar to closed sorts but differ in one critical area. In a closed sort, the organizational categories are pre-determined by the facilitator. In an open sort, students will work independently or in work groups to devise, define and label their own categories, with only limited guidance from a teacher.

This process encourages critical thinking, rationalization and problem solving skills. For this reason, open sorts are best suited to older learners and intermediate/advanced language learners. It is best to have students create their own sort decks as a means of practicing reading and writing skills.

To create sort decks, students can use a class generated list, personal dictionary or unit vocabulary wall to write individual vocabulary words on index cards (or halved index cards). Within small collaborative work groups, learners strategize a rational for organizing cue cards. *Note: group end products do not need to mirror each other. Groups may be asked to present their sort and rational to the class. Student work should be validated by a teacher, textbook or pre-made answer key. For limited proficiency modification, see "Closed Sort" activity.


Synonym race is a collaborative activity that guides students in exploring similar-meaning words. To prepare for this activity, create identical sets of play cards to be used for groups of students working together (3-5 groups recommended). Cards can be printed and cut or written on index cards.  Play cards should contain adjectives that students may or may not be familiar with.

To play, divide students into working groups and distribute a play deck to each group. For each round of playing, facilitator calls out one adjective that is not included in the decks but is a synonym for a word in the deck. (Ex: Silly: Amusing.  Interesting: Fascinating.  Run:Dash). Groups of students must shuffle through their decks, locate a synonym, negotiate a word (if necessary), and either hold up the selection or write it on a white board. The first group to do so gets a point. Facilitator or a student records all synonym matches in a visible location.

This process continues until decks are exhausted. To close the exercise, students independently write the list of synonyms (and, for upper level students, come up with additional synonyms for each word) into their personal dictionaries, synonym study book, pre-made worksheet or alternative space.



This is an engaging game that allows for students to practice the use of verb conjugation while exercising all four language domains. Prior to the start of the lesson, facilitator creates a class set of index cards with sentence clauses that students will use to construct complete first-person sentences. (Ex: trombone player, last year; dance teacher, 6 years; Lego expert, 4 years old). For early language learners or very young students, sentence stems will be more appropriate.

Pass out index cards to students. Explain that something is now missing from the classroom and that there are a designated number of "thieves" in the class (3-5). The students must now become detectives and seek out the thieves.

To do this, students will need to circulate the room. When they encounter a partner, they have two roles. First, if using a clause card, they must share the detail about themselves. (I have been a trombone player since last year. I have been a dance teacher for 6 years. I have been a Lego expert since I was 4.) Then, the partner records the information in the third person. (He has been a trombone player since last year. She has been a dance teacher for 6 years. She's been a Lego expert since she was 4.) Roles reverse.

When this process is complete, students find a new partner. The game continues for a designated amount of time or through a set number of partners. Finally, the facilitator reveals the details of the "thieves". Those students whose index cards match a description of a thief come forward and read their sentences to the class. As an alternative, all students can practice reading their sentences in an Inside-Outside Circle or similar format.



Word Exchange is a strategy that engages learners in all of the language domains. To begin, distribute index cards with vocabulary words written or printed on them. The other half of the class receives index cards with matching vocabulary definitions. Have students read and become comfortable with the cards, offering assistance where needed. Next, students are prompted to circulate the room interacting, exchanging ideas, and problem solving to match each new word with its corresponding definition.

Once pairs are set (is it wise to have students confirm definition using text glossary, picture dictionary or other resource), they can move to the next step. Partners may compose and display labeled drawings, graphic organizers (such as the Frayer model), songs or skits to explain the target word. For added linguistic practice, allow each pair an opportunity to present their word set to the class.



This activity incorporates kinesthetic engagement as it encourages students to actively demonstrate collaborative skills, content understanding and sentence building. To begin, students are divided into teams of three to six participants. Each team assumes a “home base” in a corner or side of the room. The facilitator places one deck of cards in the center of the room. This deck of cards contains content/unit specific words. A second set of cards is placed next to the first. This deck contains sentence building cards, including various prepositions, conjunctions, punctuation marks, and “double underline” cards (indicating the use of a capital letter).

When cued, one person from each team approaches the cards, selects one from each pile, and returns to his or her “base”. This process continues until one team has constructed a full, meaningful sentence, complete with appropriate sequencing and punctuation. Members of finished team may join other teams as they continue to play until completion.



Word Strength is best suited for intermediate and advanced language learners. The exercise helps students to better understand subtle gradients in adjectives within like categories. The facilitator's role is to guide students in the process of ordering feeling words from the least to the most exaggerated meaning. This can be achieved in a group or independent context.

To complete the group version on a smart board or large piece of chart paper, begin with a horizontal line stretching from one side of the workspace to the other. Distribute index cards with pre-recorded target adjectives. In the early stages, it is best to begin with a limited number of cards (3-5), working up to as many as twenty.

Students work collaboratively to organize words on the gradient of intensity. The use of personal dictionaries, anchor charts, contextual text or other resources is encouraged. Example 1: icy, frigid, cold, chilly, lukewarm, warm, toasty, hot, scalding. Example 2: evil, wicked, mean, aloof, indifferent, cordial, friendly, affectionate. The same process can be repeated on a smaller scale for independent work and/or station work.


Ready to dig deeper? These activities (and many others) were created by Refugee Classroom as part of the comprehensive EduSkills platform. Learn more at eduskills.us.

EduSkills is an educational services and school data analysis company serving schools and districts Pre-K through 12th grade. EduSkills collaborates with schools and districts in order to help teachers and administrators become high-performing outcome based educators with a clear focus on high level student achievement.