Teaching Vocabulary with Beginners

Hello colleagues, I'm teaching a beginning level class this summer. What are some activities that you have found especially effective for teaching vocabulary at this level? Thanks for sharing some of your strategies!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL CoP



Hi Susan,

As you know, I am not in the thick of classroom teaching, but the teachers I work with in MN really appreciate the New American Horizons video Growing Vocabulary with Beginning Learners (newamericanhorizons.org). The teacher, Karli Boothe, demonstrates a variety of vocabulary development strategies and activities to promote learners’ interaction and active engagement as they learn new vocabulary.


Hi Susan, 

I really like graphic organizers for vocabulary building, with my favorite being a 4 square. Students can create their own folder and build their own dictionary.  Here are some links with resources: 

  • Pinterest https://www.pinterest.com/explore/vocabulary-graphic-organizer/
  • Reading Horizons http://www.readingrockets.org/strategies/word_maps
  • Reading A-Z https://www.readinga-z.com/vocabulary/vocabulary-graphic-organizers/

I hope you find a few ideas you like. 


Hello all, Wow! Thanks, Kathy, for linking us to so many resources! I have used the Frayer Diagram for teaching vocabulary in the past. See below. Is this what you mean by 4 square? If so, could you say a bit about how you are using this with beginners? Since I've never tried using this kind of tool with low level students, I'd love to hear how it's working for you.

I know drawing a picture has been shown from research to be an effective way for students to remember vocabulary. I'm wondering if members are having beginners draw pictures as part of vocabulary instruction. I'm also wondering if teachers are encouraging students to make flashcards.

Keep the ideas coming!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL CoP

Image removed.

Hello all, See the Frayer Diagram that I referred to in my previous message below. Have members used this tool with beginners? If so, please share how it has worked for you.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL CoP

















Hello Betsy and all, Thank you, Betsy, for reminding us about the fantastic New American Horizons video series --which, by the way, friends, Betsy and another wonderful colleague MaryAnn Florez developed. These videos feature authentic adult ESL classrooms in action. I've viewed all of the videos in the series many times, and each time I watch, I learn something new. I love all of them!

I'm wondering if members have had the opportunity to view any of these videos. Let us know which are your favorites and what you have gained from watching them. In addition to Growing Vocabulary with Beginners, the titles in the series include:

  • Lesson Planning for Life Skills
  • Building Literacy with Adult Emergent Readers
  • Working with a Muli-level Class
  • Developing Listening Skills with High-Intermediate Learners
  • Teaching Grammar in Real Life Contexts
  • Cultivating Writing Skills at the Intermediate Level
  • Developing Reading Skills for Intermediate/Advanced Learners
  • Assessing Learning in the Adult ESL Classroom
  • Tasks to Promote Critical Thinking and Learning Skills
  • Effective Grouping Strategies in the Adult ESL Classroom
  • Tasks to Develop Oral Skills: From Accuracy to Fluency

I think viewing and discussing one or more of these videos would make for a great activity here in our LINCS community. If you agree, please suggest one of the videos that you would like to discuss.

In the vocabulary video, Karli Boothe does a wonderful job of teaching vocabulary to beginners. One activity she uses is Total Physical Response (TPR), which I would say is pretty much essential to incorporate in a beginning class. I appreciate how Karli engages the students in giving TPR prompts to one another, so they get to not only work on their listening skills, but also their speaking skills in English.

Looking forward to hearing more great strategies for teaching vocabulary with beginners!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL CoP

All,  In addition to the great content learning that comes from watching and reflecting on the New American Horizon videos, they also provide helpful and immediate information about practitioners' knowledge, priorities and understandings.  I've had new teachers, emerging teachers/volunteers watch clips together and ask them for their reactions/responses.  Often those responses tell me much about what teachers know, value and do - and how to support them in growing more as educators.  Sorry to bring us slightly off track, but these have been my go to tapes, as well as a few of these other resources    http://www.literacyresourcesri.org/pcl.html    




Hi Janet, Thanks for sharing this link to so many useful resources. I agree that the New American Horizons videos are wonderful to share with new teachers and tutors. They are also great for those of us who have been around for a while. The videos are full of useful teaching ideas and strategies to discuss.

As suggested above, if members would like to discuss a particular New American Horizons video here in our community, we can do that. Let us know which title would be of interest.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL CoP


Susan and All -

REEP staff just put together a nice YouTube video on flashcards as a way to build vocabulary.  The link is https://youtu.be/DcIO2ln5-iU   In the video the teacher demonstrates perhaps 10 ways that she uses the cards over a  period of up to three weeks, and then later in a cycle students pull them out for review.   She moves through the memorization phase, into spelling, building sentences, partner dictations, bingo, sorting, and even with gets a communicative task in there.  All good stuff!



Ellen Clore-Patron

Hamline U. Graduate Student, MAESL program

Arlington Education and Employment Program, Volunteer Teacher


Thanks, Ellen, for linking us to this useful video of how teacher Libby Costello uses vocabulary flashcards as a key aspect of instruction with beginners. It's clear that this teacher understands that learners need a great deal of practice in different and interesting ways to really learn vocabulary. I include some similar activities in my classroom, and I definitely want to add sorting activities to the mix.

It is, perhaps, no surprise that research has shown that old-fashioned flashcards improve retention of vocabulary.

Would love to hear members' thoughts on this video and the many useful techniques that can be done with a set of flashcards in the classroom! Please share your own vocabulary teaching strategies, too!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL


Again, I ask what is meant here by "beginning" students.   We use the term loosely-- and hopefully we have learned over the past several decades that "beginner" can mean many things-- beginner in that they have no English but are educated?   Beginner in that they are not literate in an alphabetic language?   Beginner in that they have no English and no prior literacy??  All these would require careful planning and vetting of activities--the above described path to vocabulary sounds like a classic foreign language class...... I could have done that with my community college "beginning" reading classes-- who were learning higher level reading skills and vocabulary building skills.... but never with a mixed class nor a less literate group.....

Robin L. 

Hello Robin and all, Of course, you are right, Robin, that the learners we serve come with a wide range of differences in terms of level. The field continually evolves from year to evolve from week to week as we work with refugees and others who have no or very limited formal schooling as well as those who are highly skilled and even have professional degrees, such as doctors, dentists, engineers, and teachers, and everyone in between.We see individuals who speak English brilliantly, but have almost no ability to read or write as well as those who have pretty solid reading skills but little or no ability to understand or speak English. I've often said there is surely no more diverse group of learners than those who show up for adult ESL classes! It is clear that our approach to teaching vocabulary needs to be appropriate for the particular learners in our class. The same approach will definitely NOT always work with everyone!

For those with limited formal schooling, we need to first build on an oral language foundation. Robin, over the years, you have shared a great deal of valuable information with our members about how to effectively work with this population. As you note, creating stations in the classroom can be quite effective.

Some members may like to check out the archive of the LINCS discussion in which Robin and a couple of classroom teachers, Lauren Osowski and Alicia Broggio, discuss in detail how they set up learning centers in the classroom to address the needs of a wide range of learners.

Additional ideas for teaching vocabulary to a diverse group of learners are welcome from all!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL CoP


A technique that I am eager to try as a teacher but so far have only experienced as a learner is the strategic use of gestures. More generally, gestures have been seen to help reduce cognitive load when people are communicating. Eskildsen & Wagner (2015) conducted a conversation analysis study on a beginning-level(?) adult ESL class over the span of several months. They looked at the use of gestures with the lexical items of under and across from. The gesture for under took the general shape of something stationary (either an object or a hand) under which the (other) hand, palm up, sweeps. The study adds further evidence to existing research on the benefit of gestures in helping with vocabulary recall. They noted that the gestures were more elaborate when there was comprehension trouble but gradually stopped or changed as use of the vocabulary became spontaneous. We already do a bit of this with TPR which gives students an opportunity to demonstrate understanding. The study takes the idea further by showing that gesture can help with vocabulary consolidation and retrieval. The study just looked at two prepositions, which by their nature are physiospatial.

But I can speak from personal experience that gestures can be helpful with other concepts as well. I took a beginning French class at my grad school last year. The teacher, who ascribes to a Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) method, made extensive use of gestures. She presented gestures for things like "to eat", "to drink", etc. She asked us to come up with gestures for verbs that we drew when asked what we like to do (e.g., read a book, go skiing). She used some ASL signs (e.g., the signs for 'want' and 'like'). It was a multilevel class, so some students continued to use the gestures only because the teacher asked us to; it was clear they had already internalized the vocabulary to the put of being able to use it fluently. But it seemed to help some of the beginners participate nonverbally whilst demonstrating understanding. 

It would be important for a teacher to plan gestures in advance, map each gesture to a single vocabulary word or lexical unit, and be consistent. Getting students to suggest gestures would be great, too. If anyone has tried systematic use of gestures or will be trying it, I'd love to hear what gestures get used and whether learners seem to benefit from it!

Eskildsen, S. W., & Wagner, J. (2015). Embodied L2 construction learning. Language Learning65(2), 268-297.


Thanks for this discussion topic. 


MA TESOL Candidate, SIT Graduate Institute

Literacy Council of Northern Virginia, Faculty Support Manager

What about TPR (Total physical response)-- which is all gestures and reactions -- a really effective way to learn receptive vocabulary for sure!!


Robin L.  





HI all-  from what I have learned about them, the CCRS (College and Career Readiness Standards) provide excellent structure within which to teach texts and the critical vocabulary in them.   I would strongly suggest that route for literate students.  The text-based answers and exploration of vocabulary within the context of the text assure a level of understanding no flash card or un-contextualized approach can do.  

Personally, I use hands on activities-- which I call learning centers if they are used in a classroom organized around them-- to deepen vocabulary knowledge as well.   Since we know from research that students must "own" the vocabulary either passively or actively or both for it to have any effect on their reading comprehension or oral expression, it is critical to provide them with multiple exposures to and opportunities for internalizing vocabulary words.   Having a series of 5-8 activities in which vocabulary is used with increasing complexity of activity --and making sure the vocabulary is critical to every day life or to a text or lesson the students are working on--can be effective as well as interesting and engaging.  And these activities are self correcting, so students know how they are doing in learning the words.   

Finally, there is another good resource for teachers of reading and vocabulary at readinghorizons.com-- go to "resources" on top bar and then webinars-- there is a VAST collection of webinars on all kinds of topics-- and they are free.    I have several there.  

Robin Lovrien  



I really like the strategies like the ones in Pabis and Hamer's _Building College Vocabulary Strategies_, as they include lots of use of the words as opposed to memorizing definitions. 

The point you mention about "lots of use of the words" echoes Robin's comment about the research evidence of the need for multiple encounters.

But I'm not familiar with that text by Pabis and Harmer. Could you share additional examples from the book? I'd be curious to see how I could adapt their ideas to the beginning-level and low-intermediate classes of adult immigrants that I work with here in Northern Virginia. (@Robin, I mean learners who score SPL 0-4 on the BEST Plus. Thanks for seeking specificity.)

This book really reminds me of how we taught vocabulary at The NEw Community School ... and I've got some of our comprehension stuff on my neglected site at http://resourceroom.net/Comprehension/index.html  -- look for "word parts" for the vocabulary.   

The Pabis and Hamer book has chapters for structural elements... so chapter one uses im- and in-   , -ate, and -ous.   THe "words to learn" are impending, infiltrate, insidious, inadequate, integrate, percolate, and increment.   (The words on my site aren't as advanced.)   Some typical exercises are "context clues.   REad the sentences.  Use the words around the unfamiliar word to determine the word's meaning. Words in bold are the vocabulary words: words in italics are the context clues."  

The water inflitrates through the porous rock. 

This work is inadequate -  you'll have to do it again.

Then it has "Dictionary"   and it's got the words, their definitions, and an example. 

Then there are sentences and you fill 'em in from the word bank .

Then there's "correct or incorrect?"   with this example:   The insidious virus was mild and did not affect very many people. 

Then there are "short answer" -- "Name an insidious group in our country."   

THen multiple choice ("What is a sign of impending marriage?   diamond ring, arguing, divorce proceedings, college graduation... 

There are links to online activities to do with the words... 

I don't know if there's a more basic version or not.   


I have always found it difficult to teach the concept of context clues for vocabulary-- it is true, I suppose, that really skilled readers can use context, but who was it who reminded ESL teachers that understanding words in context requires two things-- understanding the CONTEXT and being very good at the skill of figuring out words from context?.....that has been my teaching experience, too. an

I really liked working with collocations in the books I used in my community college ESL classes.  I found that a useful approach for reading AND writing.  And I think I might have mentioned that doing word families-- root words with different suffixes/forms in charts was also a useful way to extend reading vocabulary relatively quickly.    It might not have given deep understanding of words, but it helped students focus on the function of words in sentences, which in turn helped with overall comprehension.  Probably a variety of approaches is necessary for a typically mixed ESL class.   

Robin Lovrien  



Hi Robin and all, I agree that learning word families, i.e., roots, suffixes and prefixes, is a good way to expand vocabulary. Of course, drawing students' attention to cognates -- for those languages that share large numbers of cognates with English -- is also useful. Check out this list of the most common English/Spanish cognates.

I appreciate the point, Robin, about getting meaning from context. As we all know, the context does not always include helpful clues to guess a word's meaning. Here's an example from Isabel Beck and colleagues (2002), that illustrates this.

What words could fill the blank below?

  • "Sandra had won the dance contest, and the audience’s cheers brought her to the stage for an encore.  'Every step she takes is perfect and graceful,' Ginny said __________________________ as she watched Sandra dance."

Reference: Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York. Guilford Press.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL CoP

I agree about the mention of cognates. With that kind of affordance, imagine how much vocabulary could almost instantly be acquired if we help learners to see patterns in the cognates. Continuing with the examples of English-Spanish cognates, this list of cognates by word ending shows the many cognates that end in '-tion' in English or '-ción' in Spanish. Yes, a teacher would need to be judicious about appropriateness of such vocabulary with their class. But we can draw students' attention to such a pattern and pre-teach some key differences between the L1 and English (e.g., penultimate stress on words in English ending in '-tion' rather than final stress as in Spanish). Efforts like that would give students a shortcut on the otherwise long path of vocabulary acquisition. 

Hi Xavier, Thanks for linking us to this list of cognates by word endings for English and Spanish. I have found that some students do not realize that there are so many cognates. It's surely important to draw their attention to these similarities. We need to point out the false cognates, too!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL CoP

Thanks for your comment, Lynda. I agree completely that it is incredibly valuable to share the many cognates that English shares with other languages-- especially Spanish. Realizing how many words are shared can be a real confidence builder!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL CoP

As for learning from context clues, it is worth mentioning the number 98%. Research suggests that readers need to understand 98% of the vocabulary in a text for successful independent reading comprehension (Schmitt, Jiang & Grabe, 2011). (When reading comprehension is assisted by a teacher/more knowledgeable other, the percentage seems to drop to somewhere between 85% and 95%). It's something to consider before asking ELLs to guess from context. 

Schmitt, N., Jiang, X., & Grabe, W. (2011). The percentage of words known in a text and reading comprehension. The Modern Language Journal, 95, 26–43. 


Another thing about what's needed to guess from context can be uncovered if you (not your students, please!) try guessing the meaning of the unknown words in this short passage. (My professor used it in the lexicon module of a course on language analysis). 

Montillation of Traxoline It is very important that you learn about traxoline. Traxoline is a new form of zionter. It is montilled in Ceristanna. The Ceristannians gristeriate large amounts of fevon and then bracter it into quasel traxoline. Traxoline may well be one of our most lukized snezlaus in the future because of our zionter lescelidge.

Maybe I couldn't define the words, but I was able to decipher other aspects of the vocabulary (e.g., part of speech). For instance, "zionter" is probably a noun since it acts as the object of a preposition by being preceded by "of". For the same reason, "Ceristanna" is probably a noun. More specifically, it's probably a location given that "in" is often used as a preposition of place and given that the word seems to be modified in the next sentence in a way that is reminiscent of how we modify country names to identify groups of people (e.g., Florida --> Floridian). And so on. The point being that I'm able to tap into knowledge of form (including affixations), meaning, and use (including grammatical function) to have a rudimentary sense of unknown words. Are we preparing our learners to have a similar set of knowledge and the skill to recognize possible patterns?


I am so happy the 98% figure has been put out here again---some reading expert-- can't dredge the name up just now-- has reminded us ESL teachers that being able to guess a word from context-- or at least hazard a guess-- requires this 98% knowledge of the words in the text AND a good understanding of the context itself AND lots of practice guessing words from context.... I don't think I have ever encountered a native English speaker who successfully used context to guess a word-- more often they just skip over an unknown word and race on...... On the other hand, I LOVE activities like the one in xmunoz' post where the reader can infer a great deal from GRAMMATICAL clues and word FORMS.... that, to me, is far more helpful for readers to be able to do.  

Robin Lovrien (Schwarz) 

Thanks for sharing the link and these examples, Susan. Your examples are similar to the Vocabulary Workouts I have developed based on the first 60 words on the Academic Word List.  The Vocabulary Workouts include explanations and examples for each word as well as practice responding to questions in speaking and writing. Here are some of the questions for the word "structure" -- used as both a noun and a verb:

  1. In your opinion, what should cities do about old structures?
  2. What is one way the structure of a poem is different from a paragraph in the newspaper?
  3. How often should teachers structure the class to include quiet time for study?
  4. Do you think adults should always structure children’s play time? Why or why not?

I have offered to send these Vocabulary Workouts to members in the past, if anyone would like to receive the set, please contact me off list at susanfinn_miller@iu13.org.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL CoP

I don't remember whether I asked this before... have you considered giving them a Creative Commons license and sharing them on OERCOMMONS.org?   

Hello colleagues, Susan asks if I have ever considered giving the Vocabulary Workouts a Creative Commons license and sharing them on OERCommons.org. I definitely have been meaning to do that. I have already added the appropriate logo, I just need to actually do it! In fact, I would like to do so for a number of materials I have developed, as well. Thanks for mentioning this, Susan.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL CoP


     I relatively new to brand-new ELL students.  In the past I have worked with students that want additional language, job specific language, or assistance in understanding a college (or other) class' written material.  In my new position I am working with students who are struggling with beginning English.  Thank you for mentioning the Academic Word List.  It will be another tool to have in the tool box.  


Thanks for mentioning one of your favorite approaches to introducing vocabulary in class. I believe that hands on activities are great tools for engaging students and making them more confident. 

Hello Aymara and all, I wanted to share a hands-on activity I did with beginning students this morning. We are studying daily routines, e.g., get dressed, prepare breakfast, exercise, watch TV, surf the internet, ride a bike, do homework, etc.

Since the students already knew most of these words, I decided not to introduce each word. Instead the students worked with a partner to first cut out the pictures and the words (having the students do the cutting saves a lot of time!), and then together they matched the words with the pictures.

We then used the pictures for a line drill. Each student was given one picture. They formed two lines so that each person was facing a partner. Each student asked his or her partner, "What does he do everyday?/What does she do everyday?/What do they do everyday?" The partner responded according to the picture, e.g., He walks to school. She washes her face. They listen to music, etc.  After this exchange, the person at the end of one of the lines, moves to the beginning of the line, and everyone else moves to the next partner. In this way, the students get to practice the same question again and again and get to respond to a new partner's question each time they change partners.

To make our work with the pictures a bit more rigorous, I want to next have the students work with a partner or two to sort the pictures. (We saw a sorting activity demonstrated in Libby Costello's video that was shared by Ellen Patron earlier in this discussion.) Some categories might be activities we usually do in the morning, activities we usually do in the evening, activities we can do anytime; activities we do alone, activities we do with others, activities we do at home, activities we do outside the home, etc. Deciding which category to place a certain activity in will, no doubt, be somewhat ambiguous, and that is actually a good thing because the students will have to think about it and use English to negotiate their ideas with one another.

It would be useful to add a writing activity based on the sorting.

Keep your good ideas coming!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL CoP

Thank you, Susan. I love when students engage in questions and answers, and language creativity. Using simple materials, as you mentioned, they can do so much.  When you just let them participate, follow the flow and elaborate, they really do well.  It is very exciting and rewarding  to see how they cooperate and correct each other. Thanks again for sharing.

Hello friends, No doubt, many of you incorporate Bingo into your teaching as a way to review vocabulary, especially with beginners. Some of you probably have some innovative ideas for using Bingo. If you have an idea for a creative way to play Bingo, please let us know.

For those who might be interested, you can find a Bingo card maker on a variety of themes as well as phonics patterns at Boggles World ESL.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL CoP

Hello colleagues, We played Bingo again this morning in my beginning ESL class. We are focused on the theme of work. Last week, the students made flashcards with photos of specific occupations, and they wrote the names of the occupations on the back of each card. I prefer using photos rather than stylized drawings. Research has actually shown photos to be more effective -- which, to me, is not at all surprising. I introduce the vocabulary using a set of color photos; however, the students' copies are black and white.

Today they made another set of flashcards with the same photos in response to the questions, "What does he do? What does she do? What do they do?" On the back of their flashcards, they wrote a sentence in response to the question. For example, on the card that shows the dental hygienist, they wrote, "She cleans teeth." On the back of the hairdresser card, they wrote, "He cuts hair," on the back of the firefighters card, they wrote, "They fight fires." This part of the lesson was teacher led.

After the students practiced in a variety of ways with their flashcards, we played Bingo (with chocolate, of course!). They wrote the names of the occupations on their Bingo cards, and I gave prompts based on what the workers do. So, for example, when I gave the prompt "They take care of patients," the students put their marker on the word "nurses" on their Bingo card. When I said, "She teaches little children," they put their marker on preschool teacher, etc. This was a great way to both build on what the students had learned previously, i.e., the words we use for different occupations, and what they learned today, i.e., what people do on the job.

Another twist that I've been adding to Bingo, is having the students give the prompts. When you win Bingo, then you get to be the teacher and give the prompts. This has been a really excellent way for students to work on pronunciation, since everyone in the class has to be able to understand them when they give the prompt.

Please share your creative ideas for using flashcards and/or for Bingo or other vocabulary games.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL CoP


Hi Michael, Thanks for the question. The website I'm using to generate Bingo cards is here.

If other members have additional suggestions, please share them.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL CoP



Hi Michael and Susan -- I use bingo very frequently in the games and activities I promote for adult ESL learners and their teachers.  I wanted to add a few comments about that here.

First is that I have two wonderful shortcuts to bingo cards:  One is that I first create (or better, have students help create) decks of matching sets such as present and past forms of irregular verbs, questions and answers about some topic, opposites, pictures and matching words, pairs of pictures of items that begin with the same sound, -- or the pictures and jobs OR job names and one task for that job that Susan describes in her post.....etc. Each half of the deck is on a different color of half-size index card, ideally.   (If all are on one color, one half of the deck is marked to differentiate it from the other-- e.g. the cards with the present forms of the verbs are marked with a large dot on the back, while the cards with the past forms are marked with an X)    The deck is first used for matching-- face up-- so the players know what they are matching.  Then the second time the deck is used for classic concentration.      The third use of the deck is for what I call "instant bingo"--  one half of the deck-- say the past forms of the irregular verbs--- are divided up among the players and then each player lays the cards out in a grid in front of him/her, face up.     The second half of the deck is the draw pile.  One player picks up a card and reads "mechanic"  and the player who has "This person fixes cars" claims the card and covers the job description with it.   They continue until someone has won and covered all his/her cards (though in my long experience with adults playing games of this sort, they prefer to continue until EVERYONE has covered all the bingo card).    

This form of bingo is also what I call "indirect bingo"-- where the players do NOT cover what they hear-- they must process something to be able to cover a square or card.    I have found this version extremely useful for all kinds of content.  For example, questions and answers are great for this kind of bingo,  and I often have the players put the questions out for their grids and call the answers. This requires backwards matching--- very challenging!!  (of course you --the instructor-- have to make sure that there is only one answer for each question.  But it is not too hard to make answers specific to the questions by mentioning a time or a name or an object, etc.  (e.g.  Where did you buy  your shoes?    I bought my shoes at Target.)

The other way I do bingo cards in a very efficient and cooperative way is to make a list of items I want on the bingo cards and then give several students blank bingo sheets and tell them to choose items from the list and write them on the bingo sheets.   I model for them how to write in the middle of the squares, not in the corners, and make sure they write as legibly as possible-- sometimes it takes several tries for that.  There are more items on the list than there are squares on the bingo sheets, too.    Because no two students will copy the same items (and directions say this-- choose from anywhere on the list)  no two sheets will be the same, guaranteeing a winner.     This gives the students extra practice with the bingo items as well.   This can work for direct or indirect bingo.      

As you can infer, as Susan does sometimes, I prefer for students to do their own calling of the bingo items-- yet another way for them to practice the content. They generally take turns-- and do not put students in groups larger than 4-- too much waiting and not enough talking!!    Also, I do not use the BINGO rubric, nor do I always have a free square in the middle, though I do use only grids that have a true diagonal -- 9 or 16 squares are my preference-- a 25-space grid is hard for low-level readers to scan easily and can take too long in a class.    

I am careful not to overuse bingo --it is one of quite a variety of games and activities I teach teachers to use-(as you can see from the sequence above, these are the first three games --matching ,concentration and bingo- that can be used with the decks of this sort-- there are several more--this saves YOU a lot of work and assures that the students will review the content for the requisite MANY times adult language learners need but not doing the review in the same way).  Since there is hardly a being on the planet who does NOT know how to play bingo, it is easy to implement and easy to plug different content into.    And let's not forget the small but good body of research that indicates that language students retain much more through games than through traditional teaching or traditional language learning practices.....:)) 

Happy teaching!!  Robin Lovrien Schwarz, 


HI Susan-- I did not see this request in the summer-- just wanted to add that I do many trainings with teachers on how to use games and activities for the primary mode of learning and teaching in adult ESL classes( In my work these have often been called "learning centers" -I did my doctoral research on the effectiveness of learning centers for adult ESOL learners). The games and activities are particularly helpful for differentiating instruction in the inevitable mixed-level ESL classes (or mixed-everything, as I am fond of saying-- since they are often mixed age, education, English skill, language and culture background and need or motivation for learning English.....)

I have been working most recently  with teachers in MA (who are offered free PD by SABES-- MA's wonderful PD system for adult education--especially adult ESOL)--and this Friday am doing a follow-up video cast with about 20 teachers who have tried out games and activities and created some of their own.   The teachers teach students in the entire range-- from non-literate to college level, job English and general, family literacy and tutoring.    And this weekend am heading to the NY TESOL conference to do a session there that includes instruction on how to use games and activities to strengthen phonological skills in adult ESL learners.  

In the thread on bingo, I describe a whole series of games that can be done with any given deck of matching sets-- as in the one you mention about jobs, or simply matching words to pictures. For the non-literate I like to match two things that look very different--since visual processing of 2-dimensional information can be very challenging for a non-literate person. For example, matching 2 sofas, or 2 chairs that look very different but are given the same name.   I noted in the bingo thread that one deck I use is matching items that begin with the same sound--  microwave and medicine.  pots and pillows,  etc.   The activity can focus on final sounds, medial vowels, number of syllables, rhymes , etc-- all necessary phonological processing skills for pre-literacy.  

I am just re-developing a website on which I will have many resources about the games and activities I teach --and I am also developing a blog about adult ESOL issues-- Robinlovrienschwarz.wordpress.com -- check it out!!

Thank you,  Robin Lovrien (Schwarz) 


Hello Robin, As always, we are grateful to learn about your creative ideas for teaching. It's great to hear that you are working on a website and a blog. We will definitely check them out regularly! I especially appreciate your sharing ideas for teaching phonological awareness and phonics with learners who have had limited formal schooling. We know that these skills must be taught explicitly using language the learners understand and can produce orally. Bingo and other games are incredibly effective for so many learning goals!

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, AELL CoP