Editor’s Note: Over the past year, I’ve invited many teachers of English Language Learners to contribute guest posts on specific teaching topics. This new series is on how to help ELLs learn new vocabulary. The first was a guest post is by Outi Frisk: Make Words Make Sense.

Today’s post is by Marnie Barnett, Kimberly Carter, Molly Keegan and Amy Sandvold.

I’m adding it to The Best Sites Where ELL’s Can Learn Vocabulary


Marnie Barnett, Kimberly Carter, Molly Keegan and Amy Sandvold teach at Highland Elementary School in the Waterloo Community School District in Waterloo, Iowa.

Amy Sandvold is a third grade teacher and co-author of the bestselling “The Passion Driven Classroom” and “The Fundamentals of Literacy Coaching.” Marnie Barnett was an art teacher for over 20 years and recently made the switch to teaching ELL. Kimberly Carter has been teaching for 13 years, is a current ELL instructor, and children’s author. Molly Keegan is entering her third year as an ELL instructor after graduating with a degree in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) Teaching.

We have several layers of support in teaching vocabulary to our ELL students at Highland Elementary School. Teachers pull-out for small groups, and lead staff professional development on how to use ELL strategies that are useful for all learners. We are fortunate at our school that ELL and regular education teachers co-teach vocabulary.

Specifically, we use the interdisciplinary vocabulary development model called  Rule of 3 ( L.D. Ventriglia,Ph.D). The Rule of 3 focuses on Rehearsal of the word, including building background, Word analysis, context clues, semantic mapping, decoding prefixes and suffixes and root words and finally, Deep processing strategies, using both complex and simple elaboration of meaning(using the word in a sentence to drawing a picture for meaning).

This model utilizes whole brain/body teaching and learning often referred to as Total Physical Response  or T.P.R. (J. Asher). Basically, it is associating movement with the concept learned. At our school, we create Flipcharts using ActivInspire Software projected on a Promethean Board. Instead of the traditional “show the word with a definition” framework, the TPR model uses a R.A.P (Rehearse, Analyze, Produce) sheet along with the flipcharts. This ensures all student learning styles are met.

First, the flipchart is presented:

  1. The word is displayed visually and the teacher prompts the students to say the word.

  2. The teacher asks the students, “Have you heard this word?” with a thumbs up or down.

  3. The teacher asks the students, “What do you know about this word?”

  4. Validate responses and launch the teaching based on what students say.

  5. The next visual is the written word with the word in text, with a variety of media such as gifs and photos. We try to avoid cartoon images so we can keep it as authentic to the vocabulary as possible. We are conscious about implementing cultural backgrounds to aid in building connections. For example, if the word is “celebration” and you are teaching Spanish speaking students, we include images to match the culture such as pinatas and culturally relevant food.

  6. For multiple meaning words, we include all possible visuals to match the vocabulary word. We do not include a written definition. This is purposeful because we are trying to build a working definition based on the images and the context in which they hear the word.

The next step is linking the actual flipchart to a visual of the RAP sheet. Students are then instructed to “Turn and Talk” then follow the RAP sheet:

  • Turn and Talk: After discussing the vocabulary meaning, the teacher provides the opportunity to turn and talk and have a conversation using the word

  • R – REHEARSE: Students have a paper copy of the RAP sheet. Along with writing the word, we use movement (clap, snap, stomp or chant) each letter in the word.”

  • A – ANALYZE: Depending on the focus or grade level, we go deeper into the word parts such as prefixes and suffixes, parts of speech, or syllables or what letters are in the word.

  • P – Produce: Students are to create an image or sentence of choice that connects to the definition. Student choice is key to internalize meaning.

This model is crucial for success of our ELL students in the regular classroom at Highland Elementary School because it ensures comprehension of concepts being taught by building background. We often assume that students already come with background knowledge on subjects, however, that is not always true. This model sets up all students for success.

For a sample of the Rule of 3 strategy, you can download a pdf file free on Amy’s Teachers Pay Teachers website: ATeacherinIowa or go to https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/ELL-Vocabulary-Rule-of-3-4429100



The main text on total physical response is James Asher’s Learning Another Language through Actions, first published in 1977