Acquiring Vocabulary Part III: 10 Ways to Get Students Moving

In Part I of our series, Acquiring vocabulary: 5 strategies to create meaning in learning vocabulary, we set the scene for a movement in which teachers are shifting from meaningless drill and practice exercises to help students acquire new content, such as vocabulary.


In Part I of our series, Acquiring vocabulary: 5 strategies to create meaning in learning vocabulary, we set the scene for a movement in which teachers are shifting from meaningless drill-and-practice exercises to help students acquire new content, such as vocabulary.

In Part II, Acquiring vocabulary: 9 strategies for creating graphic organizers, we reviewed types of graphic organizers, and sample activities to go along with them, that support vocabulary acquisition.

In Part III, let’s get students moving, both in terms of engaging with physical models and engaging in physical activity.

Making physical models

Physical models represent the 3-D versions of visual input and range from models to manipulatives. Here are five versions that you’ll find in the Teacher Editions of EntreCulturas 1, 2, 3.

Human Graph

Post certain categories or responses to questions on the wall in the classroom. Pose the prompt or question and have students line up under their response, perpendicular to the wall. Have students then explain or justify their choice to a partner. Examples include:

  • (Novice High) What is your favorite Friday night activity? (Homework, Movies, Mall, Sporting event, Home)
  • (Intermediate Low) What kind of volunteer work would you like to do? (Summer camp, Hospital, Daycare, Sports camp, Other)
  • (Intermediate Mid) Which social media would you use to promote a can drive for the local food bank? (Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube)

Pack a suitcase

This activity can be done using a paper or digital suitcase and clothes, but it’s more fun with the real objects. Ask for donations of old suitcases and clothes from colleagues or parents. Have students work in pairs or in small groups and give each group a suitcase and selection of clothing. Have them pack their suitcase for a trip (give them a destination or let them pick their own) by taking turns selecting an item of clothing to include in the suitcase and explaining why they want to take that item.

Virtual tours

Engage students in tours of countries or museums virtually. Create tours for students to look for specific points of interest or artifacts. Or have students develop their own tours using the software, such as Google Earth, Google Arts and Culture, or Google Street view, or any of the virtual tours offered by museums and centers in the countries that speak the languages we teach.

Taste test

Depending on your school’s policies regarding food in the classroom, this can be one of the most memorable activities your students take away. Have students prepare recipes from the target cultures (in my classroom, we focused on tapas from Spain) or have a local restaurant cater the event (the neighborhood Mexican restaurant was more than happy to come in to my classes and provide demonstrations). Prepare a tasting sheet with the names of the foods and a rating system based on appearance, taste, etc. Have students try a minimum number of different foods, rate them, and then describe their favorite(s).

Foldables (Dinah Zike)

Foldables are 3-D representations of graphic organizers which serve to organize and analyze learning. Most of them take one or more sheets of paper which students fold into organizational tools. Three of my favorites include:

  • 3- or 4-door Foldable (1 sheet of paper) – Have students fold a sheet of paper in half and then in thirds or in half again. Then, have them open the paper, fold it again in half, and cut along one side of each vertical fold to the center. Have students label the “door” and then add images, definitions, descriptions, questions, etc. on the inside flap.
  • Layered Book Foldable (2 or more sheets of paper) – This is similar to the previous foldable, but allows for more categories for note-taking. Try using different colored paper as an organizational tool with this foldable.
  • Folded Tables and Charts (1 sheet of paper) – Have students take out a sheet of paper and lead them in folding the paper in half, then in half again, and again, and again until they have the number of columns and rows needed for the task. Then, have students label the header row and column accordingly.

Engaging in kinesthetic activity

There is strong evidence linking movement and learning. Take for example, the growth in the number of teachers embracing John Asher’s Total Physical Response (TPR), which integrates gestures and language, and the subsequent, Total Physical Response Storytelling (TPRS), created by Blaine Ray and enhanced by Carol Gaab, to provide movement, context, and meaning – a triple whammy. Here are five more strategies that incorporate movement to enhance language learning (note that “movement” doesn’t always mean moving around the room)..

Inside out circles

This strategy works well for assigning students partners with whom to engage in interpersonal conversations. Form two concentric circles; the students in the inner circle face a partner on the outer circle. Students all move to their right one partner. If space is limited, students can stand in two rows facing each other. In this case, have all students take one step to the right to find a new partner. The students at the end changes sides.

Bumper cars

This is another strategy for pairing students to exchange information. Students prepare notes on an index card in response to a prompt. Then, play music and have students walk around the classroom as long as the music is playing. When the music stops, so do the students. They then pair up with a classmate nearby and take turns discussing their responses to the prompt. When the music starts again, students exchange cards and start walking again until the music stops. They then find a new partner and discuss the items on their new cards. Repeat several times so that students have the opportunity to hear and share a variety of viewpoints. As an example, prepare sets of cards labeled: Comer bien; Ser activo; and Ser feliz. To distinguish one from the other print the cards out on different colors of paper (i.e., Comer bien on yellow paper, Ser activo on red paper, and Ser feliz on blue). Distribute the cards randomly so that each student has one card. During the sharing period, have students pair up with a classmate who has a different colored card and take turns discussing examples associated with their label (i.e., Comer bien: Comer frutas y verduras; No comer alimentos con azúcar).

Graffiti wall

Divide the class into small groups and post large sheets of butcher paper or chart paper – one for each group – on the walls of the classroom. Provide different colored markers and invite students to express their feelings in words after viewing a video or reading a text. Students may create their own cloud of words, work with a partner, or build off the clouds of their group members. After a few minutes, have students stop and stand back. Have them note if there are any words repeated or categories of feelings that have emerged (i.e., sadness, happiness, anger). Then, have students visit the Graffiti Walls that are not their own and have them add words, make comments, or draw labeled images that add to other groups’ work. Be sure to set ground rules about being respectful and appropriate in their comments and drawings. Follow this activity up with reflection writing or free-form poetry writing.


This strategy is a spinoff of a graphic organizer, but has students engaging in a form of Think-Pair-Share. Give each small group of students a copy of the placemat organizer or have them create their own using chart paper. Have students take notes (i.e., write keywords, draw pictures, brainstorm options, etc.) in their section of the placemat. Then, have students take turns sharing what they have written. At their turn, students share one item; group members look at what they have written to see if they have a match. If they do, they can highlight the match in some fashion. Have groups use the information they captured in the placemat to pool ideas which they write in the center section.

I think I have

Divide the class into small groups of three or four members each. Give each group a set of vocabulary words. Have one of the students in each group shuffle the words and place them face down in a stack. Have students take turns drawing a card from the stack and – without looking at it – name the word they think they have drawn and give a definition, a description, or an example. Then, have them turn the card over to verify their guess. If they guess correctly, they keep the card. If not, they return the card to the bottom of the deck and the next group member takes his or her turn. When all the cards have been collected, have students count the number they have to see who the winner is.

Tying it all together

Think of the kinds of applications for which you can use these strategies and activities to engage students in acquiring and using vocabulary or other content. Please share in the comment section ideas you have. Stay tuned to this blog space for the next in our series of strategies to link vocabulary acquisition and communication.

  • Espitia, D., García, P., Cornell, J., & Vásquez Gil, I. (2017). EntreCulturas 3. Freeport, ME: Wayside Publishing.
  • Mar, A., Davis, R., Sloan, M. & Watson-López, G. (2017). EntreCulturas 1. Freeport, ME: Wayside Publishing.
  • Marzano, R., Pickering, D. & Pollock, J. (2001). Classroom Instruction That Works. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
  • Schwenkler C., Cory, M., Carrión, P. (2017) EntreCulturas 2. Freeport, ME: Wayside Publishing.

Deborah Espitia

Deborah Espitia has been a world language educator for more than thirty years. She is a lead author on EntreCulturas 3 and has written numerous articles for Wayside surrounding proficiency-based learning.
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