February 24, 2013

Amplifying Your Instruction with Hands-On Activities

AMPLIFYING your ESL instruction is all about increasing comprehensible input for your students. In other words, ELLs learn best when you use instructional strategies that make your teaching (input) as easy to understand as possible (comprehensible).
Makes sense, right?  Amplification strategies are easy to adapt to whatever content you are teaching, and they are naturally differentiating (meaning students of all language abilities will benefit from their use).

AMPLIFICATION STRATEGY: Use realia and hands-on activities 

Realia is a fancy word for everyday objects.  You are using realia whenever you show your students actual objects (rather than an image or explanation of the object).  Even something as simple as using real coins during math lessons counts as realia.

Research shows us that the more ways we allow students to interact with the material we teach, the better they learn it. Realia and hands-on activities encourage students to participate and interact to the fullest.  By handling, manipulating, and observing objects, ELLs are able to use more than just language to help them construct meaning. They are receiving information through interacting with the objects you present, which helps them understand your lesson in a deeper way. 

We've created a sample Five Senses unit to give you an idea of how easy it is to incorporate realia and hands-on activities into your teaching.  Remember, amplification strategies can be added to any lesson to make it more comprehensible for ELLs!  Below are a few ideas to get your wheels turning.
1.) Assemble a collection of objects. Have each student pick an object (secretly, if you want to add some drama) to describe using their five senses. They can write their description as a paragraph if they're more advanced students, or in list form if their English skills are intermediate. A true beginner may decide to create a drawing with labels or select from a collection of words you’ve supplied in a word bank.  Pre-literate students may give an oral description of their objects. Allowing students to choose how to participate in this activity gives you the opportunity to assess their mastery of the content, regardless of their language abilities. 
2.) Read “touch and feel” books. These relatively simple books are wonderful for helping students understand the more subtle variations in texture that we try to describe. They may seem inappropriate for older ELLs, but a more advanced activity could include asking the students to feel the texture and then come up with an appropriate word to describe its feel. Providing a word bank or the first letter of the target word makes this exercise slightly easier. 

Usborne has a series of books that are great for teaching vocabulary words about the sense of touch.  In each of these books, a mouse is searching for something, but each time he thinks he’s found it, he realizes “it’s too (insert vocabulary word here).”  The accompanying pictures allow students to feel the texture while hearing the word that describes the feeling.  You can find many of the books in this series on amazon.com
3.) Brainstorm a list of words that describe touch and texture with your students. Then ask them to go out and find objects that illustrate those words. Your class can create a poster of the different vocabulary words and objects they find.  If you allow students access to this poster throughout the year, even beginner ELLs will be able to incorporate more advanced vocabulary into their writing.  These sensory words are very useful when teaching students to "stretch their writing" in Small Moments units!

For added cuteness, young students could trace their hands or even make a handprint using paint.
The bottom line: Integrating hands-on experiences whenever possible is an important way to reinforce new concepts and vocabulary for ELLs. It encourages students of all language levels to participate to their abilities and is naturally differentiating.  Not to mention, it motivates students, helps them stay focused (especially those kinesthetic learners), and encourages interaction with peers.

Did you find this post helpful?  Check out some of our other posts for more ideas about amplifying for ELLs.  Here you'll find a printable list of questions for parents to ask their children to encourage deeper reading comprehension.  For more tips on involving families in their children's schooling, visit our ELL Family Resources page and print out some of the forms on our post about parent communication.  Want more suggestions foranchor charts and graphic organizers?  Or take our quiz to find out how you're doing in terms of amplifying instruction for the ELLs in your classroom.


  1. Your chart examples of contextualization are really useful for anyone trying to make the connection to the importance of visuals. Thank you. Job well done!

    An additional point to add to the content of your article could be about the importance of providing the (ESL) students with shared experiences so that they can get the language and content in their schema together. Very often ELLs are struggling writers because they do not have a starting point / a learning experience in English to bridge the gap. Examples of shared experiences are: trips, class projects, Read Aloud books, really anything that allows for students to experience something with the target vocabulary and then to follow up those experiences by writing about them using the target language. Mostly this is The Language Experience Approach which will never be obsolete because it is just best practices.

    For many years I had to work in schools that were TC schools. Whenever the students were asked to write "How to" books, many ELLs struggled. So every year when that topic for writing rolled around, I used the Jello No Bake cake mixes to "bake" a cake with my students. This was a shared experience. Then after the experience, we analyzed what we did and categorized vocabulary needed to write about the experience. This led to students successfully being able to write their "How to" pieces!

    With the shift to the CCLs there is less of a focus on teaching a unit and then never going back to that same material and more of a shift towards integrated language experiences. Additionally a wonderful addition in the standards is the Speaking and Listening strand which is vital for teachers to incorporate because successful language acquisition most often comes from using all four language modalities-- listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Very often teachers (of ELLs) do not spend enough time on the oral and having discussions because that is not a "product" that can be shown the way producing a physical piece of writing can be evidence of work. However keep in mind that the time spent on creating language opportunities with the students through hands on activities, extensive post discussions,revisiting material daily, and incorporating all four language modalities, is really what will lead to language acquisition success!! HANDS ON EXPERIENCES ARE A GOOD START BUT... the follow up work is really what will make all the difference in the world for accessing language and content!!! Something to think about...

    1. You are absolutely right. These activities should be part of a larger unit that integrates the four modalities and asks students to produce and engage in authentic work. I love your point about providing ELLs with shared experiences to write about. This can be so helpful, especially with beginner students who stare at you blankly when you try to prompt a writing topic by asking what they did over the weekend. Having actually participated in the experience with your students allows teachers to help ELLs add details, language, and structure that is otherwise difficult. One of our favorite activities is to carve pumpkins with students at Halloween. We've written how-to pieces and small moments afterward. It's a wonderful opportunity for students to participate in an authentic cultural event they might not be familiar with, and then follow up with meaningful writing and discussion. These shared experiences are also an effective way to help students feel more comfortable in the classroom and more likely to engage, participate, and take risks. Thanks for the thoughtful comments!