Some regular EAL activities

Here are few things I do / use in my EAL practice that didn’t feature much (if at all) when I worked at the British Council. I’m just sharing for general interest and it’s actually been prompted by some of the feedback on our recent IELTS book. Three of the reviewers commented on a graphic organiser we included in the vocab building section of that book and were intrigued by them. I guess I’ll start there…

Frayer models

Frayer models are a type of graphic organiser. They are designed to help build conceptual knowledge of new vocab, build connections, activate schema, etc.

I’ve written about these before – they were something I experimented with in my EFL lessons at the Council. See this post. I’ve tried looking into the evidence basis for using this organiser – can’t seem to access the original paper by Frayer et al (1969). However, there are studies that have looked into the benefits of using graphic organisers including this one in Maths and Science (small scale example here, and an older research summary here are two of many examples). I’d suggest the benefits might relate to dual coding (?) but that feels a bit crude to say just because they include an illustration sometimes, ha!

Anyhow, from observing my learners explore/record new vocab using these tools, I do feel (not formally researched) that they aid retention. A collection of these models is also useful for reviews, and they are a nice plenary activity for vocab lessons for most subjects.

If you haven’t seen one, here’s what we used in our book.

Vocabulary knowledge ratings

My EAL colleague in primary uses these vocab knowledge rating tables as a pre- and post-unit activity. She gives the learners a list of unit key words and the learners rate how well they understand the term. They can re-evaluate this after input. Here’s an example of a knowledge rating table that I’ve nabbed from a nice summary from (worth reading).

I had my apprehensions about this one. Basically, I didn’t like the anxiety-inducing idea of spot-checking knowledge before a unit with the words in isolation, and I didn’t really like the fact that the post-unit evaluation is self-reported. I made sure it was accompanied by ‘test’ reviews like quizzes to back it up.

However, I warmed to this tool a bit once I’d devised activities around it. Learners self-report at the start of a unit, then they can teach each other some of the vocabulary they already feel confident with, you can gauge depth of understanding with close monitoring and work out how you might add to what they know. You can back it up with vocab records, graphic organisers and so on, it’s more than what it seems in isolation.

Retrieval grids

I do like these grids for vocab reviews. It’s the main activity I took from Kate Jones’ book, and overall they’ve worked pretty well.

Lots of off capitalisation in the above example but meh. I was typing quickly as elicited vocab from the class etc, and the example was also from a student. Good job.

 If you don’t know what these are, basically:

  • Add topic-related vocab to the grid, 36 items! You could mix and match topics I guess, adds to the challenge
  • Learners roll a dice twice to get the co-ordinates of a word (so in the above example, Milky Way is 5,3. Solar system is 2,2.
  • Learners add two words to the boxes. They then have to link the words somehow, which can end up being across two or three sentences (or can be pretty simple).

It’s good for concept checking. In fact, the occasional difficult combination is the best part about this activity. One learner the other day came up with ‘constellation’ and ‘meteor’ and was like ‘I’ve no idea how to link these!’ I asked them to explain what both are and why they are hard to link – this prompted some good dialogue and helped the learner demonstrate understanding. Proof of the learning right there, without the need to ‘fully’ complete the activity.

These can be used in a Dale-style way to begin with too, numbering the vocab based on level of knowledge (if using as a post-unit task), teach each other if needed. Merging tasks together…

Cheeky challenges

There’s just soooo much unknown vocab for my learners that pops up in lessons. Loads to take in, and I have to find ways to just double check understanding. EAL lessons aren’t always structured and complete, sometimes I just get a 30-minute top-up session. The most valuable thing for me/the learners is just to get them to demonstrate understanding of some of the new words/concepts, and plug holes that will help them in their main classes. My 30 min slots often start with a ‘do now’ related to things that were taught/that emerged in a subject lesson:

Without much else planned to be honest! We will be able to build input around it.

Ad-hoc drawings

A lot more of these happening in my EAL lessons these days! Check my recent post on CLIL Science for some shockers! Ha!

Reading tasks

I still try to get learners to complete a record of their own reading once a week. The homework tasks I mentioned a while back still serve a purpose, although they seem less popular with the KS4 learners compared to KS3. I think they completed more of these types of task in upper primary so they are more used to it.


I’ve been trying to get the learners to reflect on their learning more. There were lots of different self-evaluation tasks embedded in BC materials, and I’ve mixed and matched styles to make my own. Such is the nature of our learners’ engagement at times that I’ve sought feedback on their interest and effort:

This half-term reflection tool has been really good for prompting discussion, and getting an insight into how and why learners might be struggling from an affective point of view. The EAL classroom is (hopefully) a safer space in which learners are often afforded more time to explore their feelings on subject content. Well, I like to think so.

Things I’ve noticed writing this post

Something you might notice about the example materials in this post is that they are pretty raw at times. As I’ve mentioned before, EAL teaching is a pretty responsive type of teaching. There isn’t always time to create polished, all-singing-all-dancing resources and to be precious about things. That’s been a useful part of the job for me, as time constraints have meant I’ve avoided a ‘style over substance’ trap (or a fun-over-purpose one as well!) which I am prone to on occasions.

Another thing is that my practice includes more self-reporting from learners than it has done previously. I think this is a product of really needing to meet learner needs, so gathering a wider variety of data from them. Plus, I think it’s to do with genuinely putting communication above language in an EAL context. Given I’ve mentioned a lot of vocab input activities that might sound weird, but there’s definitely a need for the EAL classroom to be a place of expression (things move quickly in other subjects and there’s a lot of ‘moving on…’).

Oh, one more thing. Frayer et al, (1969). Edgar Dale, (1965). Old-school ideas on display here!

Anyhow, there are few ‘newer’ things (to me I mean) that I’ve been using. What are your latest activity/task/resource experiments?

Categories: General, Lesson Ideas, reflections, vocabulary

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

5 replies

  1. Hi Pete,
    Interesting to get this insight into how EAL works.
    You mentioned the Dale reference at the end, but I’m still not really clear about what you mean by Dale-style in the retrieval grids activity. Could you explain?


    • You know how the Dale tool is a rating? Well with the retrieval grids I a) elicit as many topic words as poss b) add more if needed c) then get learners to rate their understanding Dale-style busy numbering the words 1-4 (1 being I still don’t know the word, 4 being I can explain it and use it, etc), d) compare numbers with a partner and teach partner any words your confident with but they don’t know. So I just mean I use the grid for both Dale activity at first, then move on to using it for retrieval.
      This is not exactly retrieval if I have to add too many words as it’s more making initial links between new vocab items or knew and known, so it takes on a different purpose to what was intended by Kate Jones. Still very useful and engaging nonetheless, and doing the task type a lot makes it quick and familiar hence we use it often.
      Anyhow, cheers for reading, hope you’re well! That recent summary was a great read btw

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for sharing, Pete. Never heard of the Frayer model before and I particularly like the non-examples section!



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  2. Reflections on my EAL role – ELT Planning

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