Working with such a high population of English Language Learners presented an entirely new set of challenges for me when I began working at an international school. Discussing this with Dr. Gini Rojas was exceptionally helpful. She showed me a technique originating in Australia that she calls Word Ladders. The Aussies gave it a much fancier name (which may, upon reflection, be more appropriate since it is, after all, an activity to build language. But I digress.). It's easy to implement and when used on a regular basis and supported by other language development strategies, it proves to be highly effective.
Here's how it works!
Take a pair of antonyms that your students have used to death! For instance, this week we picked hot and cold. Ask your students to work in either partners or groups of three. I find that when children work in larger groups there is always a child who ends up contributing minimally (and typically, it's the child who will most benefit from the activity!). If you're working with a group of children for whom English is not their native language, pair them up heterogeneously (ELL and non-ELL).
Ask the children to write "hot" and "cold" in the middle of a page of paper. From there, they are to come up with a list of five words that are "hotter than hot and colder than cold". They place these words above or below "hot" or "cold" according to the degree of meaning.
Call the group back together and have them shout out the words they came up with. Jot them on board (see picture). Write them ALL down. Together decide if there are some that don't belong. For instance, do we want to include "spicy" on this Word Ladder or does that not fit with "hot" to describe temperature? Talk about it! You'll find these discussions to be so rich.
After you've agreed on what will go on your class's Word Ladder, discuss which is the hottest hot and which is the coldest cold. For English Language Learners and for children who don't have access to hearing or reading sophisticated language, this work on shades of meaning is critical. The native English speakers in your class will be able to guide the other children who may only have one or two words for "hot". And in turn, those children will be able to give your native English speakers some new vocabulary words in a language they are working to acquire.
Create the final Word Ladder and pop it on your Word Wall! By fourth grade, your classroom's Word Wall should be focused more on vocabulary so take down those ABCs that we have all come to love!
Looking for some follow up activities? Ask your students to split their notebook page into sixths (yes, work in a little fraction action!). They can then pick six words from the Word Ladder to draw a representational illustration and write a corresponding sentence. This work should convey their knowledge of new words and the shades of meaning they hold.
More ideas? I use Class Points (albeit sparingly since I'm more focused on intrinsically motivating my students) and I allow the students to get a point every time someone uses a word from the Word Ladder when they write or speak. Just make sure you assign a child to tally the points or you'll be headed to the board every few minutes...!
I have my students do this every week in the beginning of the year but we generally taper off to bi-monthly. Try it and let me know how it goes!