How Two Mini-Lessons for Vocabulary Development Engage Students

Mini Lessons for Vocabulary Development by Suzanne Marie two Chinese girls students working on mini lesson with white paper and computer with keyboard


Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Elevate the language journey of your English language learners by focusing on the building blocks of communication – vocabulary! Teaching vocabulary is pivotal in nurturing competence and confidence in language speaking.

In this article, we present not one but two exciting and interactive vocabulary lessons tailored specifically for ESL students.

Dive into the world of fun and engagement as we equip you with the tools to inspire and empower your students on their linguistic journey.


Sibold (2011) wrote about vocabulary development, and it resonated with me because it helped me to see the distinction between the different tiers of academic vocabulary.

This helps me to organize the vocabulary words my Chinese students are required to learn for their various testing for English proficiency in the four language domains.

Grade 10 students are required to take eight exams at the end of the year, and the Chinese government mandates the textbooks they use for learning vocabulary words.

  • The word lists include English vocabulary they must know to pass their exams.
  • Each grade to grade 12 has different textbooks, word lists, and definitions they must learn to pass their exams.

Teaching Strategy

With my understanding of the Three Tier Model (p. 24), I organize the words in my vocabulary lessons to build upon previous knowledge.

This helps students connect the new words learned with each tier of knowledge within the model.

I believe this helps students build context around the words they use.

Reading ‘Languaging and Visualization’ (Rattya, 2013) gave me a deeper understanding of conceptual knowledge.

Additionally, how to help my students draw connections between what they already know and what they are learning.

Vocabulary Lesson Plan 1: Basketball

Learner Profile: 24 Grade 10 English language learners (ELLs) in an international department at a Chinese high school.

The students’ mother tongue language is Chinese (Mandarin).

They all live and function within a similar socio-cultural and socio-economic class.

Overview and Purpose: A fun and engaging lesson using students’ interest in basketball to teach ‘general academic and multiple meaning words’ (Sibold, 2011) vocabulary. 

‘Tier 2’ (p. 24) vocabulary words: shoot, score, rim, hoop, dunk.


  • Basketball
  • Hoop or trashcan
  • White/ Chalk Board
  • Computer & Overhead Projector
  • Crossword Puzzle

Bridge-In (5 minutes)

Watch this short video clip of Kobe Bryant talking about learning, success, and leadership:

Lesson Outcomes

1) To correctly match the vocabulary word with its definition.

2) To shoot the basketball into a trashcan or through a hoop.

Pre-Assessment (1 minute)

Class poll asking:

1. How many of you have played basketball?

2. What are some terms used in basketball?

Capture the terms used in basketball from students on the whiteboard for future reference throughout the lesson.

Participatory Activities (10 minutes)

Ahead of time, divide the vocabulary definitions into phrases and mark three distances from the basketball hoop.


Start this activity by dividing the class into teams.

  1. Give one team the first part of the definition.
  2. If they correctly guess the vocabulary word, let one of the students try to make a basket from the closest line.
  3. Should they not guess correctly, give them the second part of the definition.
  4. Then, after a correct guess, let one shoot from the second line.
  5. For teams who need the whole definition, the student must shoot from the farthest line.
  6. The team who scores the most points wins.


Vocabulary words are more easily remembered if they are used in context.

  1. Have students use the word in a sentence before they try to make a basket.
  2. If they use it correctly, double the points they receive.
  3. Extra double points are earned for each team when a student successfully suggests a synonym for the vocabulary words in the lesson.
  4. Synonyms are captured on the whiteboard for future reference. 

Build Context

When giving context, provide examples of sentences using the vocabulary words and synonyms with several meanings.

For example, the word dunk is used in basketball, swimming, or when students need to dunk something into a substance during chemistry class.

Another example is score and how the score is used to tally points in basketball and on an exam. 

  • Shoot is used to describe taking a shot in basketball, as a slang swear word, what we do with a weapon, and how we project an object during experiments. 
  • Rim is the outer part of the basketball hoop and is also used to describe the top part of a glass, the edges of eyeglasses, and a rim on a Petrie dish in biology and chemistry. 
  • A hoop is a net attached to the rim in basketball and a round object for sports, jewelry, and to describe a circular structure around another item like a cell, organism, or object. 

Post-Assessment (3 minutes)

Crossword Puzzle on a projector to complete as a class.

Vocabulary words from each lesson are tested in a cumulative formative assessment at the end of each unit. 

Summary (1 minute)

Conclude the lesson with a short inspirational and funny video clip of Kobe Bryant talking about success: 



BRYANT. (2017, December 27). KOBE BRYANT – “FAILURE DOESNT EXIST.” YouTube.


NIKE #KOBESYSTEM Welcome to the KobeSystem. (n.d.). Retrieved July 28, 2021, from

Lesson Plan 2: Film Vocabulary

Learner Profile: 24 Grade 10 ELL students in an international department at a Chinese high school.

The students’ mother tongue language is Chinese (Mandarin).

They all live and function within a similar socio-cultural and socio-economic class.

Overview and Purpose: A fun and engaging lesson using students’ interest in film and technology to teach ‘general academic and multiple meaning words’ (Sibold, 2011) vocabulary.

‘Tier 2’ (p. 24) vocabulary words are used: plotting, angles, credits, transitions, depth, and script.

Once students are familiar with the terms introduced in this lesson, they apply their new skills to bring other content areas to life through filmmaking in future lessons within this unit.

The activities involved in filmmaking are particularly helpful to English language learners (ELLs) because the visual component helps ELLs consolidate their knowledge.


  • Poster Paper and Markers
  • White/ Chalk Board
  • Computer & Overhead Projector
  • Pictures of graphs, shapes, movie credits, a transition with objects, and a script from a Hamlet play

Bridge-In (5 minutes)

Watch this short video clip about how to make photos with a mobile phone:

Learning Outcomes

  1. To create a visual explanation of vocabulary words.
  2. To describe vocabulary words using visual aids. 

Pre-Assessment (1 minute)

Class poll asking:

  • How many of you have a digital camera device?
  • What are some terms used for filmmaking?

Capture the terms used in filmmaking from students on the whiteboard for future reference throughout the lesson.

Participatory Activities (10 minutes)

Ahead of time, divide the vocabulary words and definitions into phrases and cut out each on a sheet of paper.

‘It is important to connect the new words to students’ prior knowledge. Real objects, pictures, and photographs that clearly match unfamiliar words provide visuals that help ELLs make sense of the new words’ (p. 25).

Create six groups of 4 students and provide each group with two definitions. 

  • Each group is provided with poster paper and markers.
  • They will use poster paper to draw pictures explaining the vocabulary words in the context of filmmaking.
  • Students will note any synonyms for the words or create images or diagrams of the synonyms in the context in which they are used. 
  • Vocabulary words are more easily remembered if used in context, so students should also write simple sentences using the vocabulary words or synonyms. 
  • Student groups will present their posters to the class at the end of the activity.
  • Posters will be displayed in the class, and these vocabulary words will be revisited in future lessons within the unit.

Post-Assessment (3 minutes)

Using pictures of graphs, shapes, movie credits, a transition with objects, and a script from a Hamlet play, ask the students to identify what is in the pictures using the vocabulary words and/or synonyms discussed during the lesson. 

Vocabulary words from each lesson are tested in a cumulative formative assessment at the end of each unit. 

Summary (2 minutes)

Conclude the lesson with a short inspirational and informative video clip about taking photos using different materials and angles:



5 Mobile Photography IDEAS and HACKS you must try! (n.d.). Retrieved July 28, 2021, from

10 CAMERA HACKS IN LESS THAN 100 SECONDS. (n.d.). Retrieved July 28, 2021, from


Personal Reflection on Vocabulary Lessons

Using these questions, I will provide a brief reflection on the two vocabulary lessons:

  1. What was my overall experience?
  2. What changes, if any, will enhance the lesson experience?

Overall Experience

How was your experience teaching this lesson/activity to your particular learner population in your particular context?

I teach Grades 10 and 11 in a Chinese high school international department.

My students are very keen on NBA basketball games, the players, the coaches, and the culture of the NBA in the USA.

Although they are required to wear school uniforms, they are all very proud to wear different styles of basketball shoes and have different kinds of basketball toys and games they play with at their desks.

I often use the videos by Kobe, Jordan, etc., as a Bridge-In activity to bring their focus and attention to what we will be discussing in our lessons.

Students look forward to the videos in classes.

They are also really interested in Harry Potter, so I will often reference Harry Potter books and movies to help them build context with technical vocabulary in their science classes with their Chinese teachers. 

Changing Lessons

What changes would you make to the lesson/activity plan before teaching it again?  Explain your reasons for these changes, drawing on your experience and key concepts in this unit.

Generally, I am satisfied with my lessons.

They both meet the interests of my learners and are engaged with the four language domains.

Ideally, I would change the mini-lesson to a longer lesson. This change would allow more vocabulary words to challenge students to think about synonyms and antonyms for the presented vocabulary words.

Additionally, this change would also mean adding a note-taking activity with a word chart to help them connect the vocabulary words with synonyms and antonyms.

Creating mindmaps is another addition to help students organize their ideas and build context with our words. Students would draw out mindmaps to make connections and build context with the written use of the vocabulary words from the lesson.


ESL students wanting to increase their vocabulary benefit from these two interactive lessons.

The topics of basketball, photography, digital media, and inspiration provide engaging content-based learning activities.

With these fun and creative exercises, learners become more confident and articulate in English.

Thanks for stopping by!

Until next time,


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