Teacher Feature: Sara Ligon: Inscreasing student engagement with Academic Vocabulary

I recently found my way into Sara Ligon’s U.S History class where she was teaching a lesson about how African American’s were treated in the 1920s.

After spending some time reviewing previous content, watching a few short YouTube videos from that era, and a brief mini-lecture over the content, Sara designed a simple, but engaging, activity for her students to review the vocabulary associated with the unit.

The Lesson:

Before students arrived Sara has  selected about 10-15 academic vocab terms and typed 1 term on each paper.  She also had the matching definition on another sheet of paper. She did one set of terms and definitions on white paper and another set on orange paper.  Then she hung them up all over the room before the students arrived.   She organized the class into two teams (Orange and White) Then gave the teams direction.  The first team to collect all the papers and match them with the proper definition would win.

One of the terms matched with it's definition

One of the terms matched with it’s definition

When she said “Go!” there was not one student left standing.  They raced around the room collected the papers, discussed the content, and completed the task in less than 10 minutes (there were about 15 terms).  Some students

emerged as leaders, while others did more listening , but I didn’t observe any students who were completely disengaged. She closed with a short debriefing activity where students worked with a partner to answer a question based on the overall content.

Sara could have given the students a matching worksheet to review the terms or even do a whole class discussion of each term where they would basically be doing  the same task, but I doubt she would have gotten the same level of engagement. In those scenarios she would have to compete with ear buds, phones, and a multitude of other distractions.  Those were not a problem for her today.

Possible Variations:

After leaving Sara’s class I couldn’t help but think how easy it would be to use this strategy in any content area, or to modify the strategy to increase the complexity:

  • Instead of a matching activity, this could be made into a categorization activity where students fit details/terms underneath larger umbrella categories
  • In addition to terms and definitions, Sara could have added a third element – examples. The students would then have to find the term, it’s definition, and an example.
  • The terms or details could be events that occurred or steps in an equation and the students may have to put them in the proper order.


While it may not be appropriate to these activities everyday, it was a nice change of pace for her students. She was able to reach a lot of the kinesthetic/visual learners in the class by getting them out of their seats and actually manipulating the definitions and terms.   By using friendly competition and physical movement Sara engaged her students to review the content.


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