10 Ways to Get Started Using Thinking Verbs

beckyBecky Guzman is a full-time ESL teacher in Maryland.  She is also a professional development creator and facilitator with English Learner Portal.

“So, what is the big deal with these thinking verbs?!”  asked the newest ESL teacher on my team. I was getting ready to sit down and explain to her the importance of academic vocabulary, tier II vocabulary, how great the thinking verb icons were in providing a symbol to represent each verb, etc.  I then realized that before I started to coach her on what this great tool was, I may need to also provide her with some specific ideas for how to use this wonderful instructional tool.

My colleague was referring to the new thinking verb icons I was using in my lessons.  While I’ve used various icon ideas in the past, this new tool ThinkingVerbPlacematwas recently shared by English Learner Portal in the format of a “Thinking Verb Bilingual Placemat”.  (You can download a copy for free HERE.)

My colleague was called to a meeting, so we tabled the conversation about the thinking verbs until later that afternoon. This was great, now I would have some time to think about the many ways in which I use them, and how I have observed other ESL teachers and classroom teachers using them so that I would sound like a much more knowledgeable and wise coach during our afternoon chat.

beckyTVobjAs I sat at my desk thinking about this, I could easily verbalize the reasons why she should use the thinking verb icons, as I had lots of training on the importance of academic language and the difference between social and academic language. I had taken book studies on teaching content vocabulary and knew that students’ proficiency with academic language is critical for reading comprehension and overall academic success.

I thought about ways in which I used the thinking verbs and found myself limited to 1-2 “go to” ideas. I had gotten so used to using these specific ways that I had trouble quickly recalling other ways.  Challenging myself, I took the time to brainstorm some ideas for my colleague and for you!

Activities and strategies for using the Thinking Verb icons:

  1.  messyobjContent and Language Outcomes-Replacing the verb in your outcome with the thinking verb icon allows students to have a visual representation of what that verb means.  Students will visualize the actions they will take with the objective.
  2.  Making Outcomes “Messy”- This strategy is great for explicitly going over outcomes at the beginning of the lesson in order for students to understand exactly what they will be learning. I like to use the icons in place of the verbs (words) and ask students to tell me what they think the verb means. I usually write their ideas or draw pictures (primary grades) directly around the icon on the actual outcome. Once students have had a chance to discuss what they think it means, I read them the correct definition or tell them what it means. We may also come up with some other examples of when that verb is used.
  3. “Mirrors Up” Outcomes Strategy– When introducing your outcomes to students, it is always better to make it a kinesthetic activity. A great way to use the thinking verbs is to place the icons on your outcomes. You ask students to put their “mirrors up” and they hold their hands up. They copy you, repeating after you as you read the outcome. When you get to the thinking verb, have students help you come up with motions to match that verb. You will be surprised how much students love coming up with motions for each and how much more they will remember the words!
  4. Vocabulary Games: “Taboo”– Students love this game in which one student faces away from the displayed thinking verb icon. The rest of the students must give him/her clues to describe that verb without telling them the word. The student must guess the actual thinking verb. It’s a great way to review the meaning of a number of thinking verbs!
  5. Thinking Verb Bookmarks- The bookmarks help students see the thinking verbs in action! I create bookmarks with all of the thinking verb icons and labels only, no definitions. The bookmark is laminated. As students read and they come upon one of the thinking verbs in the text, they make a tally mark on their bookmark. Higher proficiency students can note how the word was used in the text.
  6. Lesson/Activity Closure– I like to show students a few thinking verb icons or have them use the bookmark at the conclusion of a lesson or activity. I ask students to reflect and evaluate which verb they think we used during the lesson and why they think that. This is also a great way to formatively assess if students know the meaning of the words.
  7. Activity: Thinking Verb Forms– createActivitiesWhen there is time, and especially if it is a newly introduced verb, I like to ask students to help me come up with a list of the other forms of the verb and we will list them near the icon on the actual outcome. (example: Identify-Identified, identifying).
  8. Bilingual Thinking Verbs– For my students who are already pretty literate in Spanish, I like to introduce them to the verb in English and see if they can come up with the Spanish word before I show it to them. We then brainstorm some ways in which that verb is used in Spanish and discuss any cognates.
  9. Thinking Verbs Memory Game– I have played this with students and it is a great vocabulary review. Students take turns flipping over cards and must find matches between the thinking verb icon/word and the definitions. Another variation of this game is to match the English and Spanish icons. They must read the words correctly in English and Spanish when they find the match. You could also have students give the definition when they find the match depending on the students’ language proficiency.
  10. Planning Differentiated Learning Outcomes– I have used the icons when planning my lesson outcomes. I know my students’ language proficiency and can TVidentifysee how some of the verbs may build on others. I especially use them when planning for my small group lessons. For example, in my three math groups, one group has an average language proficiency of 1.0-2.0 whereas the next group has a proficiency of 3.0 and the third group an average language proficiency of 4.0. My outcomes are related to being able to read decimal numbers to the thousandths. Because of language demand, I created different outcomes. My P:1.0-2.0 language group was focused on identifying the decimal numbers. My P:3.0 group had to read and compare the decimal numbers, and my P:4.0 group had to read and compare and contrast the decimal numbers. I knew that students would not be able to compare and/or contrast until they were able to first identify and so the thinking verbs helped me to plan my learning outcomes based on my students’ different language and content needs.  Remember, I was focused on language while my content co-teacher was focused on the grade level math outcomes for all students.

TVchemicalchangesAny list I come up with certainly won’t include all the potential ways that thinking verbs could be used to support instruction. I was happy that I at least had a few ideas and suggestions for my new coworker to get her started. I know that there are tons of vocabulary strategies and activities out there that would also be great for teaching our English learners (and ALL students) these thinking verbs and other tier II vocabulary which is so critical to accessing grade level standards. The most important thing is that the more we expose our English learners and involve them in playing with and using this academic language, the more successful they can be academically. It is not enough for them to be able to socially communicate in the English language, they must be explicitly taught academic language and critical thinking skills such as the thinking verbs.

How are you using the Thinking Verbs Bilingual Placemat or icons with your students?  We’d love to have you share ideas with us and perhaps even write a blog post!  Send your thoughts to info@englishlearnerportal.com and you could win a set of Thinking Verb Icon Magnets for your classroom.  Haven’t downloaded your Thinking Verb Bilingual Placemat yet?  You can find it HERE!


logoevensmallerIf you aren’t already part of our mailing list, please sign up HERE to receive freebies, announcements, and just to get to know us!  Looking for new ideas and graduate credits? Visit our Online Professional Development School!  Please visit the ELP website to meet the team and learn more about our services.


Switching Gears: What To Do When Nothing Works

by Susan Zimmerman-Orozco

susanSusan is an elementary ESL teacher in Montgomery County Public Schools and consultant with English Learner Portal. 

The school year is rolling along as the temperatures drop and the hurricanes move out to sea. Back in the classroom, students of Lucy Calkins have stepped away from narrative writing and moved on to non-fiction or persuasive writing. Except, as it turns out, they haven’t. After two weeks of intense instruction and support, pre-writing planning conversations still went like this, “One day, my dad and I were in the car. Then we saw a dog.”  Not non-fiction, not an opinion…a story.

It all started off so promising. Two weeks ago in grade 1 and 2, we wrapped up our narratives with a publishing gallery and tea party. We celebrated!

Then Monday arrived. In Grade 1, with our Content and Language Objectives duly formulated, we prepared children for their adventures in non-fiction, Writing Teaching Books with Independence, with a read-aloud Sharks!  Then, we had them think of themselves “teaching” about a topic, and imagining things they were experts at.

octopusHowever,  tasking 6 year-olds to come up with something they know and could teach someone about proved to be challenging for some students and their first efforts tended to be whatever topic their teacher had chosen for the lesson objective. Or, for reasons still not understood, octopuses.

So, the next day we scaffolded strategies for coming up with many things first graders IMG_1224can be experts on. For example, even Mrs. Zimmerman’s grandson EJ, can be an expert!

Once we had topics, we practiced using our fingers to tell what we know.  Then we used our fingers to tell our partners all about it!

In Second grade we began our journey into non-fiction and opinion writing by reading The Great Kapock Tree by Lynn Cherry. We learned how good writers use reasons to persuade their readers. Then we explored our own opinions by tasting and choosing our favorite cookies.

We came up with reasons to persuade our partners why our favorite cookie was the best. We practiced talking about it! We even used graphic organizers to help us remember our reasons.


Finally, we chose topics to write about and planned across our fingers.  Using our sentence frames and our fingers, we shared with our partners again!

At last, having anticipated our students’ misunderstandings, having formulated both Content and Language Objectives, and having scaffolded their intended language production, we were ready to write. And this is what we heard…

“My dad and I were in the car.  We saw a dog…”

And this is what we read…

“My mom said, “ We’re going to the store…”

So, now what?

IMG_9927We picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves off, and started all over again with a mini-review. And then…we LISTENED!  We hunkered down with each of our students (something a lot easier to do in a co-teaching situation) and listened to what students were saying and what they thought they were writing. We pointed out confusions, prompted for opinions, gave thumbs up, and moved on to the next child.

Maybe the most challenging aspect of the Lucy Calkins program is that we tend to forgetIMG_9924 how important student conferencing is.  Those of us in highly diverse schools are so caught up in the minutia of scaffolding what good writing should look and sound like that we forget the point of it… “[We] are teaching the writer and not the writing. Our decisions must be guided by ‘what might help this writer’ rather than ‘what might help this writing’” (Lucy Calkins, 1994)

IMG_9922Student conferencing – working one on one with students – is too often a catch-as-catch-can occurrence, when in fact it is one of the most important tools in the LC writer’s toolbox. It needs to be carried out regularly in an an intentional and purposeful  way. Good writers make connections with their readers – whether they are telling a story or writing an opinion. Good teachers make connections with their students. As you travel through the changing focus of your writing program throughout the school year, please don’t forget the reason we are teaching writing in the first place: to connect and build relationships with our most important audience, our students.


If you aren’t already part of our mailing list, please sign up HERE to receive freebies, announcements, and just to get to know us!  Looking for new ideas and graduate credits? Visit our Online Professional Development School!  Please visit the ELP website to meet the team and learn more about our services.

Writing Language Objectives for Lucy Calkins, Step One: PANIC!

Writing Language Objectives for Lucy Calkins, Step One: PANIC!
by Susan Zimmerman-Orozco

susanSusan is an elementary ESL teacher in Montgomery County Public Schools and consultant with English Learner Portal. Rebecca Guzman is also an elementary ESL teacher in a local school system and consultant with English Learner Portal.

I started this blog as a way to “think out loud” about the struggle I’ve been having since fall as an ESL teacher supporting the Lucy Calkins writing program in K-Gr 2.  I knew that my best bet was to develop academic language by creating language objectives and scaffolding instruction that explicitly tied student learning to the target writing output.  HOW this is actually getting done is still very much a work in progress. As you read this post, I hope that you will think about your own challenges and successes you have had adapting academic language strategies to the LC writing program, and give me some feedback, suggestions, and recommendations on what has worked – and not worked – for you.

Help me out here.  Last Monday, the Lucy Calkins’ teaching point in our second grade writing lesson, verbatim from the guide, was:

“Today I want to teach you that when writers do something new, they don’t just try it once and give up. Writers are bold too. You can try new things in your writing, even if they’re not perfect.  Then you can see what you think. You can ask yourself, ‘Did it work?’ or ‘Should I try it a new way?’”

So tell me, readers, what’s the Language Objective?

SIOP training had been a “thing” at my school a few years ago, and several team members had been sent to training. However, in subsequent years several of the trained teachers cycled out to new schools and each fall the district served up another round of “critical” achievement goals and performance measures that filled our teachers’ plates to overflowing.  The idea of creating and teaching language objectives faded away into “just another thing I don’t have time for.”

susansgrouoBut as I reminded myself and my team last week, in a diverse school like ours (70% FARMS, 40% Hispanic, 40% AA, 55% ELL) all content objectives truly need to have accompanying language objectives that “articulate for learners the academic language functions and skills they need to master to fully participate in the lesson and meet the grade-level content standards (Echevarria, Short, & Vogt, 2008).” Feeling empowered, I promised my team at our weekly planning meeting that I would provide a language objective for their daily writing content objectives and create scaffolded lesson plans to support them.

Up to now, while I was getting better acquainted with the the Lucy Calkins program, I’d been supporting students classes by following up on earlier lessons that hadn’t  “worked” for my English learners (ELs). Basically I re-packaged and scaffolded the same lesson classroom teachers had written in more visual and engaging ways, throwing in some appropriate academic language points, oral practice, sentence frames, and vocabulary along the way.  

But now that I had hastily offered to deliver daily and meaningful academic language instruction, I realized I might have gone way outside my comfort zone. I panicked: What IS the academic language required for students to “make a bold move” and try things in new ways? And, was I the only person to find Lucy’s teaching points difficult to break down into language objectives?

I sought out trusted colleagues, and was relieved to discover I was not alone. Rebecca Guzman, an experienced classroom, SIOP, bilingual and ESL teacher helped me beckynkidsunderstand the disconnect.

“Her (Lucy Calkins’) thinking is that we are constantly introducing students to a menu of strategies they can apply to create a variety of writing genres; in other words, we are teaching  them how to be writers not how to write. However, our English learners (ELs) need repetition and coaching to create productive written work, rather than a quick  “I teach you-now go practice” approach.“

“Our elementary school ELs frequently come with a lack of background knowledge and writing  experience in their own language, so it’s almost like we are rushing them through all of these strategies but not giving them enough time to practice and get good at one thing before moving on (quality vs. quantity). I worry that if they do not feel successful at something it will stop them from wanting to continue learning how to write much less how to be a writer. “

Knowing that I am not alone in my confusion about whether to address content or language was reassuring.  Guzman writes weekly, not daily, language objectives, and further explained how she and her co-teacher approach the task: “I mostly focus on the actual content lesson activity to figure out what kind of language students will be expected to produce. I start by focusing on a specific language domain. Then I pull a language feature to focus on (i.e. grammar, vocabulary, etc..) followed by the language function (verb: explain, retell etc..) and then pick language supports that match the activity and/or student proficiency levels in the class.”

Her explanation helped me re-frame my question, “What is the language objective that supports “Writers are bold too. You can try new things in your writing, even if they’re not perfect,” to “What are the language objectives that will support the overall objective of Unit One: Lessons from the Masters Improving Narrative Writing.” Often the guide will give us a clue: In Grade 2, Unit 1, Lesson 3,  for example, Stretching Out Small Moments, as Authors Do, it is clear we will need to focus on sequencing words.  

But sometimes it’s not so obvious, as in my case of  asking students to make “bold new moves?” In these cases we should go back to the unit objective: writing narratives, and review our students’ work to identify their academic language needs and, over the course of our unit planning, ensure that we have mini-lessons that will  address all three of the WIDA Features of Academic Language: Linguistic Complexity, Language Forms and Conventions, and Vocabulary Usage across all of our students’ proficiency levels.

Easy peasy, right?  I can’t say yet.  I only just puzzled this out a few days ago.  Stay tuned for my adventures in Lucy Calkins Language Objective Land, but more importantly, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE, let me know what has worked for you. Or what hasn’t.

quotetogetherdosomuchLike most ESL educators, I’ve attended training, read the word of experts – even talked to them, taken online courses, and attended my district’s workshops. But nothing – NOTHING – helps teachers more than the experiences of other teachers. I’m all alone in my school as I struggle to work this out; I hope you will share what you’ve tried, what worked, and other strategies and ideas you have tried. “Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.”  My students need you, and there is so much left to do….


If you aren’t already part of our mailing list, please sign up HERE to receive freebies, announcements, and just to get to know us!  Looking for new ideas and graduate credits? Visit our Online Professional Development School!  Please visit the ELP website to meet the team and learn more about our services.