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!


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