A Surprisingly Effective Way to Solidify English Learners ESL Vocabulary

Duration: 5-10 minutes

Type: Individuals/Partners

The activity is called Text Data Sets.

This awesome ESL vocabulary activity was inspired by Larry Ferlazzo.

You can read more about using Text Data Sets in Larry’s book The ESL/ELL Teacher’s Survival Guide

The activity requires very little preparation and can be used frequently with students of all ages.

Let’s dive right in!

What You’ll Need for This ESL Reading Activity


  • Word Bank of Words to Sort
  • Categories to Sort Words Into
  • Lined Paper/Small White Boards
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Overview of This ESL Vocabulary Activity


In groups, students receive a list of vocabulary words. They come up with categories into which to group the words. They can group them however they want as long as they can justify their logic. Afterward, students share their results with the class.

Text Data Sets ESL Vocabulary Activity Sort Words into Categories

How to Organize This ESL Vocabulary Activity


  1. Provide students with a word bank of words to sort. The words can be a list of vocabulary words or a list of words from a topic the students have been interacting with.
  2. Students come up with categories into which to sort the words. You can also provide students with categories into which to sort the words. Whether students are creating their own categories or you are providing them, you may want to set clear goals as to the type of categories to use.
    1. If you want students to show understanding of concepts, you may want to choose categories where each word has a correct category into which it should be placed. There is no opinion. It’s either right or wrong. For instance, you might provide the categories: solid, liquid, gas. The word water would only be in the liquid category. You would be able to easily see whether students understand these concepts and the associated vocabulary words.
    2. If you want to create discussion, you can choose categories that require students to give an opinion. For instance, you might provide the categories: I like this. I don’t like this. I’m indifferent. These kinds of categories spark discussion and make for a wonderful partner activity.
  3. Students can complete the text data set on a sheet of lined paper or on small white boards.
  4. Tip: If you don’t have small white boards, you can make them out of DVD cases by replacing the paper with the movie title with a piece of white paper. 
  5. They then can share with partners or with the class.

Benefits Of This ESL Vocabulary Activity


  • Everyone is involved in this ESL vocabulary activity.
  • Students moderate the activity themselves. The teacher is freed up to go around and work with individual students.
  • You can create some great discussions with creative categories.
  • Students show an understanding of vocabulary words that they are learning.
  • Students are forced to think critically about the meanings of words which makes for better retention and understanding.

Have you tried this activity? How did it go? Leave your comments below!

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