Lego Vocabulary & Making in the ELA Classroom: The Importance of Hands-On Learning

Updated: Feb 4, 2019


A couple of weeks ago, my mother, mother in law, and I went to AR Workshop in Newtown, Pennsylvania, an adorable boutique DIY studio where we got to choose a project and build it from start to finish in one evening.


I made this wicked sign for my classroom because, of course, my room could always use some more bling.


In sharing my experience with a coworker the following day, he pointed out how fulfilling working with our hands is and I whole-heartedly agreed. There was something primally satisfying about creating something with my hands - to imagine, build and create something from nothing.


It should be the same in our classrooms.





Even though I am a high school English teacher, some of my most engaging lessons have involved my students using their hands to create something new.


This is something at which preschool and elementary teachers are brilliant. My daughters’ backpacks are always filled with various projects and manipulatives they created in school to aid in their learning. Heck, my daughter was incredibly proud of herself this year when she researched giraffes and built this sweet diorama for her first grade class’s zoo day.


Yet, as students grow older, they experience these creative, hands-on lessons less and less. You want to build? Sign up for shop class.


Thus, insert one bag of cheap knock-off Legos here. Amazon is my best friend.


My students were struggling with some new vocabulary terms. While I still love Vocabulary.com as a tool to teach vocabulary because of its computer-adaptive ability, I wanted to do something hands-on to work through some troublesome words.


My students got into partners and each pair was given a pile of Legos.

I identified the top ten words my students had been struggling to learn via the data provided to me by Vocabulary.com. I posted these terms on the board.


The students were given their task. Choose five of the vocab words and build something with the Legos that they could eventually explain using these vocabulary words.


This was a challenge and my students gladly accepted.


Before they began building, in pairs, my students discussed objects related to the terms. They really had to know the terms before deciding what object to build that would relate to the words.


After much discussion, the students began building. Some students decided to build objects that already existed. Others invented new objects.


Here are two examples of what my students came up with:


EXAMPLE #1

Hundreds of years ago, in a deep jungle far away, was a small group of men on an adventure to discover something out of the ordinary. These men had believed that there was a large mystical waterfall with the power that whoever entered the water of the water fall would have the ability to live forever. Even though this power was a ruse, the people who discovered it did not think so. Although many other people scoffed and laughed at this group of men for exploring the jungle for such an outlandish idea the men were still determined. The leader of this expedition was eminent in the profession of exploration. Although, he knew if he came back with nothing he would not be when he returned. Unfortunately, there were many obstacles on this journey. On this adventure many of the party would have spasmodic bursts of anger due to the heat and not finding much in a long time. Many of the party began to balk about the idea of the waterfall. Members of the group prayed to the religion of their choice to hope to find something. Finally, after many weeks they believed to have found what they have been looking for. They came across a wall of rock where a paroxysm of water began rushing from over top of the rocks. Although some rocks at the top where precariously placed at the top the group jumped in almost instantly.


EXAMPLE #2:

Once a family moved into a new house. They thought this was the prefect house, however, little did they know, it was precariously placed at the bottom of a hill where it floods constantly. The contractors told the family that the house was incomparable to any others and that they were getting a great deal. Unfortunately, this was a ruse made up by the contractors because no one else would buy the house. The family did not realize the unobtrusive flaws of the house that other people noticed. One night there was a major rainstorm on the part of town where the family lived. The rain flooded into the house all night and when the family woke up, they were standing in 3 feet of water. The mother scoffed at the father saying, “I told you we should not have bought this house!” The mother suggested that they move again to a place far off the east coast, the father balked before saying anything, stared at the water pouring over his feet and sighed, “Fine, gather all your stuff. We will leave immediately.”


Was this lesson that unique? No. The skills the students were using were the same as if I had asked them to just write a paragraph using these vocabulary words. However, the students were more engaged because they were using their hands. There was an extra layer of challenge that helped focus them on the task and pushed them to play with the vocabulary words they were struggling with.


In addition, they were not only building their vocabulary, their conversations around these new words were deeper than those that occurred during traditional vocabulary lessons.


Deeper learning was happening all around the classroom as my students were building their communication skills, critically thinking about how these words were used situationally, and collaborating with each other to creatively build their objects and write their paragraphs.


Plus, it was fun! (Shouldn't learning be?)


In searching for new ways to incorporate “making” into my ELA classroom, I came across these resources. They each provide different ideas on how to use hands-on learning in language arts:


“Transform Your Classroom into a Makerspace” | Caitlin Tucker Students create 3D visual metaphors for Fahrenheit 451.


“Maker Movement: Let Them Build it & They’ll Learn” | Caitlin Tucker Students research about and then construct a model of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.


Writing Makerspaces: 4 Ways to Apply the Maker Movement to your Classroom | Betsy Potash An overview of how to add a makerspace to your ELA classroom.


Building an Argument Tower | Jonathan Henderson (Here’s a video overview of the strategy) Students use colored index cards, which include the parts of a solid argument, to build a tower.


15 Ways to Use Play-Doh in the Junior High or High School Classroom | Carrie Wisehart Different ideas on how students could use Play-Doh to demonstrate their understanding of content.


103 Things to Do Before, During, or After Reading | Jim Burke While not all of these ideas include hands-on learning, a lot of them do.


STEM in English Language Arts Class | Ashley M. Bible

A list of various ways to include the hands-on approaches of STEM in an ELA class.


In addition, I’ve created this hands-on poetry activity Pinterest board: Hands-On Poetry Pinterest Board. My students love using objects to make poetry.



So, how are you incorporating making into your classroom?

How can we create more hands-on learning experiences for our students?




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Meet Kristina

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© 2019 Kristina Ulmer/Tea with Teacher

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