Writing Rhymes for Test Prep: A Spotlight on ESL Teacher Leah Simpson

When working with an ESL population, one of teacher Leah Simpson’s goals is to help students prepare for the WIDA test, an English language proficiency exam used by a number of states across the country, including her home state of Tennessee. The Warren County High School Teacher, based in McMinnville, TN, uses our Word Up Blue and The Week in Rap to help students practice Tier 2 vocabulary and bring nonfiction text into her classroom.

As part of their test preparation, students also need practice with academic vocabulary across subjects. How did Leah decide to boost subject-specific vocab with her class this year? With rhyme-writing, of course! Each of Leah’s five class periods picked a subject—math, science, social students, ELA or social/instructional language—and worked over the course of a month to compose a rap as a group. Students performed their raps for their families at Warren County High School’s ESL Family Night this fall to much celebration. Here’s what Leah told us about the experience:

Leah Simpson Post Image final

Q: Why use rap-writing to develop academic vocabulary? What made you select this project for your students?
A: Vocabulary is an essential part of our daily lives as communicators. As a new language learner, vocabulary is one of the hardest parts to master. This method helped my students acquire new vocabulary in an entertaining way while further helping them master content knowledge for multiple subjects.  

Q: What resources or tools did you use to guide students as they wrote their rhymes?  
A: To help my students as they wrote their rhymes, I modeled several Flocabulary songs for them. We watched different songs on different subjects so they could “wrap” their heads around what I was asking them to do. I also read the lesson plans Flocabulary provided online so I could better understand what I was asking my students to do, as this was my first time teaching a “rhyming” lesson as well. I asked my students to choose one content area of WIDA, and highlight 3-4 vocabulary words within that subject and create an academic rhyme/song. First, the students chose a topic. I asked my classes to be very specific with their topic choice. Next, students had to learn about that topic and define each vocabulary word. Their rhymes ultimately had to be understandable, and in order to achieve that, students had to have an understanding of the content. Then, students collaborated with one another to write their rhymes.  

Simpson_Leah

Leah Simpson at Warren County High School

Q: Did writing rhymes help students master vocabulary in their given subject? How do you know?  
A: The WIDA test we are preparing for does not take place until the spring, but I feel as though it did. For example, I continuously use the vocabulary words from the social/instructional language and the students understand what I’m talking about when I ask them to “analyze” or “evaluate.”

Q: What tips would you share for other educators looking to use rhyme-writing or project-based learning more generally for vocabulary development?  
A: Flocabulary is a priceless tool for teaching students. It helps you get on the students’ level as a teacher by appealing to their generation through video and music. This is what I shared with TNTESOL (The state of Tennessee’s ESL community): Guide your students to ripen their vocabulary specifically within the language of WIDA while learning how to entertain others. Students will learn how to write songs/rhymes on a particular subject within the language domains of WIDA. This will help students master content knowledge in an enjoyable way.  

Q: Any rap-writing in your students’ futures?  
A: As far as for a career—yes—I have several students who want to be entertainers. 🙂 Will I teach rap-writing in my classroom in the future? Yes, again! I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I feel like it helped my role change from that of a teacher to that of a facilitator. In my opinion, that’s where true learning comes into play: the student becomes the teacher.

Want to lead a writing academic rhymes project with your students? Click here to access our lesson resources for student rappers (including downloadable beats!). Have you already led your student to write their own raps? Please share your story with us!

Molly Cronin

Molly's love of education began when she landed her first job at age 17 as a preschool teacher's aide, where she changed countless diapers and led groups of toddlers in many a nursery rhyme. She studied communications, marketing, and education at Cornell University, where she wrote articles for university publications, co-hosted a radio show and led PR for a children's advocacy organization. After a stint in the crazy world of agency PR, she now blends her background in communications and her passion for education in her sales and partnership work at Flocabulary. When she's off Flocab duty, she can be found scouring food blogs and old cookbooks or traipsing around Alphabet City.

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