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ESL Activities for African-American History Month

Lynda Terrill
Center for Adult English Language Acquisition (CAELA)
Updated January 30, 2007

African-American History Month offers many opportunities for adult English language learners to begin to understand the complex history and culture of the United States at the same time they are acquiring English. This yearly observance can be particularly fruitful because many communities provide a variety of free activities in the form of music, art, conferences, and speeches that classes can attend. TV and radio also offer special programs that can be used as homework assignments, or taped for focused use in the classroom.

African-American History Month or Black History Month, as it is also called, was established in February 1976. This celebration was an extension and evolution of the original Negro History Week which was established by Dr. Carter G. Woodson in 1926. This month celebrates the immense contributions that African-Americans have made to the United States while acknowledging that for much of the country's existence, these contributions have been ignored or downplayed.

Advice about introducing African-American History Month

Provided that sufficient bonds of comfort and respect have been forged in the class, whole-group brainstorming can be an introduction at all levels and in all topic areas. Sometimes practitioners worry that such free-form talk is intimidating at beginning levels or can only work on simple topics, but this is not the case. Adults from around the world, including those with little or no English proficiency, know about Martin Luther King, Jr. and are familiar with issues such as discrimination, racism, and slavery. Learners at all levels also know about arts, entertainment, science, and business. The teacher's task in brainstorming is to validate the learners' knowledge and then to help learners extend their content base and English language skills.


During the remembrance of Martin Luther King's birthday or African-American History Month, one teacher usually gives a short lecture about the Civil Rights Movement even to literacy level beginners. A row of chairs can make the bus and the teacher acts out the role of Rosa Parks. Through body language, repetition, and frequently checking for learner comprehension, the stories of separate drinking fountains, not being able to sit at the lunch counter, and of voting rights denied are clear to the students. Many adult English language learners know from experience about the denial of civil rights, most know of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the American Civil Rights Movement, and many express satisfaction at being expected to absorb complex content even at the beginning levels. Some of our beginning level learners gave up their homes to invading armies and some buried their children in refugee camps; they do not need watered-down content, they need the language tools to help them express themselves and to learn about their new country.

All Levels
Beginning Levels
High Beginning/Low Intermediate Levels
High Intermediate/Advanced

All Levels

Lyrics to many civil rights songs are repetitive and emotionally powerful, and some have been adopted and used for civil rights struggles around the world. Learners can become acquainted with new vocabulary and practice listening and pronunciation from such songs as "We Shall Overcome" (

At higher levels, the songs can be used for listening dictation, vocabulary acquisition, analysis of grammar structure, and multicultural sharing. Advanced learners may be interested in accessing Websites or reading books that give the history of particular songs. For example, some of the civil rights era songs were derived from religious songs and union activist songs. (See Web sites such as for background on songs).

Advanced learners might want to compare "We Shall Overcome" with President Lyndon Johnson's speech of the same name presented on March 15, 1965. Because Johnson's speech is clearly written and emotionally forceful, learners can get a clear sense of the historical significance of the Civil Rights era. For a copy of the speech, visit

Beginning Levels

Many literacy or beginning level activities can be made working from a list of words brainstormed by students and augmented by the teacher, if apppropriate. A list about the Civil Rights Movement might include:

discrimination Rosa Parks Martin Luther King
segregation nonviolence protest
strike civil rights integration

After initial class discussions, a single set of content vocabulary words can be used in a variety of ways over several days or weeks-from copying from the board to manipulating letter cards to form the words-to making posters and collages. Some of the ways a teacher might use a set of words follow.

These words could be used to make a simple wordfind (or word search). Teachers can create their own on a word processor, but there are also software programs and Websites that can make the wordfinds for you. Wordfinds are useful not only for reinforcing a specific set of vocabulary, but also for encouraging partner work, and content-based immersion into the letters of the alphabet. Literacy level learners, particularly, often like this activity.

(Note: You can use to make wordfinds and other puzzles.)

The same group of words could be used for word scrambles.

For example:Disctionrimina = ____________________________(learner would write discrimination)

Scrambles can be passed out as individuals finish work ahead of others, be worked on in pairs in a class contest, or be available for learners to choose during self access time. In this example, clumping the 'tion' suffix reinforces a small bit of language knowledge. For very beginning literacy level learners, a scramble could be made of the words themselves:

King Luther Martin = ______________________________

These words could be used in reading and writing activities for several sessions and then be used in bingo for reinforcement and fun later on. These long words can be supplemented with several shorter, more frequently used words (eg. bus, vote, North, South, school, march) to make filling out the bingo grids less difficult. Alternatively the teacher can give the learners partially filled-in grids, so that learners need to copy several of the words from the board before playing the game:

Rosa Parks      
  discrimination   segragation

civil rights



A popular pair activity is "How do you spell"? The teacher hands each learner a paper with a list of words. The directions are: "Ask your partner, "How do you spell?" with a list of words below. In this unit, the list would include the civil rights content words. It might also include familiar words, such as simple present and past verbs or days of the week for review and reinforcement. This activity allows repeated pronunciation of the content words, intensive and independent practice with the pronunciation of English letters as well as a chance for informal talk about the topic and for learners to direct their own level of risk-taking. Whatever the directions the teacher gives, some learners may try to memorize the words to spell without looking at the paper, while others, even if directed to put away the paper, may use it. A teacher can decide to give a spelling quiz with some of the easier words or switch to another activity.

NOTE: The first time this activity, or any activity in a beginning level class, is initiated, the teacher will need to demonstrate, repeat, rephrase, and ask learners whether they understand the directions. Once the majority of the class understands, the teacher can begin the activity. The next time the activity is used with a different set of words, more of the learners will feel comfortable and competent. It is not necessary for all learners to understand completely the first time around-especially if the class climate encourages learners to help each other, occasionally in native language, and ask the teacher for assistance.

High Beginning/Low Intermediate Levels

These learners may be able to brainstorm a longer list of vocabulary and topics than beginners and also begin to negotiate what they want to study both in terms of English skills and content. Sometimes a class is particularly interested in learning about one aspect of history or culture, and then, of course, that content should be emphasized. Adult learners are often interested in knowing more about important figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, or Malcolm X, and learning about important incidents. Several adult ESL books have good readings (for example the All About the USA series published by Longman, Voices of Freedom, Book 2 (Pearson Education ESL), and the Multicultural Workshop Book 3 (Heinle) and several children's books and materials are also appropriate.

Pair dictations provide learners with the opportunity to learn or reinforce content words independently. One partner dictates words to the other partner who listens (and perhaps asks for repetition or clarification) and writes. Then the second partner dictates a second set of words to the first partner who listens and writes. When both are finished, they compare notes. The whole set can also be debriefed by learners volunteering to write the words on the board or overhead, or calling out the letters for each word for the teacher or a learner to transcribe. This activity can be used at all levels-beginning with the literacy level where learners can dictate letters, numbers, or core vocabulary words-but it is a favorite at this level where learners have gained some skill and confidence and are itching to leap ahead.

Partner A Partner B
Say the words to your partner: Write the word you hear:
1. Martin Luther King 1. ________________
2. civil rights 2. _______________
3. protest 3. ______________
4. voting 4. ________________
5. Rosa Parks 5. ______________
Write the word you hear: Say the words to your partner
6. __________________ 6. integration
7. __________________ 7. discrimination
8. __________________ 8. bussing
9. ___________________ 9. march
10. __________________ 10. civil disobedience
Now, compare the words with your partner. Now, compare the words with your partner.

Intermediate Level

At an intermediate level, many classroom skill acquisition activities can use the content from African-American history. For example, intermediate learners could participate in a jigsaw activity. The teacher may give a list of brief oral or written instructions to help direct learners' reading. The class could be divided into groups of 3, 4, or 5 (whichever works best for the size of the class). Each member of the group reads the same short article about an important event, place, or person in African-American history. The teacher can write paragraphs to suit her needs and learners' levels or find articles in books or newspapers. Each learner works with the text alone at first, rereading, checking vocabulary, asking for clarification of idioms or pronunciation from teacher or peer. Then, the group discusses the reading together until the meaning of the article is understood and generally agreed upon. Next, the learners are assigned to a group where each member has read a different article. At this point, each learner gives a verbal summary of the article he or she read . Other group members can ask questions or offer insights. The result of the whole activity is that a great deal of information can be learned and learners have not only read but also communicated at great length. Jigsaw activities provide natural opportunities for learners to expand their working knowledge of English functions such as agreeing/disagreeing, expressing an opinion, etc.

As a follow up activity to the jigsaw, the teacher can ask learners, pairs, or small groups to write a summary of the articles they have read. Summary writing is difficult, sometimes even for native speakers, because it requires that the writer can discern the main idea and significant details as well as have the syntactical ability and vocabulary to write clearly and concisely. Because learners have already discussed the articles at length, they may be able to more easily isolate the main idea than if they had not participated in the jigsaw.

Local public figures, the library, internet and multimedia resources, and the local community can also provide numerous opportunities for intermediate learners to produce and improve authentic language while learning about African-American History Month outside the classroom. For example, the class can brainstorm a list of pertinent topics and what kinds of language skills they want to focus on. In fact, African-American History Month, and civics in general, offer many opportunities for project-based learning. Topics for projects could include:

  • Interviewing community members who participated in the 1950s/60s Civil Rights Movement and then producing a book, video, or visual account
  • Attending and reviewing arts and entertainment events related to African-American history
  • Researching a local, state, or national issue related to African-American or multiethnic issues and attending pertinent governmental meetings or writing or emailing government officials
  • Researching local African-American historical facts and developing timelines that could be displayed in a local public building
  • Searching local archives, newspapers, and personal accounts to learn about African-Americans in the community. (Some communities were Abolitionist strongholds, some were the sites of slave uprisings, some contained stations on the Underground Railroad, some were homes to famous African-American scientists, etc.)
  • Developing, conducting, and analyzing a survey exploring attitudes about language, culture, and ethnicity-within the program itself, or within the community.
For more information on project-based learning, see Project-Based Learning for Adult English Language Learners (1998) and the Arlington Education and Employment Program's Project Based Learning and Assessment(1997)

All of the activities mentioned in this section are also appropriate for high intermediate and advanced learners.

High Intermediate/Advanced Levels

Videos, Internet, community activities, articles and books provide a wide array of resources to investigate for high intermediate and advanced learners who want to learn more about African-American History month while honing their English skills.

Hunting down appropriate Internet resources can be frustrating and time-consuming. Fortunately, the wealth of material online dealing with African-American history makes it well worth the effort. Some Web sites combine multimedia, history, and varying perspectives such as National Public Radio's February, 2002 piece on the James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Every Voice and Sing" at This Web site features the history of the song, long considered the black national anthem. Learners can access the words of the song as well as four audio versions of the song. The site also includes links to a biography of Johnson and links to his poetry as well at links to information about Lift Every Voice and Sing, A Celebration of the Negro National Anthem; 100 Years, 100 Voices (2000), edited by Sondra Kathryn Wilson and Julian Bond. The NPR Web site also links to an extensive online exhibit from the University of Virginia Library that could lead to many musical excursions (

"Powerful Days: The Civil Rights Photography of Charles Moore" at offers learners and teachers photographs that could jumpstart discussions about civil rights, American history, and current events around the world.

Some Web sites may be too difficult for all but the most advanced readers, but may still offer teachers excellent background material to help plan activities and lessons. The Library Congress has such a site in "African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship" at (

Video is a dense medium that encourages complex listening skills and comprehension of idioms while giving learners a chance to learn about American culture and art. Videos can make engaging prompts for reading, writing, and research assignments. The Long Walk Home ( and other sites) is popular with classes perhaps partly because while the topic portrayed-the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott-is so visual as to be almost transparent and the ideas expressed are complex. The movie contains two critically acclaimed actors, Whoopi Goldberg and Sissy Spacek, and uses both music and authentic film footage to heighten emotional intensity. Some teachers show a portion of the video; others show the whole film-depending on the teacher's learning objective, learners' needs and wishes, and the logistics of the class. The video could be a visceral introduction to the topic of the Civil Rights Movement, the culmination of the unit, or a discussion starter before a research unit on the Internet or at a local library. Students can be given a list of questions which can help focus on the theme, tone, plot, character, language, etc. These questions can be explored alone or in pairs, small group, or whole group, or be written and turned in as a comprehension check or writing sample.

Learners will be able to find readings about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott on the internet at such sites as:

Rosa Parks Bus: The Story Behind the Bus ( and the Rosa Parks Portal (


Remember the Titans ("), another film based on a true story, may appeal particularly to the younger members of an adult ESL class. Titans relates the efforts of two football coaches --one black and one white--who helped to integrate T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia in 1971. Much was written about this movie when it premiered in September, 2000, so learners could search the Internet for information. Learners could extend their critical literacy skills as they compare the video with recollections of the real people involved. Pertinent Web sites include and

Since many adult English language learners are very interested in American literature, African-American History Month gives them an opportunity to explore while also expanding vocabulary and sociopolitical context. For example, learners could read and discuss an excerpt from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (Random House) or Langston Hughes' "Harlem" or Lucille Clifton's "harriet". A poem like "harriet", which uses non-traditional form, non-standard English, and elliptical historical allusions can lead the class into discussions about language and literature and into the study of African-American history.


What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore-
And then run?
Does is stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Langston Hughes
(from The collected poems of Langston Hughes, Knopf)


if i be you
let me not forget
to be the pistol
to be the madwoman
at the rivers edge
be free or die
and isabell
if i be you
let me in my
not forget
to ask my brothers
ain't i a woman too
if i be you
let me not forget to
work hard
trust the Gods
love my children and

Lucille Clifton

(Note: Find more of Langston Hughes' poems at Find more of Lucille Clifton and other African American poets' work at

(Other useful sites for African-American History month might include:


High-intermediate and advanced learners will be able to find many topics to read and write about and to discuss as they pursue their individual language learning goals. They may even want to share what they've learned with others in their program and school or in the community at large.


CAELA hopes that this sampler of activities for African-American History Month will encourage practitioners to create integrated English and civics activities that will meet the needs of the adults learning English in their classes. If you have comments, questions, or suggestions, please contact Lynda Terrill (