English Language Learners Create a Botanic Field Guide

Nenette Onstad, ELL Teacher
Edgerton Elementary School
Maplewood, Minnesota
Author Profile


English Language Learners (ELLs) will gather information and create a botanic field guide which includes the common and scientific names for plants (trees, shrubs, wildflowers, plants) typically found in their surroundings. A photo, drawing, or actual sample of the plant itself will be presented along with its description, one plant to a page. Included will be where the plant was found, its height, colors, leaf shape, and one or two sentences of grammatically correct description. Students will be asked to share their field guides with English-speaking peers, perhaps taking them on a nature hike.

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Learning Goals

This activity is designed to acquaint ELL newcomers of differing academic skill levels with their new outdoor environments, sharpen observation skills, develop concepts of categorization, teach key vocabulary, as well as give students a purpose for writing and a format for sharing their work with English-speaking peers. Students will also learn how to type on a computer, use a digital camera, and print their work. Because many ELL classrooms, especially those for newcomers, are multi-grade, this activity challenges students with differing literacy levels.

Context for Use

The activity would incorporate field work, note taking, photography, drawing, measurement, research, writing, computer skills, and oral presentation. It was developed for use with smaller group (6 to 10 students) but could be done in a larger class setting with additional staff support. It is designed to give students a focus and a format for their outdoor observations. It is also designed to be appropriate for students with multiple literacy skill levels, to be ongoing and, therefore, revisited so that information can be added as students make gains in their skills.

Equipment needed is as follows:
- a simple botanic field guide
- pencils and colored pencils
- rulers
- a protractor, and a tape measure (for recording tree heights using the transept method)
- a digital camera
- clear packing tape (to affix the plant matter or photographs)
- 8 1/2" by 11" cover stock, cut in half
- a 2-hole punch
- book rings (1 1/2" or 2")

Description and Teaching Materials

This lesson can be introduced in a number of ways. One would be through using literature with references to plants or trees. Another would be to ask students to bring in photographs from their home countries and ask about the plants in them. One could ask if they knew the plant names then ask if they had learned any plant names in English. One could then ask students to bring in examples of plants/leaves/flowers that they would like to know the names of and perhaps then "picture walk" through the botanical field guide to try to match the plant with its description. At that point, one could then explain to the students that they will be creating their own field guides. The activity would then proceed as follows:

Students will gather/photograph/draw samples of plants on multiple field trips. In the field and back in the classroom, they would then write a description for each plant, including where the plant was found, its measurements, colors, leaf shape, and then, using a botanical field guide and help from the teacher, they would record the plant's common name and, for older students, its scientific name. (This could also simply be copied by younger students or be added later.) The drawing or photo or the plant itself would be affixed to the half-sheets of cover stock and data recorded in a standard format (see Attachment A), The students could create their own field guides, or contribute to a class field guide. The individual 2-hole punched pages, because they are bound by book rings, could be assembled and reassembled for purposes of categorization and a Table of Contents, Glossary, and Index could be added later to teach those formats as well.

Attachment A, format for page in field guide (Microsoft Word 30kB May23 11)

Teaching Notes and Tips

There are many ways to organize this type of project. In an effort to keep students focused, perhaps require them to record information as they gather plant materials. If multiple plants are gathered, perhaps require them to organize the plant with the description by placing them together within, say, a magazine, so when they are brought back into the classroom, the plant and its description will not be mismatched! Drawing could be done in the classroom rather than outside if time was limited. Students in larger classes could be asked to work in partner groups. For my ELL students, much vocabulary would have to be pre-taught and the words with their pictorial representations would be available for them to refer to. Measurement with a ruler is pretty straightforward but to measure the heights of trees, the transept method would have to be taught. (The height of a tree is measured by stepping away from the tree to a point where, when using a protractor, it is 45 degrees to the top of the tree, then one measures the distance from where one is to the base of the tree, and that number is doubled--challenging, but doable!, if demonstrated). I also think a teacher should help students locate the plant names in the botanical guide so they can "check" for accuracy. Again, this entire activity is designed with multiple ages/skill levels in mind, and also to be ongoing. Therefore, the product should be a viewed as a work-in-progress and one which students can enjoy working on at their own level of competency. I would give students the choice of drawing, photographing or simply affixing the plant/leaf itself and make it a fun excuse for getting outside and enjoying some cross-disciplinary learning!


Assessment would be the product itself, but a rubric could also be created. A service-learning facet could be added by having students create signs for a "nature walk" or requiring students to share their learning with classroom peers or even their parents. Often my ELL students are quite shy and their mainstream peers do not know what they are capable of! The field guide would be a tangible "proof" of what they can do and also, the sharing of it would open up avenues of communication and further develop the ELLs' oral language skills.


This activity meets requirements set forth in the Minnesota Academic Standards in the areas of English Language Learning, Language Arts, Technology, Mathematics, and Life Science. Life Science Sub-Strand B, Diversity of Organisms, focuses on life cycles in Grade 2, structures and functions in Grade 3, and classification and grouping in Grade 4.

References and Resources