Vocabulary Instruction for English Language Learners

Vocabulary Instruction for English Language Learners

by Judie Haynes

Here are some tips on providing effective vocabulary instruction for your English language learners.

Teaching Content Area Vocabulary to English Language Learners has been reprinted from Essential Teacher, March, 2008.

When I started teaching in an ESL pullout program in the 1980s, few materials were available for elementary ESL programs. So I adapted textbooks and workbooks from the general education curriculum to meet the linguistic needs of students who received ESL instruction for 30–45 minutes a day, but spent most of their time in the general education classroom. It became evident to me that classroom teachers needed to learn to adapt their teaching methods and materials to meet the needs of English language learners (ELLs) in their classes. I began to examine ways that I could help them do this. I focused on vocabulary development and modifying content area teaching methods and materials. In this issue, I discuss methods for teaching vocabulary to ELLs that can be used by ESL and content area teachers alike.

Use explicit instruction of vocabulary.

I believe all students need direct instruction of vocabulary, but it is especially imperative for ELLs. They need much more exposure to new vocabulary than their native-English-speaking classmates (August & Shanahan, 2006). ELLs need to learn cognates, prefixes, suffixes, and root words to enhance their ability to make sense of new lexicon. Understanding context clues such as embedded definitions, pictures, and charts builds schema that ELLs need in order to comprehend the text. New vocabulary needs to be explicitly taught, and each new word should be directly linked to an appropriate strategy. ELLs should actively engage in holistic activities to practice new vocabulary because learning words out of context is difficult for these students. Even if they memorize the meanings of the words on a list, they will not be able to use the words in their own writing or verbal production until they really understand the meanings.

Introduce the most essential vocabulary before beginning a new chapter or unit.

Don’t overwhelm students with too many words or concepts. Pick what is absolutely essential in each chapter. Pronounce each word for students, and have them repeat after you. Introduce the vocabulary in a familiar and meaningful context and then again in a content-specific setting. For example, in a unit on weather and tornadoes that I taught, the word front needed to be reviewed in a familiar context and then taught in the context of the unit. Provide experiences that help demonstrate the meaning of the vocabulary words. In my unit, diagrams and photographs were particularly helpful.

Build background knowledge.

Explicit links to previously taught text should be emphasized to activate prior knowledge. Review relevant vocabulary that was already introduced, and highlight familiar words that have a new meaning. Access the knowledge that students bring from their native cultures. In learning about tornadoes, for example, my students talked about some extreme weather found in their home countries and used Google in Korean and Japanese to find examples of such weather. They also watched videos of typhoons and a tsunami. Videos from your school library, Internet resources, and carefully selected educational TV programs (e.g., Discovery Channel shows, something from the 60 years of NBC News archives now freely available for teachers) should be used to introduce each unit. Doing so will increase vocabulary and provide ELLs with background knowledge. Key vocabulary can also be introduced through a fictional story before it is taught from the textbook. For example, I read an excerpt from The Wizard of Oz before teaching the information about tornadoes from the textbook. My students then gathered around the classroom computer to watch a video of a tornado. “Look at the funnel! It’s twisting! It’s going to touch down!” students exclaimed. They had already learned some of the vocabulary from The Wizard of Oz, and I was pleased to hear them use these words as they watched the video.

Use visuals when introducing new words and concepts.

Elementary-aged ELLs are usually visual or kinesthetic learners. When a teacher simply lectures, ELLs have very little understanding of the concepts being taught. It is therefore helpful to use realia, pictures, photographs, graphic organizers, maps, and graphs. Write key words on the board, and add gestures to help students interpret meaning. Have students create their own visuals to aid their learning. In the tornado unit, each student was assigned a few content-specific vocabulary words. They had to write simple definitions and draw pictures to show what the words meant.

Provide a variety of activities to practice new vocabulary.

Research has shown that learning is more effective when students give input into the vocabulary they need to learn (Echevarria, Vogt, & Short, 2000). To give students plenty of practice with words, I recommend providing two word walls. On one wall, I write everyday words that students need to learn and practice. These words are removed when students no longer need them. On the second wall, I write unit- or content-specific vocabulary. This wall is changed to make room for new units. I then ask students to post unfamiliar words from the text. They select key vocabulary by looking at chapter titles, headings, and bolded words. I also have students make a portable word wall which they keep in their binders so that they have their vocabulary handy when they do homework.New vocabulary should be reviewed every day. Students can work together to write a simple sentence for each word or complete a cloze activity. They can also draw pictures to illustrate vocabulary, make flashcards, or compile their own dictionaries in a notebook.

Promote oral language development through cooperative learning groups.

ELLs need ample opportunities to speak English and authentic reasons to use academic language. Working in small groups is especially beneficial because ELLs learn to negotiate the meanings of vocabulary words with their classmates. When students work on the previously mentioned vocabulary activities in pairs or small groups, they can better understand and discuss the key concepts of the content area unit.


August, D., & Shanahan, T. (Eds.). (2006). Executive summary. In Developing literacy in second-language learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D. (2000). Making content comprehensible for English language learners: The SIOP Model. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

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