Strategy Guide

Supporting Vocabulary Acquisition for English Language Learners

6 - 12
Strategy Guide Series
Differentiating Instruction

About this Strategy Guide

English language learners frequently have not acquired through exposure to text the breadth and depth of vocabulary needed to comprehend their English and content area texts or to participate in classroom discussions of texts.  This Strategy Guide introduces strategies teachers can use for ELL vocabulary instruction in their English and content area classrooms.

Research Basis

Middle and high school ELLs are often talented at basic interpersonal communication skills, which often masks their difficulty in attaining content and academic literacy proficiency.  Central to this discrepancy between the two is the vocabulary load that middle and high school learners suddenly face.  Nagy and Anderson (1984) estimate that students need to know 88,500 word families to understand their content-area texts (in Fisher, Rothenberg, and Frey (2007), yet Nagy and Herman (1984) found that only 10% of needed vocabulary was learned through direct instruction. ELLs learn more vocabulary through content: reading, writing, speaking, and listening; paradoxically, they need enough vocabulary to make sense of the texts in the content areas.  Therefore,  Fisher, Rothenberg, and Frey (2007) conclude that ELLs need both direct vocabulary instruction and immersion in important content.

Strategy in Practice

Supporting Vocabulary Acquisition

  • Before reading a text, identify key content vocabulary and vocabulary that may be difficult for language learners, such as phrasal verbs and prepositional phrases. ELL's tend to acquire these language forms last because they do not exist in many languages. Also, identify potentially difficult idioms, homonyms, and slang phrases. Pre-teach essential vocabulary words and phrases through word walls, Frayer models with an opportunity to draw word representations, and, sparingly, bilingual and English language learner (visual) dictionaries.

  • Use Google images to pre-teach vocabulary. "Google" the focus vocabulary words, and choose the images category. Connect the images to the vocabulary words. When vocabulary words are more conceptual than concrete, use the images to start a discussion rather than name an object. When possible, bring in realia to make the meaning of objects clear, physically demonstrate verb phrases or ask students to role-play, and use relevant film-clips to illustrate vocabulary. In short, use multiple modalities to teach vocabulary.

  • Support students' meta-cognition around vocabulary. Ask students to identify confusing or new words during reading. Encourage students to use context clues before jumping to bilingual dictionaries. Encourage students to discuss possible meanings with partners and to keep vocabulary journals of newly acquired words. When the distance between a student's L1 and L2 is close, they can use cognate awareness, as long as they are wary of false cognates, to further comprehension.

  • Develop a whole-school vocabulary focus on words of the week grouped by common roots and affixes or by key academic vocabulary.



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