Supporting Vocabulary Acquisition for English Language Learners

bilingual brain

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.  These are four strategies teachers can use for ELL vocabulary instruction in their English and content area classrooms.

  • 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.


By  Elizabeth Hogan

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