Best Practice in Vocabulary Instruction for English Language Learners

vocabulary instruction for english language learners

Best Practice in Vocabulary Instruction for English Language Learners

In a lot of ways, vocabulary instruction for English Language Learners is a lot like vocabulary instruction for any learner. [See the previous posts in the series for ideas.]

Yet there are some differences that are worth discussing to ensure that vocabulary instruction for English Language Learners gives them the best chance possible to gain solid footing in the target language vocabulary.

While this list is not intended to be comprehensive, it is a nice overview of some of what we know works best.

More is better

ELL students need more vocabulary exposure, practice, and instruction to achieve the same results as native language learners. This makes sense, doesn’t it? They’re not awash in the sounds of the language as we are when we acquire our first language.

Just because it takes more practice and more time does not mean you’re doing it wrong or that the child is not trying.

Respect the brain

The brain resists nonsense, so if the vocabulary doesn’t make sense to the learner, the odds that it’s going in long term memory are pretty much zero.

Because of that, it is mission critical that we check for understanding and check again. Maybe check once more, just to be safe.

If a student leaves a class where amazing vocabulary instruction occurred, and the student doesn’t really have a grasp of what the word truly means, ownership of the word will stop at the classroom door.

Bring on the video

Vocabulary for English Language Learners benefits from the use of video.

Video gives words context, as well as providing a layer of interest on the part of the student that is sometimes missing when the teacher is talking.

That’s a little crazy when we think about it – that kids’ minds would rather watch strangers in a video than listen to a teacher who has certifications, experience, and an education. We have to accept that the brain wants what it wants.

For ELL students, incorporating multi media opportunities for vocabulary exposure increases the understanding of the target vocabulary,as well as their general vocabulary knowledge as well.

Want to read the research? Look for the study done by Silverman and Hines (2009).

Start with the basics

Teach the meaning of basic words (words that most English-only students know).

Begin with the Dale-Chall List, a list of three thousand words 80% of all fourth graders know.

This is a good beginning, as well as a place for those who may need direction in discovering vocabulary gaps.

Use cognates with care

Many languages have cognates they share with English, and those can be a great path to language acquisition.

We have to beware of false cognates – words that look like they should mean the same, but don’t. [Linguists know it’s even more complicated than that, but we’re going with this definition.]

For example, in Spanish, asistir looks like it should mean “to assist” or “to help.” It actually means, “to attend.”

Keep in mind that while English shares lots of Greek and Latin roots with Romance languages like French and Spanish, it is a Germanic language. Its structure is Germanic, as are many of its words and word pieces.

Linguistics can be complicated, and we can’t base a student’s acquisition of vocabulary on commonality.

So use cognates, but use them with care. They can be tricksty.

Note: SpanishCognates shares a list of the top 20 most confusing cognates for ELLs, if you’re interested.

Reading aloud to students

Reading aloud to students empowers more than just ELL students. I read aloud to even my 11th graders every single day.

Students must hear the language, and they must hear it over and over and again and again. They must be immersed in the sounds of the language (unless it’s, you know, Latin or ASL).

For ELL students, reading aloud is vocabulary acquisition gold IF the reading aloud is done well.

If you know you are not a fabulous oral reader, use CDs or tapes or digital audio. They simply must hear accurate pronunciation.

I would not read aloud to students trying to learn German, for example. My German, while serviceable, is not good enough to share beautiful, accurate pronunciation and inflection.

Parental Involvement

It is common for newcomers to a country to have children who master the language and parents who never do. That’s okay. We can still harness the power of parenting to help build vocabulary.

We must invite in non-threatening ways, making sure that parents understand that we do not expect them to teach their children English. Rather, we need their help in making sure that the seeds of language we are planting at school have fertile soil in which to grow at home.

We must always remember that language is an intrinsic part of culture, and we must never, ever denigrate the native language. To do so is to deny the child his or her identity.

Even parents who do not speak the target language themselves can be involved in many ways.

Things parents can do include:

  • Keep English and native language reading materials in the home. You can read about the critical role of books in the home here. Wonderful dual language books are available free in written and audio formats at
  • Play English songs appropriate for the child’s age (borrow materials from the library or from the teacher). Music contains many idiomatic expressions and wordplay, making it a critical piece of language development.
  • Label household objects in the target language. My own children have grown up with German labels on everything from forks to powdered sugar.
  • If possible, take some English lessons themselves so that they can understand some of what their children are learning.
  • Let their child read aloud to them in the target language, even if they don’t understand it.

Things teachers can do to encourage parents:

  • Reassure parents that we support the native language and its culture.
  • Provide a lending library.
  • Connect our families with materials through organizations like FirstBook or ReadingisFundamental. Find more sources here.
  • Gather books & magazines we can give for students to keep from friends.
  • Fully understand the value of bilingualism, so that we can embrace the fantastic benefit our English Language Learners will have being bilingual. (I wrote an article about it you can read here.)
  • Work on learning a world language yourself. This will give you an understanding of some of the things that help you with vocabulary (and don’t), as well as an appreciation for how challenging it can be, n’est-ce pas?

Sites to help you

Share ideas we find on bilingual resources sites like those listed at Omniglot.

A wonderful website with resources for teachers and families of bilingual students is ColorinColorado.

The section for families on learning together at home can be found here. Note: It’s not about colors in Colorado; it’s a reference to a Spanish phrase commonly said at the end of stories.

The truth

Bilingualism is a strength, yet it will never fully reveal itself until the target language is mastered.

Helping our students gain access to the entire English-speaking culture through mastery of vocabulary has the power to change their lives and their families’ lives forever.

Next Steps

To learn more about this vitally important topic, choose one or more of the following activities:

Easy: Read this article by Kate Kinsella on teaching academic vocabulary.

Medium: Read this article by teacher Suzanne Irujo about teaching ELL students based on research and practice.

Challenging: Read this article by researcher Jim Cummins about immersion strategies, as well as other bilingual strategies. Note the specific vocabulary applications in Figure 1.

For everyone: Share any good ideas you find to help as many children as possible.

The Vocabulary Series

This post is Part 4 of a four-part series on teaching vocabulary. If you would like to check out the rest of the series, visit the posts below

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