Helping English Learners Build Vocabulary

downloadThe saying, “He who dies with the most toys wins” was popularized in the 1980s on bumper stickers and T shirts, and even made its way into an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Attributed to Malcolm Forbes, it represents an era when acquiring material possessions – or stuff –was the ultimate status symbol. Hopefully, the sentiment of greed the saying represents is as outdated as the saying itself.

In education, the saying, “He or she who has the most words wins” speaks to the importance of vocabulary.  Ok, so I just made the saying up. But, having a robust vocabulary is essential for school success. Those students who know and can use the most words do best in school. For English learners, vocabulary development is critical for overall language proficiency as well as for academic achievement.

Having a strong vocabulary allows English learners to read and comprehend text, to participate in oral discussion and presentation of information, and to express themselves adequately in writing and speaking. Keep in mind, the benefit isn’t simply a list of new words that have been learned. As those new words are learned, more is learned about the concepts and images with which the words are associated, which then contributes to facilitating further learning and deeper understanding of words’ meanings.

Here are 3 ways to develop vocabulary with English learners:

  1. Explicitly teach words.  There’s little benefit to putting isolated vocabulary terms on the board and asking English learners to copy them and look up their definitions in the dictionary. Many of the words in the definitions are also unfamiliar to these students, so the activity can be meaningless – and frustrating. Although using the dictionary is an important school skill to learn, it isn’t the most effective way to learn the meaning of new words. Instead, teachers select a specific set of words from the texts and other materials students will be expected to read. These words may be supplemented by cross-curricular words found in academic word lists such as contrast, analyze, or variable. The selected set of words should be used in multiple ways in order to deepen understanding. Some ways of providing multiple exposures to the words include:
  • Pointing out the words when they appear in the text so students see the words in context;
  • Using picture dictionaries that have the word, definition, and pictorial representation for reference;
  • Incorporating into lessons ways for students to use and practice the words in peer discussions, individual activities, and teacher-led groups;
  • Teaching words in context, rather than in isolation, by providing student-friendly definitions, creating sentences using the words, showing pictures, giving examples students can relate to, and the like.

2. Provide opportunities for incidental learning.  English learners can learn the meaning of words from coming across them in print, and orally. But they must come across the words more than once or even twice; there must be multiple exposures in meaningful contexts. This means engaging in meaningful reading experiences, accompanied by discussion and writing. Incidental learning occurs by:

  • Allowing time for independent reading of books or online resources that are appropriate for English learners’ language and literacy levels;
  • Providing opportunities for students to listen to texts.

It is important to note that while English learners acquire vocabulary incidentally, through use, intentional learning tends to be more effective and efficient. Students should be provided with both explicit teaching and incidental learning opportunities to develop and practice using their vocabularies to the fullest.

3. Develop word consciousness. Simply put, this means to help students become interested in words and aware of how they work. Learning about words and playing with words can be great fun. Activities in which students manipulate words, sort words, experiment with creating funny words, and choose words they want to know about are important for vocabulary growth. As students develop word consciousness, they understand that words have meanings and that these meanings are knowable, not some mystery that they can’t figure out. Often, English learners encounter words they can’t understand but don’t know why. Once teachers help them learn more about words and how they work, they’ll be more likely to figure out the meaning of words that trip them up. Some ways to develop word consciousness include:

  • Generating words from roots by adding affixes (See example using –port which means, to carry.);DMwoco0UIAAWGb_
  • Talking about the language used by good authors. Pull out a sentence or phrase and discuss its meaning and why the author might have used those particular words. Ask students how the meaning might be conveyed using different words.

How many words should be selected for teaching? There isn’t research to guide precisely how many words to teach, but depending on age, teachers can choose from five to 20 or more words a week to teach.  The best guide might be to ask, “How many words can I teach meaningfully, have kids use to practice and apply their new learning, and assess within a particular lesson?”  This question helps teachers realize that having more words isn’t necessarily better.

There are innumerable ideas and activities for developing vocabulary. But the most bang for the buck comes by being selective and strategic in the words chosen for study, and giving students many different exposures to the words.


Post based in part on:

Echevarria, J. & Goldenberg, C. (2017). Second-language learners’ vocabulary and oral language development. Literacy Leadership Brief, International Literacy Association.

Echevarria, J., Vogt, ME., & Short, D. (2017). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP Model Fifth Ed. New York: Pearson.

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