Top Five Vocabulary Strategies for English Language Learners

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50,000 words by high school graduation.

That’s the challenge English Language Learners (ELLs) face if they want to catch up to their native English-speaking classmates. That’s almost 4,000 new words a year if a student begins school as a kindergartner!

But what about the English Language Learners who don’t enroll until middle school or high school? For these students, the vocabulary challenge is even more demanding. To meet it, teachers must learn and use the most effective strategies. Over the years, I’ve tried many different approaches and techniques and compiled the following list of my top five favorite vocabulary strategies for ELLs.

Previewing Unfamiliar Vocabulary

In preparation for my lessons, I scan the chapters we’ll be reading together as a class to identify words that might slow down student comprehension of the text. I limit myself to no more than five words per chapter since research has shown that students acquire new vocabulary faster if teachers focus in on five to ten words a week instead of overwhelming students with lengthy lists. Before adding a word to my list, I ask myself how important the word is to the overall comprehension of the chapter and whether it will be difficult for the students to figure out the meaning of the word using context clues. Then, before we read each chapter in class I preview the new vocabulary words I’ve selected and discuss their meanings and uses.

In Preparing Students to Read: Word and Inference Walls, Cathy Farrell previews words that are essential for students to make meaning from the story they’re reading. She adds a visual element by posting important words on a word wall and extends student comprehension by creating an inference wall of images, artifacts, and evidence to help them make predictions based on prior knowledge and context.

Using Visuals

Remember the old saying, a picture is worth a thousand words? Well, for English Language Learners this expression is especially true. Visual Cues in the classroom can be an important tool for language development. In my classroom, visuals play two important roles in helping ELLs comprehend and internalize new vocabulary.

First, I use visuals when introducing new terms to the class. These visuals help to clarify the meaning of new vocabulary if the written definition for the word is confusing or contains unfamiliar words. For example, we recently discussed the following definition for the word “hand” — “a person who engages in manual labor.” Since I knew some of my students might be unfamiliar with the term “manual labor,” I included a picture of a man working in a field to help explain the meaning.

So how do I find visuals to use in the classroom? The internet provides educators with access to dozens of free, searchable databases of images. Pixabay, Morguefile, Flickr, Classroom Clipart, and Openclipart are some of my favorites for locating great visuals.

In addition to the visuals, I also require students to draw their own picture to help them remember the meaning of new words. Since ELLs sometimes have difficulty expressing their thoughts in words, drawing a picture is an alternative that allows them to demonstrate their understanding and apply their knowledge of the new vocabulary. For a fun twist, students can even trade pictures with a classmate to see whether or not they can identify the vocabulary term they have drawn.

Providing Student-Friendly, Fill-in-the-Blank Definitions

Instead of asking students to look up vocabulary words in the dictionary, I provide them with fill-in-the-blank definitions to ensure they all have accurate and comprehensible information for new terms. I do this because in the past, students were in such a hurry to complete their assignments they wrote down the first definition they came across. And since many words have multiple meanings, they would often write down the incorrect variation of the word when asked to look it up on their own. For example, if students were asked to look up the word “table” in the dictionary, they would find many different meanings for the word, including a piece of furniture, a type of chart, and to put off discussing something until a later time.

Not all online dictionaries have been designed with the student learner in mind and contain definitions filled with college-level academic vocabulary that are inaccessible to the younger learner. In order to avoid this problem, I use Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary as my primary resource for locating student-friendly definitions. It contains simple, clear definitions specially written for K-12 students.

I’ve also found that it’s equally important to use the fill-in-the-blank format rather than requiring my students to copy down the entire definition I provide them. This format is especially beneficial for English Language Learners for a couple of reasons.

  • First, the fill-in-the-blank format allows my students to listen and think about the new vocabulary as we discuss it in class, without being sidetracked by trying to quickly copy down every word.
  • Second, it allows me to call attention to keywords in the definitions that will help them to remember the meanings. I intentionally leave a couple of the most important keywords as blanks so the students will pay careful attention to them as we’re discussing the definitions. Below is an example of a recent vocabulary word we discussed.

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Highlighting Vocabulary Words in Context

It’s not only important to preview unfamiliar vocabulary before reading a text, but also to draw students’ attention to the vocabulary as the text is read aloud or discussed in class. Whenever I come across a vocabulary word that’s being used in a textbook, article, novel, or short story we’re reading, I pause, point out the word to students, and ask them to recall its meaning. If possible, I also encourage them to mark it with a highlighter. It’s critical for ELLs to see multiple examples of how new words are used in context — rather than just studying them in isolation — to be able to commit the words to long-term memory and add them to their working vocabularies. The more repeated exposures students have to new words, the more likely they will be to define them, comprehend them, and remember them.

As a teacher, you can even turn finding words in context into a game by challenging your students to find examples of their vocabulary words on their own in other books they’re reading, internet articles, advertisements, etc. You can reward students for every example they locate, turn it into a class competition, or even set a class goal.

Practicing With Graphic Organizers

In addition to having repeated exposures to new words, English learners must also be given the opportunity to organize information and ideas about the new vocabulary. Graphic organizers are a tool that allow students to visualize and make connections with new material.

One of the my favorite graphic organizers for vocabulary instruction is called the KIM Strategy. KIM is an acronym that represents the three columns of the graphic organizer.

  • “K” stands for key idea or the vocabulary word the students are studying.
  • “I” stands for information or the student explanation of what the vocabulary words means.
  • “M” stands for memory clue or the drawing or example of the word that will help the student remember the meaning.

I used the KIM Strategy as inspiration for the graphic organizer I created to better fit the needs of my students. I added a page number reference for the vocabulary word so that students can see it in context while working through the meaning. I also added a fill-in-the-blank definition of the word to ensure they had access to an accurate and student-friendly definition. Below is an example of the graphic organizer I made for my students:

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Nichole Niebur uses a similar strategy in Learning Difficult Vocabulary, in which she asks students to restate or paraphrase the definition of a vocabulary term and connects the vocabulary to students’ everyday lives.

Although I’ve listed my top five favorite vocabulary strategies for English learners, there are many other excellent approaches out there that work equally well. The internet gives educators the ability to connect with other teachers from all over the world and share strategies, especially when we start to feel like we’ve run out of fresh ideas. Teaching Channel has a number of useful strategies for teaching vocabulary. Check out Sarah Brown Wessling’s Vocabulary Paint Chips.

In this video, students use paint chips as a fun and interesting medium to help them explore new vocabulary and relationships between words. How might you adapt or modify this strategy for your ELLs?

When it comes to vocabulary, don’t be afraid to try something new. You may discover an approach that’s just the right fit for the students in your classroom.

What strategies do you use with English Language Learners? Share them in the comments below.

Erica Hilliker is a middle school EL teacher at Forest Hills Public Schools in Grand Rapids, Michigan and also serves as the Vice President of the Michigan Association for Bilingual Education. She holds a Masters of Education in Literacy Studies with an emphasis in TESOL from Grand Valley State University. She is certified to teach English and Spanish at the secondary level. During her career, Erica has worked with English learners at all grade levels, from kindergarten to adult. Additionally, she is a certified SIOP trainer and has led professional development for teachers throughout the West Michigan area. Connect with Erica through her website: Mrs. Hilliker’s EL and SIOP Toolbox or on Twitter: @erica_hilliker.

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