The Wonder of Words: Successful Vocabulary Strategies for English Learners

by | Sep 27, 2018

Why is vocabulary development so critical to language development and literacy achievement for English learners? Vocabulary refers to the words we must know to communicate effectively. One of the most persistent findings in reading research is that the extent of students’ vocabulary knowledge relates directly to their ability to comprehend, and to their overall reading success (Bauman, Kame’enui & Ash, 2003). Furthermore, vocabulary knowledge is one of the best predictors of verbal ability.

Researchers refer to four types of vocabulary which represent four tickets to successful second language acquisition. These four distinct and overlapping vocabularies are:  (listening and reading = receptive, and speaking and writing = expressive). Young children have much larger listening and speaking vocabularies than reading and writing.  That becomes our challenge in teaching English learners.

When I started teaching and focusing on the needs of English learners, few materials were available for English as an Additional Language or Dialect (EAL/D) learner programs. So I adapted textbooks and workbooks from the general education curriculum to meet the linguistic needs of students who received EAL/D instruction in a pull-out service delivery model. But similar to the students that I served with special education needs, they spent most of their time in the general education classroom. It became evident to me that classroom teachers needed to learn to adapt their teaching methods and materials to meet the needs of EAL/D learners in their classes. I began to examine ways that I could help them do this. I focused on vocabulary development and modifying learning area teaching methods and materials. In this article, I will discuss methods and strategies for teaching vocabulary to EAL/D learners that can be used by EAL/D and learning area teachers alike.

These techniques are hands-on, practical and effective – well suited to busy classroom literacy programs! Involve your students in the wonderful world of words. As students increase their vocabularies, they boost their reading comprehension and strengthen their ability to tackle informational text. In developing and enhancing your program for word learning, keep in mind the following features: it should be personal, active, flexible and strategic.


Where do you start?

Some questions to ask yourself as you wonder about words:

  • What do I believe about the importance of word learning?
  • Do I have a narrow- or broad-based view of integrating vocabulary instruction throughout the curriculum?
  • When I introduce new words, do I always follow the same procedure?
  • In my classroom, who does the most talking about new words?
  • How do I create the “wonder of words”? Do I make it personal, active, multi-sensory, flexible, strategic? (Perez, 2016).


Use direct instruction in an explicit, systematic way

Students acquiring English need particular attention to explicit vocabulary instruction because vocabulary difficulty strongly influences the readability of texts (Klare, 1984). They need much more and frequent exposure to new vocabulary than their native English-speaking classmates (August & Shanahan, 2006). EAL/D learners need to learn cognates, prefixes, suffixes and root words to enhance their ability to comprehend text. Teachers should focus on student understanding of context clues, pictures and charts as well as the words. Carefully choose the vocabulary that your EAL/D students must need to know in order to support their reading development.

New vocabulary needs to be explicitly taught, and each new word should be directly linked to an appropriate strategy. Plan for repeated exposures using different modalities to ensure mastery. EAL/D learners should actively engage in activities to practise new vocabulary because learning words out of context is difficult for these students. Be sure to provide student-friendly definitions for words that are important to their understanding of the content. Simply memorising words on a list and their meaning will not equal transfer of learning unless they see the connection to their lives.


It is important to focus on word meaning

Ask yourself: when does a student truly know a word? The dilemma for teachers is the quandary of vocabulary vs. spelling. For struggling students and/or EAL/D learners, spelling has another set of challenges. Knowing a word by sight and sound, and being able to recite the dictionary definition, are not the same as being able to make meaning of the word, using it in various contexts and understanding it when it is heard or seen beyond the text (Miller & Gildea, 1987).

When deciding on which words to teach, make vocabulary choices by asking:

  • Is the word critical to making meaning of the text or story?
  • Is the word useful to the student beyond the text in their lives?

If yes – teach it!

Students who are acquiring English need particular attention paid to explicit vocabulary instruction, because vocabulary difficulty strongly influences the readability of texts (Klare, 1984). Similarly, Beck and McKeown (1983) concur that teaching the vocabulary of a selection can improve students’ comprehension of that selection. Decades of research have consistently confirmed the relationship between vocabulary knowledge, reading comprehension and academic success (Baumann & Kame’enui, 2002).


Understanding academic language is the key to school success

Many students struggle with the academic language they encounter in school and in textbooks because their exposure to language outside of school does not include these advanced words and phrases. Therefore, a challenge facing EAL/D learners is that they not only have to develop the everyday language that is familiar to their monolingual peers, but they must also learn academic language skills to understand the informational texts found in the learning areas. This dilemma poses a double demand of language proficiency for EAL/D learners (O’Brien & Leighton, 2015).


Introduce the most essential vocabulary before beginning a new chapter or unit

Don’t overwhelm students with too many words or concepts. Pick what is absolutely essential in each chapter. Pronounce each word for students, and have them repeat after you. Organise vocabulary around a common theme of a content area you are studying, and choose reading materials that reinforce that vocabulary in context. Provide experiences that help demonstrate the meaning of the vocabulary words.

Teach your students to be word detectives and help them discover a sense of wonder in gathering new words for their word bank. Make word learning visible, listing core vocabulary on the walls – there is no escape from learning! In fact, make a game out of it! Each time you use one of the key vocabulary words, have the students tally it and celebrate their word discoveries.

Involve the students in selecting key words of the week. These words should be new, interesting and/or challenging. See if they can use the words in new and different ways, and have them earn points for their unique contributions. Students should keep a vocabulary log of these new and exciting words and use them in their writing as well as in their speaking. Make these words multi-dimensional – create word mobiles that hang in the classroom.

Another way to help with retention and comprehension for visual learners is to sketch the meaning of a word and make a set of flashcards with the graphic symbols for new words. For the bodily–kinesthetic learner, let them act out the meanings of the new words by using time for “Word Theatre”. Have students use the words in meaningful sentences that are grounded in their own world, not just copied from the textbook. Give them “great, big, fancy” words to enrich their vocabulary!

In order to foster this word-awareness, providing your students with a rich array of varied text types at different levels is essential for self-selection. When they come to a word that they do not know, explain word meanings in a conversational way. Don’t “sound like a dictionary”. Here are some other strategies to easily integrate into your curriculum:

  • Word chips – place keywords on a sheet of paper and have the students tear them apart into separate word chips. Work with a learning partner and have them use the word in a sentence that has a personal connection:  “This reminds me of_____________.”
  • Let me count the ways – have students select a word chip and see if they can use it in five different ways. This helps them make connections.
  • Two for you – Have students work with a learning partner, each selecting two word chips to make a sample sentence that makes sense. For example, if the child chooses “sink” and “sand”, ask them to make a statement that uses both of the words in a meaningful way: “If I drop sand in the water, I know it will You might then ask them to do a visual to support their language.
  • Three for me – after they have mastered two word chips, have them try it with three word chips. The words are “water”, “sand” and “grains”. The student uses these three words to make a statement: “When water flows over sand, it tends to push the grains Make sure that the words are appropriate to their age and developmental level.
  • Go for it! – Increase the complexity and level of difficulty after the student has successfully been able to make statements with two and three words, then have them make a sentence that uses all the word chips. Ask them to share their sentences with the group.
  • Explore homographs – Use games to teach multiple meaning of words – words that are spelled the same but have different meanings and origins. For instance:
    • Spell (to say letters)
    • Spell (words with magical power)
    • Spell (a duration of time)

These activities provide more language links and more personal connections, so that when students read the text they will be more prepared to read the passage independently and look for specific words to pull out or highlight. This provides students with another context for the keywords that you just taught them and that they made meaning of.


Build background knowledge

It is important to provide explicit links to previously taught text to activate prior knowledge for English learners. Review relevant vocabulary that was already introduced, and highlight familiar words that have a new meaning. Access the knowledge that students bring from their native cultures.


Use visuals when introducing new words and concepts

Think of ways to scaffold vocabulary instruction for your English learners through visual or kinesthetic techniques. When a teacher simply lectures, EAL/D learners have very little understanding of the concepts being taught. It is therefore helpful to use realia, pictures, photographs, graphic organisers, maps and graphs. Write keywords on the board, and add gestures to help students interpret meaning. Have students create their own visuals to aid their learning. For example, assign each student a few content-specific vocabulary words. Have them write simple definitions in their own words and draw pictures to show what the words meant.

  • Group related words – Rather than teaching isolated words to memorise, teach words in related clusters that will enhance their meaning-making process. For instance, have students group words together about emotions or feelings. Then have them discuss what it means to be “frightened” or “delighted” or “terrified” vs. “ecstatic”. An extension activity would be to make posters that represent these groupings.


Provide rich, language experiences that are multi-sensory

Encourage deep processing of word knowledge through engaging, multimodal approaches and a variety of exposures. A hands-on approach to vocabulary development is far more meaningful to the students than the passive act of “look it up in the dictionary”.  In fact, dictionary use needs to be strategic and purposeful. In this way, they are getting more learning done in less time and they are working smarter, not harder, by developing their psychomotor memory (Jensen, 2005).

Be sure to keep an ongoing list of key vocabulary prominently displayed.  This can take the form of a word wall that is constantly evolving as your students’ word knowledge grows and develops.  If the words are visible and accessible to the students, they are more likely to see them, think about them and use them.

Exposure to a wide variety of words can be further enhanced when the students are exposed to a variety of different kinds of texts on different topics and at different levels.  Although wide reading builds word knowledge, direct instruction in vocabulary influences achievement and comprehension more than any other factor (Baumann & Kameenui, 2002; Blachowicz & Fisher, 2014). Vocabulary development is sustained over time through multiple exposures to words in different contexts. In addition, environmental words should surround them in the classroom. Label everything to give words more meaning in the real-world context around them.

  • Engaging teacher read-aloud – Choose books with vibrant vocabulary and powerful language. Share your own love of words with your students and ignite and excite students to share theirs. Print the key vocabulary words on index cards and deal them out to the students.  If you have more students than word cards, have them work in partners. As you deal out the cards, pronounce each word to the student so that they recognise the sound of the word. As you read the story aloud, invite the students to hold up the word when they hear their word read. After the children are familiar with the story, during a repeated reading, you may want to pause before the target word and have the students guess which word would make sense in the sentence. This is a great way to use context clues for word meaning. Increase teacher read-aloud to at least three times a day. Use read-aloud for narrative as well as informational text. While reading, demonstrate curiosity about words and pause to wonder aloud and unpack fascinating words for the children.
  • Word Wall Whackers! Bring your traditional word wall to life by using a fly swatter that you have prepared by cutting out the plastic webbing so that it forms a frame. Have several fly swatters so that several students can participate in this lively game of “smack-down”. Some questions to use to bring the word wall to life include:
    • What word is the opposite of_________________?
    • Whack at least three nouns.
    • Which word rhymes with ___________________?
    • Whack at least three verbs.
    • Whack a word that has more than three syllables.
    • Which part of speech is_____________?
    • Whack at least three adjectives.
    • Whack the word that means ________________.
    • Whack a word that has a prefix. What does it mean?
    • Whack three words that were used in our story.
    • Whack a word that starts like your name.
    • Whack a word that means the same as______________.
  • What category does this word fit into?
  • What are some main characteristics?
  • What are some examples of it?

You can change the questions to meet the needs of the lesson.

This increases their speaking and listening skills, and provides a much-needed kinesthetic break in the instruction.

  • Group related words – Rather than teaching isolated words to memorise, teach words in related clusters that will enhance the meaning-making process. For instance, have students group words together about emotions or feelings, then have them discuss what it means to be “frightened”, “delighted” or “terrified” vs. “ecstatic”. An extension activity would be to make posters that represent these groupings.
  • “Real-world words” – Have students become “word detectives” in their neighbourhood. Provide bonus points for students who hear or see key vocabulary words outside of school. The student needs to write down the word, or take a picture of it, write down what it means and where they heard it or saw it.
  • Examples and non-examples – Using words that the students are familiar with, they provide examples and non-examples. This can be done with visual or kinesthetic demonstrations as well as verbal descriptions. They can work with partners and explain why something is a good example of a word or not. They are learning the important skill of comparing and contrasting and defending their ideas in writing.
  • Fill in the blanks – Try using sentences with the key word missing before the students are expected to construct sentences on their own. Be sure to point out how to use context clues to help them. Share with them a word bank of the target words to choose from to help them succeed. Another variation is to create sentence frames with blanks to generate new words. (Example: “Have a ________________ day.” to generate multiple synonyms for the word “nice”.)


Provide a variety of activities to practise new vocabulary

Research has shown that learning is more effective when students give input into the vocabulary they need to learn (Echevarria, Vogt & Short, 2000). To give students plenty of practice with words, I recommend providing two word walls. On one wall, I write everyday words that students need to learn and practise. These words are removed when students no longer need them. On the second wall, I write content-specific vocabulary. This wall is changed to make room for new units of study. I then ask students to post unfamiliar words from the text. I also have students make a personal word bank using an “alphabox” template which they keep in their binders so that they have their vocabulary handy when they do homework. New vocabulary should be reviewed every day. Students can work together to write a simple sentence for each word or complete a cloze activity. They can also draw pictures to illustrate vocabulary, make flashcards or compile their own dictionaries in a notebook.

Some examples include:

  • “Quick Draw” – See how quickly the students can sketch out a symbolic image of the word on the board for the rest to guess. This can also be done with learning partners.


Promote oral language development through flexible learning groups

EAL/D learners need ample opportunities to interact and collaborate with their peers to speak English, and be provided with authentic reasons to use academic language. Working in small, flexible groups is especially beneficial because EAL/D learners expand the meanings of vocabulary words with their classmates and their applications. Some examples of these collaborative activities include:

  • Vo-back-ulary – Tape word cards onto the backs of your students, then have them mix and mingle to music, asking questions about their words to the other students until they guess the word. In turn, the other students provide clues to help the student guess the word on their back. This is an active way to review and reinforce word meanings (Bromley, 2002).
  • Word Headbands – Similar to Vo-back-ulary, but this time you place a headband made out of stapled sentence strips onto the student. They then mix and mingle, asking pertinent questions that will assist them in guessing what their “secret word” is.



English as an Additional Language or Dialect learners need robust vocabulary instruction integrated throughout their instructional day. It should not be an “add-on” lesson.  By explicitly teaching multiple meaning words and content-related words utilising hands-on, minds-on techniques, your EAL/D learners will reap the rewards by developing greater comprehension and collaborative conversation skills. These techniques can be adapted in any text or learning area. The more words they know, the more they can understand and speak. The more they understand and speak, the more they will comprehend what they read and be able to write about what they have learned. There’s nothing to it, but to do it!

If you are interested to learn more from Kathy Perez, her books The New Inclusion: Differentiated Strategies to Engage ALL Students, The Co-Teaching Book of Lists and 200+ Proven Strategies for Teaching Reading are all available from Hawker Brownlow Education right now. Kathy will also be presenting at the 2019 Hawker Brownlow Education Thinking & Learning Conference, so secure your spot today!



August, D. & Shanahan, T. (Eds.). (2006). Executive summary. In Developing literacy in second-language learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Baumann, J. F., Kame’enui, E. J. & Ash, G. E.  (2002).  Research on vocabulary instruction: Voltaire redux.  In J. Flood, D. Lapp, J. Squire, & J. Jensen, (Eds.), Handbook of research on teaching the English language arts (2nd ed.).  Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum

Beck, I. L., Kucan, L. & McKeown, M. G.  (2002).  Robust vocabulary instruction: Bringing words to life. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Blachowicz, C., & Fisher, P. J. (2014). Teaching vocabulary in all classrooms. Pearson Higher Ed.

Bromley, K.  (2002).  Stretching students’ vocabulary.  New York, NY: Scholastic, Inc.

Echevarria, J., Vogt, M. & Short, D. (2000). Making content comprehensible for English language learners: The SIOP Model. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Jensen, E.  (2005)Teaching with the brain in mind, 2nd edition. Alexandria, VA:  ASCD, Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Klare, G. R.  (1984).  Readability.  In P. D. Pearson  (Ed.), Handbook of reading research (681-744).  New York, NY: Longman.

Miller, G. A. & Gildea, P. M. (1987). Sf How Children Learn Words. Scientific American.

O’Brien, L. M. & Leighton, C. M. (2015). Use of increasingly complex text to advance EL’s knowledge and academic language.  Literacy Research:  Theory, Method and Practice, 64, 169-192.

Perez, K. (2017) 200+ Proven Strategies for Teaching Reading.  Melbourne, Victoria:  Hawker Brownlow Education.

Kathy Perez Kathy Perez has over three decades of teaching experience from the early childhood level through to graduate school. She is a professor of education, educational consultant, author and motivational speaker, specialising in instructional strategies and creative approaches to literacy and professional development. Read more articles by Kathy Perez

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