6 Classroom Strategies to Teach Vocabulary to English Language Learners

Updated on February 3, 2019
gerimcclym profile image

Geri McClymont is passionate about education. She holds an MEd and has taught English language learners for over ten years.

As teachers, we have the opportunity every day to use effective strategies to support English language learners in our classroom. One significant way to help our English learners succeed is to be intentional about teaching vocabulary.

Limited academic vocabulary hinders many English language learners from reading and learning classroom content. But with effective strategies, students can leave our classroom with an enriched vocabulary bank every single day!

While English learners generally have the greatest need to expand their vocabulary, many non-English language learners—especially those from low socioeconomic communities—have a limited vocabulary bank, so many of them can greatly benefit from these strategies as well.

Expanding your English learners' vocabulary equips them for success in the classroom and beyond!
Expanding your English learners' vocabulary equips them for success in the classroom and beyond! | Source

Strategies to Teach Vocabulary to English Language Learners

  1. Label everything in your classroom.
  2. Speak to your students with rich vocabulary.
  3. Pre-teach key vocabulary.
  4. Use text with rich vocabulary and images.
  5. Play vocabulary games.
  6. Seize teachable moments.

Pairing words with images is a powerful way to teach vocabulary to your English learners.
Pairing words with images is a powerful way to teach vocabulary to your English learners. | Source

1. Label Everything in Your Classroom

  • Posters: Choose posters with colorful and clearly labeled images. Or add labels for the pictures yourself. They don't have to be perfect—you don’t need to type, print, and laminate the words before you tape them onto the posters. Handwriting them in bold on sticky notes and taping the sticky notes onto the poster works equally well. The main thing is for your students to associate each word with its corresponding image to help them learn vocabulary.
  • Maps: Write the title above each map to depict what the land represents. If it’s a country, write the name of the country. If it’s a world map, specify that. Maps are also great places to label cardinal directions: north, south, east, west, as well as northeast, northwest, southeast, southwest. Add labels for large bodies of water such as oceans and bays—their names often appear in tiny print and are therefore almost unnoticeable on the original map. For a world map, highlight the names of the seven continents to make them stand out.

I strongly recommend leaving ample space between posters and maps on your walls so that your students are not over-saturated with visual input. Walls that are too cluttered with information may overwhelm your students rather than draw them in.

  • Supplies: Label containers for all supplies and materials in your classroom: pencils, colored pencils, erasers, scissors, rulers, glue, lined paper, white paper, and any other materials you use regularly. Label the shelves where binders, folders, writing journals, books, and workbooks are kept with their designated names. Labeling all materials will not only help your students learn vocabulary, it will help you and your students locate supplies easily—thereby maximizing classroom time.
  • Technology and Furniture: Label computers, computer screen, keyboard, mouse, speakers, classroom screen, cabinet, file cabinet, teacher desk, teacher chair, and tables.
  • Miscellaneous: Label a wall, a visible outlet, a visible chord, light switch, air vent, the ceiling, windows, shades, curtains, and the classroom door and clock.

Ways to Communicate the Same Message Using Rich Vocabulary

Rich Vocabulary
Rich Vocabulary
Simple Vocabulary
“Reflect on what makes this text interesting."
“Consider what makes this text interesting.”
“Think about what makes this text interesting.”
“What conflict does the character face?”
“What challenge does the character face?”
“What problem does the character face?”
"I'm baffled by what the author is saying."
"I'm puzzled by what the author is saying."
"I'm confused by what the author is saying."
"Can you elaborate on that?"
"Can you expand on that?"
"Can you tell me more about that?"
"Provide evidence of your answer."
"Support your answer with evidence."
"Explain your answer with information from your book."

2. Speak to Your Students with Rich Vocabulary

Take full advantage of classroom time by using rich vocabulary in your everyday instruction and interactions with your students. Believe me, they are listening to every word you say.

Pair up Rich Vocabulary with Synonymous but Simpler Words: When you use rich vocabulary in the classroom, use synonymous but simpler words immediately after the rich vocabulary so that your English language learners gain a natural understanding of the rich vocabulary.

For example, when you say to your students, "Can you elaborate on that?", some of your students may look at you as if they are clueless as to what you mean. But if you say, "Can you elaborate on that?" followed up with, "Can you tell me more?", then they will grasp what you mean. They have now learned that to elaborate means to tell more about something.

Use a Variety of Rich Phrases to Communicate the Same Message: Another way to naturally incorporate rich vocabulary into your daily dialogue is to use different rich phrases interchangeably to communicate the same message to your students.

For example, one day you might say, "I'm perplexed by what the author is communicating" and another day you might say, "I'm baffled by what the author is communicating." Use gestures to communicate that you are confused, such as bringing your finger up to your head and putting on a very pensive look.

If you think your students still need the rich phrase explained, continue to follow the rich phrase up with a synonymous but simpler phrase. Eventually, you will no longer need to use the simpler phrase because your students will have learned to associate it with the richer phrases.

Use tangible objects to teach the meanings of words to your English learners. Or, better yet, take your students outside and show them!
Use tangible objects to teach the meanings of words to your English learners. Or, better yet, take your students outside and show them! | Source

3. Pre-Teach Key Vocabulary

Be intentional about teaching vocabulary to your students by pre-selecting key words from the text you're about to read.

Don’t assume students will know essential words from the text. Give them a quick pretest to assess their current knowledge of key vocabulary. Once you've targeted the words your students don’t know, focus on teaching them!

Word Study, word maps, word journals, and word walls are all excellent tools for helping students learn and apply new vocabulary.

Aside from images, use tangible objects to teach the meanings of words. For example, if introducing the word bark (from a tree), show students a piece of actual bark you found outside. Or, better yet, take them outside and show them!

Word Study: Prefixes

re-: again
in-: not
anti-: against
Books with rich vocabulary coupled with vivid illustrations are a win-win for English language learners.
Books with rich vocabulary coupled with vivid illustrations are a win-win for English language learners. | Source

4. Select Text with Rich Vocabulary and Images

Have a designated, regular time to read aloud to your students in class. Reading to your students is an excellent way to not only teach new words, but to model their correct pronunciation. Choose high interest reading material with rich vocabulary and images. Attractive images in text are powerful in communicating the meanings of words.

With older students or to teach meanings of words for which there are no visuals on the page, it's critical to pre-teach key words from the text, accompanied by pictures you've gathered to represent the words' meanings.

Keep the visuals handy after pre-teaching vocabulary—such as posting them on a word wall—so when the you come across the words in the text, you can quickly point to the visuals without distracting students from the reading. Try to minimize interruptions as you read. Fewer pauses when reading increases reading fluency which in turn aides comprehension.

Playing games is an excellent and fun way to reinforce vocabulary you teach.
Playing games is an excellent and fun way to reinforce vocabulary you teach. | Source

5. Play Vocabulary Games

Allow students many opportunities to practice new vocabulary through games and classroom activities. Some examples:

Word Bingo: Each student has a card with grids, with one word written in each grid. Students listen for the meaning of each word and place markers on each word depicting the meaning they hear. The first player to mark a complete row, column or diagonal pattern of words is the winner. For more advanced students, give them each two cards–—they now need a marked pattern of words on each card to win!

Charades: Students have to act out a word or phrase without speaking, while the rest of the class tries to guess what the word or phrase is. The goal is for students to guess each word or phrase as quickly as possible. For more advanced or competitive students, divide the class into teams. Time how long it takes each team to guess the opponent’s word/phrase. Keep track of time to determine the winning team!

Word Jeopardy: Students are given clues in the form of answers, and must phrase their responses in the form of questions. Jeopardy games can be created on smartboards by following utube tutorials.

Take advantage of teachable moments. Students' minds are like sponges -eager to take in new information!
Take advantage of teachable moments. Students' minds are like sponges -eager to take in new information! | Source

6. Seize Teachable Moments

Impromptu teachable moments are priceless learning opportunities. They come unannounced but are timely opportunities to teach new vocabulary.

For example: you come across a word in a text you didn’t introduce before reading the text. Or a student uses a word in an oral sentence and another student asks what the word means.

Jump on it! Don’t let the opportunity pass. Google the word with images and display them on the classroom screen. Or write the word on the board along with a quick sketch of its meaning, adding gestures and body language to help explain it.

Apply the word to a real-life experience you had. Students love hearing about your life stories! They’re much more likely to remember what the word means when you make a personal connection to it.

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Geri McClymont


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      • gerimcclym profile imageAUTHOR

        Geri McClymont 

        4 months ago

        I am glad this article was helpful to you, Adnan, and thank you for stopping by.

      • profile image

        Adnan A Saif 

        4 months ago

        thank you very much for this. I got a lot of advantages. I do that in my teaching. I am a teacher in Yemen. I teach my students English language. this page is very important for me. thanks again.

      • gerimcclym profile imageAUTHOR

        Geri McClymont 

        8 months ago

        Thanks for stopping by, Audrey. Vocabulary is so much fun to teach!

      • vocalcoach profile image

        Audrey Hunt 

        8 months ago from Idyllwild Ca.

        I needed you as my teacher in grammar school. You are one outstanding instructor! Thanks for sharing your gift of teaching vocabulary.

      • gerimcclym profile imageAUTHOR

        Geri McClymont 

        13 months ago

        I'm glad this was helpful to you, Mary. When I lived in Japan, I remember how eager most people I crossed paths with were to practice their conversational English with me. Yes, some of these strategies can be used outside of the classroom for sure! Thanks for stopping by.

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 

        13 months ago from Ontario, Canada

        This is really helpful even in our interaction with people. Most of the time we are in countries where people like to improve their English so this is a good guide.


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