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 ELLs succeed is to be intentional about teaching vocabulary.
Limited academic vocabulary hinders many ELLs from reading and learning classroom content. But with effective strategies, students can leave our classroom with an enriched vocabulary bank every day!
While English learners generally have the greatest need to expand their vocabulary, many non-English language learners—especially those from low socioeconomic communities—also have a limited vocabulary bank, so they can benefit from these strategies as well.
10 Ways to Teach Vocabulary to ELLs
- Label everything in your classroom.
- Speak to your students with rich vocabulary.
- Pre-teach key vocabulary.
- Use text with rich vocabulary and images.
- Play vocabulary games.
- Sing songs.
- Teach prefixes and suffixes.
- Use cognates.
- Introduce words in pairs.
- Seize teachable moments.
1. Label Everything in Your Classroom
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.
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.
Label cardinal directions on a map: 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.
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.
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
|Simple Vocabulary||Rich Vocabulary||Rich Vocabulary|
“Think about what makes this text interesting."
“Consider what makes this text interesting.”
“Reflect on what makes this text interesting."
“What problem does the character face?”
“What challenge does the character face?”
“What conflict does the character face?”
"I'm confused by what the author is saying."
"I'm puzzled by what the author is saying."
"I'm baffled by what the author is saying."
"Can you tell me more about that?"
"Can you expand on that?"
"Can you elaborate on that?"
"Explain your answer with information from the book."
"Support your answer with text evidence."
"Provide text evidence for your response."
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.
3. Pre-Teach Key Vocabulary
Don’t assume students will know essential words from the text. Teach them the words they don't know ahead of time. This is called pre-teaching vocabulary and it helps equip them for a successful reading experience. Here's how:
Select Key Words
Pre-select key words from the text you're about to read.
Give your students 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 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!
4. Select Text with Rich Vocabulary and Images
Read to Your Students
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.
Display the Text on a Large Screen
If you can, display the text on a large screen using a document camera, so that the text is highly visible to your entire class as you read it.
Enlarging the font (use the zoom lens on the doc cam) and displaying one section at a time helps students focus.
I use a blank half sheet of white paper to uncover the lines of text one by one, as we read them. I simply slide the white sheet of paper down as we read one line at a time.
Use Many Visuals
To teach the meanings of words for which there are no visuals on the page, it's critical to pre-teach key vocabulary from the text, accompanied by pictures you've gathered to represent the words' meanings.
Keep the visuals handy after pre-teaching vocabulary – such as by 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 and aides comprehension.
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.
6. Sing Songs
Using songs to teach vocabulary is always a winner for English language learners of all ages. You can pre-teach key vocabulary from the song before you introduce the song lyrics to your students.
Select Catchy Tunes
When I taught English language learners in elementary school several years ago, Holiday Jazz Chants were a hit with my students.
These catchy, melodious songs about holidays celebrated in the United States are rich in vocabulary and common English expressions.
Display the Lyrics in Large Print
To help my students learn vocabulary, I copied the song lyrics onto large poster paper, which I displayed when we sang along to the CD in class.
I added some pictures and used a pointer to point to each word as we sang along.
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I will tell you that my kiddos absolutely loved singing these songs! It was such a fun and natural way for them to learn English.
Middle School, High School and Adult English Learners
Display the lyrics on a large screen as you play the song on a CD and sing along.
You can also find a YouTube video for the song to play in class. Many YouTube song videos contain the lyrics written on the video.
Here's one I used with my middle school students:
Most Common Prefixes
not, opposite of
in-, im-, il-, ir-
Most Common Suffixes
past tense verbs
more than one
7. Teach Prefixes and Suffixes
Thousands of words in the English language contain prefixes and suffixes. Therefore, teaching your students these important word parts and what they mean is a powerful way to expand their vocabulary.
When students know the meaning of prefixes and suffixes, they are then able to figure out or make smart guesses about unknown words they come across in text.
For example, let's say a student comes across the word antifreeze in a novel he's reading. He may not recognize this word and be initially stumped as to what it means. But if he has been taught that the prefix anti- means against, then he can conclude that antifreeze is something that goes against or prevents freezing.
Do you know that only 4 prefixes account for 97% of prefixed words students are likely to come across in school text? The same is so for suffixes. So if you only teach your students a few prefixes and suffixes, be sure to target these! (See the charts above.)
Some English-Spanish Cognates
8. Use Cognates
I always tell my ELLs that by already knowing Spanish, they have a huge advantage in learning English because there are hundreds of English-Spanish cognates! Cognates are words in two languages that have the same meaning and similar spelling and pronunciation.
Make it a point to ask your students to look for cognates as they read. When you introduce new vocabulary, ask your ELLs if the words have Spanish cognates. Your students will receive a boost of confidence when they realize that their knowledge of Spanish is very useful in helping them learn English. This will empower them to keep reading and learning more vocabulary!
9. Introduce Words in Pairs
So many words in the English language are frequently seen in pairs, so it only makes sense to introduce them that way. Your ELLs will enjoy seeing familiar pairs of words and the opportunity to learn two words at a time instead of just one.
Some common pairs of words:
- peanut butter and jelly
- thunder and lightning
- ham and cheese
- sweet and sour
- hide and seek
- sour cream and onion
- sea salt and vinegar
- bacon and eggs
- fast and furious
10. Seize Teachable Moments
Impromptu teachable moments are priceless learning opportunities. They come unannounced but are timely opportunities to teach new vocabulary.
- You come across an important word in a text you didn’t introduce before reading the text.
- A student uses a word in an oral sentence and another student asks what the word means.
- After the morning announcements, a song is played over the intercom that contains a word or phrase that is repeated continually.
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.
Teaching vocabulary should be fun! When you enjoy teaching your English language learners new words, they will catch your enthusiasm and enjoy learning them. When students learn to love words, their love for reading will increase tenfold which will enable them to be more successful in all their classes.
© 2017 Geri McClymont
ria on April 03, 2020:
Thank you for sharing this article
Geri McClymont (author) on December 09, 2019:
So glad this was helpful to you, Savitri. Thanks for commenting.
Savitri Devi on December 09, 2019:
Thank you so much Geri McClymont ! Great Help . I am preparing for TESOL and this article of yours is quite helpful .
Geri McClymont (author) on December 01, 2019:
Thanks for stopping by, Devika and Joseph, and for your dedication to education. I am glad the article was useful to you.
Joseph Moore on November 29, 2019:
I write from Sierra Leone, Your publication is informative and easy to absorb. You have just made me a better teacher/facilitator! Thanks.
Devika Primic on November 22, 2019:
This is useful and informative to those in need of lessons.
Geri McClymont (author) on March 13, 2019:
I agree with you, Bahar--learning vocabulary through games and interesting books makes it much easier to learn new words. I have not used WordUp but will check it out. Thank you for stopping by.
Bahar on March 13, 2019:
The thing that people forget is, it takes a bit of work to improve your vocabulary. It’s better to find ways that are enjoyable like reading books or listening to music and finding an interesting application like "WordUp".
I found it recently and its really helpful, now learning new vocabulary is a lot more fun.
Geri McClymont (author) on October 11, 2018:
I am glad this article was helpful to you, Adnan, and thank you for stopping by.
Adnan A Saif on October 10, 2018:
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.
Geri McClymont (author) on June 14, 2018:
Thanks for stopping by, Audrey. Vocabulary is so much fun to teach!
Audrey Hunt from Idyllwild Ca. on June 13, 2018:
I needed you as my teacher in grammar school. You are one outstanding instructor! Thanks for sharing your gift of teaching vocabulary.
Geri McClymont (author) on December 29, 2017:
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.
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on December 27, 2017:
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.