How to Pre-Teach Key Vocabulary to English Language Students

Updated on August 14, 2019
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Geri McClymont is passionate about education. She holds an MEd and has taught English language learners for over ten years.

What is Pre-Teaching Vocabulary?

Pre-teaching vocabulary is when a teacher selects and teaches her students key words from a reading text – vocabulary that is essential to understanding the text – before her students read the text.

How to Pre-Teach Key Vocabulary to English Language Learners

1. Select essential vocabulary.

2. Pretest

3. Prepare a presentation of each word.

4. Explicitly teach each word.

5. Provide many opportunites for practice.

6. Vocabulary maps

7. Post-test

8. Word walls

Pre-teaching vocabulary equips English learners for a successful reading experience.
Pre-teaching vocabulary equips English learners for a successful reading experience. | Source

Why Should I Pre-Teach Vocabulary?

English Language Learners Have Limited Vocabulary

Limited vocabulary is one of the greatest obstacles English language learners come up against when they read. In school, lack of academic vocabulary impedes English learners’ reading fluency and comprehension, which directly impacts how much academic content they learn in any given subject area.

Academic vocabulary refers to words that are commonly used in school dialogue and text.

It Prepares Students for a Successful Reading Experience

When English learners know the meanings of key words in their text, they are empowered to read with greater ease. This in turn motivates them to keep learning more vocabulary and – more importantly – to keep reading!

English Learners' Confidence Increases

As their reading fluency and comprehension improves, their confidence increases and they are able to take more chances which leads to further success in the classroom and beyond.

While there are many strategies we can use in the classroom to help our English language students succeed, one thing is for sure: If we want our English learners to make academic progress, we must increase their vocabulary!

It’s not only English language students who benefit from pre-teaching vocabulary. Many non-English learners – particularly those from low socioeconomic backgrounds – have very limited vocabulary, so they benefit as well.

Lack of vocabulary hinders English language learners' reading fluency and comprehension.
Lack of vocabulary hinders English language learners' reading fluency and comprehension. | Source

Essential Words Examples

Key Words
Social Studies
Gold Rush
prospectors, hazard, avoid, shaft, encounter, miners
Solar System
rotation, galaxy, eclipse, atmosphere, orbit, asteroid
Language Arts / Social Studies
American Colonial Period
separatists, colony, pilgrim, protest, settlement, puritans
multiples, factor, equivalent, reduce, numerator, denominator
Limit your selection to five or six key words from the text so as not to overwhelm your students.

1. Select Essential Vocabulary

Before introducing your students to a new text, read through it and select key words that are essential to understanding the text.

Look for words that come up repeatedly in the text because without an understanding of what these words mean, students will have difficulty understanding the text.

The number of words you select will depend on the length of the text as well as your students' English proficiency levels. As a general rule, limit your selection to no more than five or six words so you don't overwhelm your students.

2. Pretest

After selecting the essential words, give your students a quick pretest to assess their current knowledge of the selected words.

A pretest can consist of:

  • Matching: Students are asked to match each word with its designated picture or meaning.
  • Multiple choice: Given several possible meanings for each word, students must select the correct meaning. (I usually offer no more than three answer choices for each word so as not to overwhelm them.)

Keep it simple so you can score your pretests quickly. Remember that your intent is just to know how well your students know the key vocabulary they'll come across in the text you're about to read in class.

Your students' scores will tell you which words you need to focus on teaching more than others.

If you have students who score high on the pretest, you can challenge them by taking the words to “the next level” when you present them. More on that later!

Word Presentation on a PowerPoint Slide

One of my word presentations for middle school students. I presented each word on a separate slide as part of a PowerPoint presentation.
One of my word presentations for middle school students. I presented each word on a separate slide as part of a PowerPoint presentation. | Source

Word Presentation on a Word Document

One of my word presentations for first grade students. I presented each word on a separate page using Microsoft Word.
One of my word presentations for first grade students. I presented each word on a separate page using Microsoft Word. | Source

3. Prepare a Presentation of Each Word

To present essential vocabulary to your students, prepare a PowerPoint presentation with a slide for each word.

Or, if you don't have PowerPoint, create a page for each word using Microsoft Word, which allows you to download images directly onto your document, and display these on a large screen.

If you don't have access to a computer, create large posters manually with markers and photographs—your own or from magazines.

When choosing images for presenting new vocabulary, keep in mind that photographs are generally more powerful than illustrations.

Each word presentation should include:

  • the vocabulary word in large, bold print
  • a concise, student friendly definition
  • a large, eye-catching visual that clearly represents the word
  • a sentence using the word in context

Do you pre-teach vocabulary to your English language learners?

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Did You Know?

Students need 10-15 exposures to a word before it becomes a permanent part of their word bank.

4. Explicitly Teach Each Word

If possible, project each word presentation on a large screen as you present it.

Introduce the word, its meaning, and a sentence with the word used in context. Then ask students to repeat the word and meaning after you and then to pair-share the meaning with their shoulder partner in a complete sentence you model: A skyscraper is a very tall building.


Engage your students in a lively discussion about the word. For example, for the word skyscraper, share a personal experience about a time when you saw or entered a skyscraper. How many stories high was it? What were you doing there? Then ask them if they have ever been in a skyscraper and what their experience was like. Allow them to share their personal experiences and connections to the key word.


To help reinforce the meaning of new vocabulary, teach students a gesture specific to each word you introduce!

For example, for the word tent, the gesture may be touching the tips of the fingers on both of their hands together to create the shape of a tent. Kinesthetic approaches such as this have proven to be very effective in helping English language learners learn new words.

Word Study

Incorporate word study strategies when you present each word.

For younger students, point out blends, digraphs, and vowel patterns. Ask your students to chop each word into syllables by clapping. For older students, point out prefixes and suffixes connected to root (base) words, and call attention to how their individual meanings help us determine the meaning of the word as a whole.

Connect Word to Text

It’s important to show students connections between the words you introduce and the text they’re getting ready to read, where they'll see the words in context. Vocabulary should always be taught in the context it is used in the text. This makes learning the vocabulary words relevant and meaningful to your students.

One way to do this is to ask students to find and highlight each essential word in their text after it has been introduced, and to read a sentence from the text in which the word is used in context.

Expand on Word Meanings

Students who already know a word and how to correctly use it in a sentence can be challenged by expanding on the word's meaning.

For example, for the word tent, introduce different ways a tent can be used, such as for a canopy at a farmers' market, where farmers sell their produce. This exposes them to additional vocabulary: canopy, farmers' market, produce.

English language learners engaged in a cooperative learning activity.
English language learners engaged in a cooperative learning activity. | Source

5. Provide Many Opportunities for Practice

Research shows that students need 10–15 exposures to a word before it becomes a permanent part of their word bank.

Facilitate Word Retention

To help new words “stick” in their minds, allow students many opportunities to actively use their new words in cooperative activities as well as independently. Make sure to tap into all four language domains: speaking, listening, reading, and writing.

To ensure that their sentences are grammatically correct, model oral and written sentences using the new vocabulary and provide your English learners with sentence starters.

Example: This tent is ________. (students fill in the blank)

Word Map

A word map for the word "roots" in one of my first grader's vocabulary journals.
A word map for the word "roots" in one of my first grader's vocabulary journals. | Source

6. Vocabulary Maps

Visual organizers are great tools for helping English language students learn, retain and review new vocabulary!

Create journals with blank vocabulary maps for your students to fill in for each new word they learn.

They can write the key word in the center, surrounded by it's definition (encourage them to rephrase the definition in their own words), an illustration, and a sentence using the word. For students with lower English proficiency, provide sentence starters.

Challenge higher level students with word maps that also include a synonym, antonym, part of speech, root word, prefix, and suffix.

My students feel such pride as they leaf back through their vocabulary journals at all the new words they've learned throughout the school year!

7. Post-test

After you've taught the essential words and your students have had many opportunities to apply them, give them a post-test identical to the pretest you gave them.

Compare each student's post-test score to his pretest score. Students can be encouraged to record their own scores on bar graphs to track their improvement. This usually serves as a strong incentive for them to continue learning new words.

Word presentations for middle school students printed out and displayed on our classroom word wall.
Word presentations for middle school students printed out and displayed on our classroom word wall. | Source

8. Word Walls

Post Your Vocabulary Presentations

To help keep new vocabulary words fresh in your students' minds after you've presented them, print out and post your word presentations on a word wall. If possible, use a color printer to enhance the visuals! (See my Word Wall image displayed above.)


  • Post words in the general order in which they appear in the text. This makes it easy to locate them on the word wall if you choose to review them as you read the text.
  • Sort words by parts of speech (noun, adjective, verb, etc.).
  • Include the Spanish (or other language) cognate beside each word.

© 2016 Geri McClymont


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    • profile image


      3 months ago

      Thank you so much! The information was very valuable and comprehensive for me! I'll try all these techniques in my classes for sure!

    • gerimcclym profile imageAUTHOR

      Geri McClymont 

      7 months ago

      Thanks for stopping by, Victoria. A solid understanding of key words in the text will boost students' reading comprehension of that text. When students don't understand essential words in the text, they cannot make sense of what they're reading.

    • profile image

      victoria ogbonna 

      7 months ago

      Teaching comprehension especially listening comprehension can be challenging to foreign language teachers and difficult to the students.

      This approach will be very useful to foreign language teachers and interesting to learners. Thanks.

    • profile image


      11 months ago

      Very useful and helpful lesson - thanks.

    • gerimcclym profile imageAUTHOR

      Geri McClymont 

      11 months ago

      Thanks for stopping by, Rubi. I have found these strategies to be highly effective in helping my students learn vocabulary and understand the text they read.

    • profile image

      Rubi Soto 

      11 months ago

      Thank you, for the information that is well connected to research-based methods. I will be using these strategies in the classroom.

    • gerimcclym profile imageAUTHOR

      Geri McClymont 

      12 months ago

      Glad it was helpful to you, Wali. Thanks for commenting.

    • profile image

      Wali M Hamidullah 

      12 months ago

      Thank you for an informative and concise article.

    • gerimcclym profile imageAUTHOR

      Geri McClymont 

      3 years ago

      Thanks for stopping by, MsDora. It is so rewarding when students are better able to understand what they read because we've taken the time to pre-load vocabulary from the text.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      3 years ago from The Caribbean

      Very helpful lesson plan. Hoping that language teachers at all levels will apply your very wise instructions.


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