How to Pre-Teach Vocabulary to English Language Learners: 8 Tips
Limited Vocabulary Holds Students Back
Limited academic vocabulary is one of the greatest obstacles English language learners (ELLs) come up against when they read. Lack of academic vocabulary impedes ELLs’ reading fluency and comprehension, which in turn has a direct impact on 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.
If we want our ELLs to make academic progress, we must increase their vocabulary!
Teaching vocabulary to English language learners must be intentional and is most effective when essential vocabulary is selected from their reading text and explicitly taught before reading the text.
And it’s not just English language learners who benefit from pre-teaching vocabulary. Many non-ELLs – particularly those from low socioeconomic backgrounds – have very limited vocabulary, so they benefit as well.
Here are some strategies I have successfully used to pre-teach academic vocabulary to my students:
Reading Text Topic
prospectors, hazard, avoid, shaft, encounter
rotation, galaxy, eclipse, atmosphere, orbit
American Colonial Period
colony, pilgrim, protest, settlement, puritans
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.
The number of words you select will depend on the length of the text as well as your ELLs' English proficiency levels. As a general rule, limit your selection to 5-8 words so as not to overwhelm your students.
Do you pre-teach vocabulary to your English language learners?
After selecting the essential words, give your students a quick pretest to assess their current knowledge of the selected words.
Some students will appear to know the general meaning of some of the words but will be unable to use them correctly in a sentence.
If you have ELLs 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!
When choosing images for presenting new vocabulary, keep in mind that photographs are generally more powerful than illustrations.
3. Prepare a Presentation of Each Word
Microsoft Word is very handy for creating vocabulary presentations and allows you to download photos directly onto your document.
If you don't have access to a computer, create posters manually with markers and photographs (your own or from magazines).
Include the following elements for each word presentation:
- 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
When introducing new vocabulary, it’s important to pronounce each word clearly and loudly.
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.
Dialogue: 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.
Gestures: To help reinforce the meaning of new vocabulary, teach students a gesture specific to each word you introduce!
For 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.
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 ELLs with sentence starters.
Example: This tent is ________. (students fill in the blank)
6. Vocabulary Journals
Visual organizers are great tools for helping ELLs 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, 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 ELLs feel such pride as they leaf back through their vocabulary journals at all the new words they've learned throughout the school year!
After you've taught the essential words and your students have had many opportunities to apply them, give them a posttest identical to the pretest you gave them.
Compare each student's posttest score to his/her 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.
8. Word Wall
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!
Increased Vocabulary Boosts Confidence
Besides increasing their reading fluency and comprehension, pre-teaching academic vocabulary to ELLs gives their confidence a huge boost. When students 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!
© 2016 Geri McClymont