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How to Pre-Teach Vocabulary to English Language Learners

Pre-teaching vocabulary enables English language learners to read with greater fluency and comprehension.
Pre-teaching vocabulary enables English language learners to read with greater fluency and comprehension. | Source

Limited vocabulary is one of the greatest obstacles English language learners (ELLs) come up against when they read. Lack of 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.

Lack of vocabulary hinders English language learners' reading fluency and comprehension.
Lack of vocabulary hinders English language learners' reading fluency and comprehension. | Source
Reading Text Topic
Essential Words
Gold Rush
prospectors, hazard, avoid, shaft, encounter
Solar System
rotation, galaxy, eclipse, atmosphere, orbit
American Colonial Period
colony, pilgrim, protest, settlement, puritans

1. Select Essential Words

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

Some teachers decide which words to pre-teach by asking their students to skim the text and circle or write down words they don’t know.

The problem with this approach is that we can’t assume that students know the meaning of essential words they don’t circle. Students may think they know the meaning of essential words but be wrong, or they may overlook and fail to circle essential words they don’t know.

The number of words you select will depend on the length of your 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.

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2. Pretest

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.

One of my vocabulary presentations.
One of my vocabulary presentations. | Source

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.

Here's a system I use:

Teacher: This word is tent (point to word). Say it.

Students: Tent!

Teacher: A tent is a shelter made of cloth. The word is tent. Say it.

Students (in unison): Tent!

Teacher: That's right, tent. A tent is a shelter made of cloth. Tell your partner what a tent is.

Students (pair share): A tent is a shelter made of cloth.

Teacher: What is a tent, class?

Students: A tent is a shelter made of cloth.

Teacher: I sleep in a tent when I go camping. This tent is red (point to picture). Have you seen a tent? Engage students in dialogue by tapping into their background knowledge.

Sometimes you may need to clarify the meaning of words used in the word definition. For example, in the case of the word tent, you may need to clarify the meaning of "shelter" and "cloth".

Gestures:To help reinforce the meanings of new words, 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!

Point out blends, digraphs, and vowel patterns. If the word contains a prefix or suffix, call attention to it and to how it's meaning helps us determine the meaning of the word as a whole.

Some teachers have their students break the word into syllables by clapping.

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

ELLs engaged in a cooperative learning activity.
ELLs 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 ELLs with sentence starters.

Example: This tent is ______. (students fill in the blank with an adjective)

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. This makes learning the vocabulary words relevant and meaningful.

For example, ask students to preview the text before you introduce new vocabulary. After you introduce each word, have them find pictures in the text that relate to the word. Vocabulary should always be taught in the context it is used in the text!

A word map for students with higher English proficiency.
A word map for students with higher English proficiency. | Source

6. Word Journals

Visual organizers are great tools for helping ELLs learn 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 felt such pride as they leafed back through their journals at all the new words they had learned throughout the school year!

7. Posttest

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 and record their scores. Students can be encouraged to record their own scores to track their progress!

Word Wall

To help keep new vocabulary fresh in your students' minds after you've presented it, print out and post your presentations on a word wall. Make sure to use a color printer to enhance the visuals!

Pre-teaching vocabulary prepares our ELLs for a successful reading experience.
Pre-teaching vocabulary prepares our ELLs for a successful reading experience. | Source

Increased Vocabulary Boosts Confidence

Besides increasing their reading fluency and comprehension, pre-teaching 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

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Comments 2 comments

MsDora profile image

MsDora 2 weeks ago from The Caribbean

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


gerimcclym profile image

gerimcclym 2 weeks ago from Colorado Author

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.

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