8 Strategies to Pre-Teach Vocabulary to English Language Students

Updated on April 10, 2018
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Geri McClymont is passionate about education. She holds an MEd and has taught ESL, Spanish and special education students grades K-12.

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

Limited Vocabulary Holds Students Back

Limited vocabulary is one of the greatest obstacles English language learners (ELLs) come up against when they read. In school, lack of academic vocabulary impedes ELLs’ 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.

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

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

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8 Strategies to Pre-Teach Vocabulary

Here are eight strategies you can use to pre-teach vocabulary to your students:

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 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 4–6 words so as not to 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.

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!

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

Make sure all of your students can clearly see your word presentations!

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

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. Allow them to share their personal experiences and connections to the key word.

Gestures: 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.

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)

A word map in one of my first grader's vocabulary journal.
A word map in one of my first grader's vocabulary journal. | Source

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 (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 ELLs 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.

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


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    • gerimcclym profile image

      Geri McClymont 15 months ago

      Thanks for your comment, Ces. I'm glad this was useful to you.

    • profile image

      Ces 15 months ago

      So helpful, thank you!!

    • gerimcclym profile image

      Geri McClymont 17 months 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 17 months ago from The Caribbean

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