Teaching Academic Vocabulary to English Learners (Part 1)

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This is the first part of a two-part post; check back next week for Part 2.

It’s a common scenario when teaching English learners (ELs): the textbook or unit plan comes with a lengthy list of key vocabulary. Should all of them be taught in depth? The risk in trying to tackle all these words is that ELs can end up overwhelmed. They could memorize the definitions but they need to effectively incorporate new vocabulary into their academic discussions and writings. Also, focusing only on pre-selected vocabulary doesn’t provide ELs with the skills they need to become better independent learners.

So which vocabulary words should be used to teach ELs, and how should those words be introduced and practiced? For answers, we spoke with Dr. Sydney Snyder, principal associate at SupportEd and co-author of Unlocking English Learners’ Potential. Dr. Snyder has 15 years of experience teaching ELs, both in the U.S. and abroad.

Question: How do I decide which words to teach ELs?

Sydney Snyder: In a synthesis of research-based strategies for teaching academic content to ELs, Scott Baker and his panel of researchers recommend teaching a small set of academic vocabulary intensively over the course of several days. This means, in general, that five to eight words, but no more than 10 words, is appropriate. These words should be selected from a short text that aligns to the content being discussed in class. Baker recommends selecting words that are:

  • are key to understanding the text and likely unfamiliar to students,
  • are frequently used in the text,
  • are used across disciplines (general academic vocabulary),
  • are multiple meanings, and
  • have affixes (prefixes or suffixes).

In order to further narrow down words for intensive focus, it can be helpful to pre-assess student understanding of key vocabulary. You can use pre-assessments to select the priority vocabulary and also as a tool to differentiate new vocabulary lists for ELs of varying proficiency levels. In other words, not all students are going to need practice with the same words. Possible pre-assessment strategies might include:

  • Having students do a self-assessment in which they rate their understanding and ability to use new vocabulary (see Figure 1).
  • Having students match words and their definitions.
  • Asking students to do a word or concept sort.
  • A word or concept sort involves having students sort key terms into categories that either you provide or that they determine on their own.

Example Student Assessment

Colorín Colorado provides a video of this strategy in action, which you can see below:

As you are deciding which words to select for in-depth focus, you can also identify words that you will
quickly teach while reading the text with your students. Words for a quick explanation usually:

  • require minimal teaching time,
  • can be taught with a visual, synonym, simple definition, or example, and
  • are not essential to understanding the text.

Once you have determined which words you will focus on for in-depth instruction, Diane Staehr Fenner and I recommend using the following framework for vocabulary instruction.

Example of wocabulary instruction framework

Q: What are some strategies I can use to introduce new vocabulary?

SS: When introducing new vocabulary, it is important that students have an opportunity to explore that vocabulary in varied ways. It’s essential to provide (or have students write) a student-friendly definition. You don’t want the definition to be more complicated than the word itself, though. The definition should be aligned to the meaning of the word as it is used in the text or the content being learned. Wordsmyth.net is one resource for developing student-friendly definitions as this website provides definitions at the beginner, intermediate, and advanced level.

In addition to a simple and accurate definition, you can also consider using visuals, gestures, examples and non-examples, synonyms and antonyms, and translations in home languages. When providing translations, it’s important to remember that even if students are literate in their home languages, they may not understand the meaning of academic words in their home language.
While some academic words can be easily introduced with images and a short definition, more abstract vocabulary may present a challenge for both ELs and non-Els. To support deeper understanding of such vocabulary, you will need to offer students an opportunity to provide examples and non- examples of the word and use the word in authentic discussions. For example, if you were exploring the word justice, you might provide scenarios to students and discuss whether the individuals in the scenario received justice and then ask them to come up with their own scenarios in pairs or small groups. Using a Frayer model can be another effective way to explore abstract vocabulary words and phrases with Els (see Figure 2).

Frayer Model Chart

This article originally appeared on Education.com on June 4, 2018. It was last updated on Sept. 12, 2018.

By Dr. Sydney Snyder, who has over fifteen years experience working with English learners and their families in the U.S. and abroad. She began her teaching career as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guinea, West Africa and since then has worked with both elementary and high school students in US public schools. 

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