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January 9, 2020 VG Teaching Resources Vocab & ELA Res, Vocab Gal, ELA K-5, ELA 6-8, ELA Resources - Activities, ELA Resources - Tip Sheets, ELA 9-12, ELA PD - Leadership, ELA PD - Other, ELA PD - Vocabulary, ELA Focus - Writing with Vocabulary, ELA Focus - Vocabulary

8 Strategies for Teaching ELL Students Vocabulary Words

When ELL students learn vocabulary, they understand what is happening in their classrooms and have a deeper knowledge of what they are expected to learn. Not only does this benefit ELL students in the short term, but ultimately, prepares ELL students for success on standardized testing, graduation, and college. In this article, you'll discover strategies for teaching ELL students vocabulary words, free printable activities, and a professional development eBook!

Download a FREE Kit of Vocab Gal's 12 Favorite Vocabulary Activities now!


The Power of Popular Culture

I have been friends with each of the three English Language Learner (ELL) teachers that have served my district since I began teaching, but I especially enjoy our new ELL specialist, who is truly enthusiastic and eager for her students to comprehend all possible materials. She works with elementary through high school students, and I love her idea that to reach these students—and, let’s be honest, most students—the key is making connections to popular culture.

We know that when students have a vested interested in a topic and can connect new concepts with ideas that they know and enjoy, more learning takes place.

While a student from a different country may not have quite the same popular culture interests as an American student might, my ELL colleague explained to a group of teachers including me, her students are eager to share examples of the things they are interested in.

I love that this ELL teacher has her students bring examples of their pop culture icons to class, and then has them connect them with English vocabulary words by explaining in English what makes them famous. Although they struggle, these students want to talk and really bring their icons to life for others—this leads them to make more of an effort to learn the proper words in English for their talks.

The key to reaching ELL students is making connections to their popular culture. When students have a vested interested in a topic and can connect new concepts with ideas that they know and enjoy, more learning takes place.


Vocabulary and Academic Achievement 

As noted by education professor Vicki Jacobs in her eBook, Vocabulary: The Foundation of Literacy, researchers Bromley (2007) and Graves (2008) found that vocabulary knowledge accounts for much of a student’s verbal aptitude, and that a student’s verbal prowess is a strong predictor of K–12 academic achievement. Furthermore, Bromley noted that 70–80% of reading comprehension is due to one’s vocabulary knowledge.

Therefore, a critical aspect of teaching ELL students is teaching them vocabulary, and we have to find ways to inspire these students to learn all they can!

When ELL students learn vocabulary, they understand what is happening in their classrooms and have a deeper knowledge of what they are expected to learn. Not only does this benefit ELL students in the short term, but ultimately, prepares ELL students for success on standardized testing, graduation, and college.

To learn more about the importance of vocabulary knowledge, download the Vocabulary: The Foundation of Literacy eBook.


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Instructional Strategies for ELL Students

Strategy 1: Label Objects

As a classroom teacher, building leader or district administrator, you should first ensure that the spaces ELL students inhabit most frequently have many object labels. Whether these are classrooms or cafeterias, having signs that label each physical item in a room forces concrete connections through repeated exposure to the most basic of school concepts that native speakers often take for granted. You can use a template such as this one to create the labels.

Strategy 2: Word Walls

One of my favorite strategies for ELL students are word walls. Teachers and specialists should ensure that word walls are current and visible in all classrooms that ELL students’ attend. A bonus would be to include a related graphic image next to each word that can help explain the word, as repeated reading and visual connections lead to a more developed word knowledge. Read my article about word walls to learn more.

Strategy 3: Pop Culture Iconography

Third, as I have noted before, ELL students are eager to bring their own pop culture iconography to school. When they do, ask students to label their images with connected English words and then permit them to hang up their images in the classroom. Additionally, have them present their icons to the class with an associated song, movie clip, or possibly even a YouTube video.

Of all my strategies for teaching ELL students, linking students’ pop culture interests to learning has the most impact. By sharing their icons with their class and hanging them up in the classroom, ELL students gain a sense of ownership in the classroom that allows them feel connected to their classes and to their learning. Repeated exposure to these labeled objects also drives home new vocabulary.

Many more basic and nuanced concepts can be taught by including pop culture ideas in the classroom. Students can create skits and plays based on popular culture concepts, since having engaging ideas on which to “hook” new knowledge always deepens their learning.

Strategy 4: Weekly Word Charts

I strongly encourage the systematic teaching of new words, and as a few new words are introduced and worked with each day, ELL students should fill out the Vocabulary Sheet of the Week  or a Vocabulary Ladder Chart to solidify each word in relation to something they enjoy.


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The Vocabulary Ladder Chart is also designed to help students learn two new vocabulary words from their unit each day. What makes this handout different from the Vocabulary Sheet of the Week is that this Vocabulary Ladder Chart is designed so that it repeats previous words and adds on the new words each day. This repetition requires that students write new sentences for older vocabulary words after they've recorded and learned the two new words for the day.


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Strategy 5: Context Clues

Next, ELL students should learn to identify various types of context clues and how to use them effectively. The more students recognize these context clues and can understand the basic words being used, the more they can build on their knowledge in order to scaffold to more difficult words.

Strategy 6: Vocabulary Improv

A favorite strategy for teaching ELL students of many teachers is to make learning fun by playing a simple word and motion game. And example is included here, in the Vocabulary Improv game. Many ELL and traditional students alike find that making kinesthetic motions in connection with saying a vocabulary word deepens their word understanding significantly.

Strategy 7: Vocabulary Games

More vocabulary-building games to play in your classroom include Go Fish, Oranges to Oranges, Vocab Land, Guess That Word and other games that involve a great deal of speaking and understanding, but that are also fun and colorful, as well as being less intimidating than a blank worksheet.

Students can play and replay these games, using an increasingly difficult set of vocabulary words each time as they scaffold their learning. Bonus points are awarded when they can use a previous vocabulary word to help describe a current vocabulary word.


Go Fish Vocabulary Game

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Oranges to Oranges Game

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Vocab Land Game

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Guess That Word Game

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Strategy 8: Vocabulary Activities

When in doubt, do an activity! My favorites include Create a Car, Color Your Vocabulary, Build Your Own Sundae, and Puzzle Together Your Vocabulary. Each one allows for fun and interactive engagement with whatever words each student is learning.


Create a Car Activity

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Color Your Vocabulary

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6840-3_VWIE-EE_Gr10_11_@2XDon’t be afraid to use Dictionary.com, this Text to Speech Website, Google’s Text to Speech Chrome extension, or other options in order to help students hear how vocabulary words are pronounced and to understand how they sound and operate in sentences. Audio is a huge part of an ELL student’s experience, and the more we expose them to real-world audio clips, the better.

Side note: Sadlier’s Vocabulary Workshop and Vocabulary Workshop Interactive Edition include audio vocabulary words with example sentences, as well as the nonfiction passages aloud with full inflection.


In Summary

In conclusion, ELL students, like all students, need help in developing their vocabularies. For ELL students, this work is even more critical if they are to experience success in all their classes and to go on to future successes in life and academia.

Without vocabulary, literacy skills cannot be achieved; the more strategies we give students the better they will do. Teachers need to implement instructional strategies for ELL students that will maximize their involvement in class.

Linking students’ pop culture interests and connecting them with current games and activities makes vocabulary learning more fun and meaningful, and allows everyone to learn as much as possible.