Vocabulary Instruction: Part 1

In my upcoming posts, I'm going to highlight some tips for vocabulary instruction that work, and resources that I love.

For anyone who has been to one of my workshops, you know I say over and over again. The ELL achievement gap is largely a vocabulary gap. But, I see a lot of uncertainty about what words to teach, and how to effectively teach vocabulary.

The challenge with English language learners is their vocabulary gap. Let us take an average native English speaking kindergarten age student (5-6 years) they probably have 2,000-2,500-word expressive vocabulary and 20,000-word receptive vocabulary. By the time that child is 12 years old, they will likely have around a 50,000-word receptive vocabulary. As you can imagine, these numbers only grow the older students get.

Meanwhile, English learners come with diverse life experiences, and multitudes of different education backgrounds. Whether they have no English knowledge, or just a little, there is likely a gap in both their expressive vocabulary and their receptive vocabulary compared to native speaking peers.

This is why vocabulary instruction is so important for English language learners, and why ESL teachers cannot be the only ones teaching vocabulary. So often from teachers I hear things like, “Juan is their [the ESL teacher’s] student. It's not my responsibility."

First, here are some important things to remember when it comes to English learners.

Explicit, Direct Instruction - English learners need direct instruction of vocabulary, even more so than native speakers. 
Learning in Context - We learn vocabulary better within a context. As tempting as it might be to give lists and lists of words to learn to make up for the vocabulary gap, it is not very effective.

Having students look up definitions in dictionaries, in a language they do not understand well, is not leading to any meaningful learning. That does not mean that it is not a skill to learn, it just isn't going to yield great learning.

So here are some tips to keep in mind. In the next post, I'll share some activities and how this might look in a classroom.

1. Make it visual - I say this over and over, and teachers in my workshop tell me they didn't really understand the power until I went through the German lesson with them. I share my bad drawings, and poor acting skills with students and groups of teachers to illustrate the meaning of words. We can make use of a variety of resources at our fingers to illustrate what a word means.

2. Pre-Teach Vocabulary - Choose essential new or challenging words students will need to teach before a chapter or unit. Overwhelming students is not worthwhile, neither is teaching words they already know, or focusing on non-essential words. I tried to stick to around 5 words a day. Pre-teach these words in a familiar and meaningful way, and then review and provide opportunities to practice with the words in the lessons.

3. Give ample opportunities to work with new vocabulary - Students need to practice using vocabulary words in order to internalize their meaning and how to use them. Give students plenty of opportunities to work with new words, in multiple language domains (reading, writing, listening, and speaking). Consider having students to produce visuals and non-linguistic representation of words and phrases.

4. Cognates - cognates are words that are in different languages that have the same root or origin, they look and/or sound very similar in both languages. This is a great bridge to language learning. For example, in several cases the academic language we use is English is a cognate in Spanish. Consider the everyday language "job" and the more academic "occupation" in Spanish is "ocupaciĆ³n." There are false cognates for example "Smoking" in German is "Tuxedo" in English.