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Vocabulary Instruction for English Language Learners

by Joan Sedita | 1 | 0 Comments

Together with my colleagues at Keys to Literacy, I have recently updated the content in our Key Vocabulary Routine professional development course, including information related to vocabulary instruction for English language learners (ELLs). Vocabulary development plays a fundamental role in language learning and overall academic success. ELLs face unique challenges in acquiring English vocabulary due to limited exposure and differing linguistic backgrounds. This quote from Michael Graves sums up an important message for teachers of all grades and subjects:

“While most of the assistance we provide for ELLs will not be different in kind from that we provide for English only students, many ELLs will need to be taught more words, will need more powerful instruction, and will need to be given particular help in mastering word-learning strategies. This is also true of other students who enter school with small vocabularies.”  (2016, p. 41)

Claude Goldenberg, an expert in the field of bilingual education, makes this point:

In an English immersion classroom, where most ELLs are, the main challenge is that English learners are supposed to learn academic content that everyone is supposed to learn, while they are also learning the language the content is taught in. It’s a double-barreled challenge that English learners and their teachers face.”

Effective vocabulary instruction for ELLs involves a combination of explicit teaching, context-rich learning experiences, and strategies that promote active engagement and meaningful practice. Graves makes these suggestions for effective ELLs vocabulary instruction:

  • The development of strong language skills in students’ first language is a cornerstone for building English.
  • ELLs often need substantial repetition and reinforcement, and more frequent exposures during school.
  • ELLs benefit from differentiated instruction and scaffolding to allow them to carry out tasks beyond their independent abilities.
  • ELLs benefit from learning and guided practice for use of context and word parts to determine the meaning of unfamiliar words.

In Chapter 7 of Elsa Cardenas-Hagan’s book Literacy Foundations for English Learners, Sharolyn Pollard-Durodola explains that overall, teachers should intentionally structure the classroom learning environment for frequent explicit and varied vocabulary building throughout the school day so that learning new words in a second language is not left to chance. These frequent opportunities encourage ELLs to be immersed in listening, speaking, reading, and writing new words during content-enriched instruction. Informal opportunities to use new words do not provide sufficient robust exposures to new vocabulary that can only take place through intentional planning that emphasizes deciding which words to teach and which word-building strategy is most appropriate. Click here to watch a video of Elsa Cardenas-Hagan reviewing Chapter 7 from her book for a book study sponsored by PaTTAN in 2021.

Teaching Vocabulary to ELLs in Context

Pollard-Durodola notes that decontextualized vocabulary instruction where students memorize word lists, terms, and their meanings in isolation are not as effective for ELLs as instruction that connects to students’ background knowledge and exposure to words in context. ELLs require rich and deep word processing opportunities because they may lack English word depth even for words that are frequently encountered in the second language. Content-enriched vocabulary practices focus on explicit exposure to content-related words that are important for students to be able to independently read and comprehend academic texts. Content-based instruction, where vocabulary is integrated into the teaching of academic subjects, has been found effective (Graves, 2012). This approach ensures that ELLs not only acquire English vocabulary but also develop the necessary content knowledge to succeed academically.

The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk at the University of Texas at Austin (2018) recommends the following about vocabulary instruction in its guide 10 Key Policies and Practices for Teaching English Language Learners based on findings from high-quality research:

Teachers provide intentional, explicit, and extended vocabulary instruction that supports content learning: “The volume and complexity of vocabulary associated with academic instruction increases exponentially through the grades, making learning especially difficult for ELLs, who often find the vocabulary load to be overwhelming… But exposure to words alone is insufficient; students need to use words within and across subjects. Explicit instruction of key words anchored to text can accelerate students’ acquisition of vocabulary, especially when students have extended opportunities to use words in meaningful contexts. For ELLs to understand words at more than a surface level, instruction must be extended over time with opportunities to hear, speak, and write words across varied contexts.” (p. 7)

The guide goes on to suggest these explicit vocabulary instruction steps:

  1. State the word and give a comprehensible definition that uses language your ELLs will understand.
  2. Give two or more examples, briefly explaining why they are examples of the target word.
  3. Give two or more non-examples, briefly explaining why they are not examples of the target word.
  4. Discuss, pulling in students’ background knowledge of the word.
  5. Check for understanding with questions and prompts.
  6. Have students use target words in speaking and writing.
  7. Use systematic review to provide opportunities over time for students to read, write, hear, and say the target words.
  8. Use “intentional noticing” to discuss target words and how they are used as you encounter the words across contexts.

Principles of Instructional Design to Teach Vocabulary to English Leaners

Circling back to the Cardenas-Hagan book, Chapter 7 offers these three recommendations:

  1. Build vocabulary knowledge by combining new information with what the learner already knows to produce higher cognitive learning.
  2. Integrate multiple opportunities for using new vocabulary to make connections to concepts and lived experiences.
  3. Integrate intentional opportunities for adult-student language interaction around new vocabulary during content learning.

Additional Learning Suggestions

Technology-enhanced instruction also offers promising avenues for teaching vocabulary to ELLs. Digital tools and applications can provide interactive and engaging experiences that cater to individual learner needs. Computer-assisted programs, online resources, and mobile applications offer opportunities for independent practice, self-assessment, and personalized learning experiences.

Finally, educators should keep in mind cultural sensitivity and respect for ELLs’ linguistic backgrounds. Incorporating students’ native languages, encouraging cross-linguistic connections (such as pointing out English words that share cognates with ELLs’ first language), and recognizing the value of bilingualism can enhance vocabulary instruction and promote a positive learning environment.

Additional Resources


  • Cardenas-Hagan, E. (2020). Literacy foundations for English learners: A comprehensive guide to evidence-based instruction. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.
  • Goldenberg, C. ) Q&A: Claude Goldenberg on learning English in today’s multiethnic classrooms. Stanford University Graduate School of Education. Retrieved from:
  • Graves, M.F. (2016). The vocabulary book: Learning and instruction, 2nd Edition. New York, NY: Teachers College Press. 
  • Graves, M.F., August, D., & Mancilla-Martinez, J. (2012). Teaching vocabulary to English language learners. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
  • The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk (2018). 10 key policies and practices for teaching English language learners. The University of Texas at Austin.
  • Pollard-Durodola, S.D. (2020). Vocabulary instruction among English learners. In E. Cardenas-Hagan  (Ed.). Literacy foundations for English learners. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes. 

Joan Sedita

Joan Sedita is the founder of Keys to Literacy and author of the Keys to Literacy professional development programs. She is an experienced educator, nationally recognized speaker and teacher trainer. She has worked for over 35 years in the literacy education field and has presented to thousands of teachers and related professionals at schools, colleges, clinics, and professional conferences.

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