ELL Vocabulary Instruction Basics

The ELL student has more than the average disadvantage when it comes to word learning. Unlike so many of their classmates, these students have not received exposure, from birth, to the English language. They don’t even have the basics.

Although many of them have strong comprehension skills in their native tongue, that can’t carry over into reading English due to inadequate word knowledge. Students need to know approximately 90% of the words in any text in order understand.

ELL students not only struggle with Tier II or Tier III words, but also Tier I words. Most teachers do not need to teach Tier I words in their general education classes. Tier I words are usually known by even the most challenged English-speaking readers. This means that even with the most intensive instruction in the gen ed class of Tier II words, the ELL student’s needs are not being met.

Those of you who work regularly with ELL understand deeply the challenge!

The following list summarizes the most important processes to follow when teaching words to ELL.

The list is much like what should be done for English speaking students but extra emphasis needs to be placed on pre-teaching (see the SES strategy). In addition, explicit instruction needs to be more thorough, more demonstrative, more explicit. Cognates can be valuable if available, and you will need to take charge of selecting the words your ELL students need to learn. Finally, peer learning is especially valuable for these students, as they tend to feel isolated.

  1. Pre-teach words (use SES strategies).
  2. Read aloud to students.
  3. Use explicit instruction (SES and Sentence Stems).
  4. Provide repeated exposures (use Sentence Stems).
  5. Include visuals (use Word Walls – see SES).
  6. Show morphology (SES).
  7. Relate to cognates (SES).
  8. Pre-choose the words for them – Tier I, and II.
  9. Use peer-assisted learning strategies (partners – use Sentence Stems).

SES – Say-Explain-Show is a routine that sounds involved at first but with practice can be a fairly quick yet thorough pre-teaching process. Struggling students thrive on established routines. Click here to access instructions.

Sentence Stems – This strategy was introduced by Dr. Isabel Beck and her team. It helps students further define the words they are learning. Essentially, the teacher provides sentence starters with target words included and students show their understanding by finishing the sentence. This can be a partner activity. Access instructions within this article.

I am so grateful to the wonderful teachers who have tackled the challenge of helping our ELL students! Please consider sending them your thanks and encouragement in the comment section of this blog.

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