Vocabulary Development and English Language Learners

March 24, 2007 at 8:35 am (all, blogging, children, culture, Education, Educational Leadership, Elementary, High School, kids, Middle School, Parents, principals, reading, school, school administration, teachers, Thornebrooke)

Vocabulary Development and English Language Learners

A significant increase has been noted in the number of English Language Learners enrolled in Florida schools and the trend is expected to continue. According to the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE), more than 230,000 English Language Learners (ELL) attend Florida public schools (A. Ginger, personal communication, February 28, 2007). The state of Florida’s ELLs come from 252 different countries and 288 languages are spoken by Florida students. Fradd (1998) noted that the language instruction process is not simple. However, it is essential in ensuring that students learning English have opportunities to acquire the language proficiency of their English proficient peers. As teachers are asked to teach more diverse classrooms with students from multilingual backgrounds, they often need to employ innovative strategies to make content accessible to all students.  Teachers may assume that a student who demonstrates proficiency in social communication should be able to handle English as used for academic work. Cummins (1981) distinguishes between basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS) and cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP). In other words, Cummins differentiates between social language and academic language. While students may acquire BICS and be able to communicate in English to ask and answer simple questions, this is not the same as having the level of language proficiency necessary to benefit fully from academic instruction, CALP, without additional support. Contextual clues such as gestures, intonation and concrete referents help ELLs function on a social and pragmatic level; however, unless they master language skills necessary for learning academic content, they will find it difficult to meet grade level requirements. To succeed in school programs, students learning English as a second language must master not only English vocabulary, but also the way English is used in core content classes.  Rothenberg and Fisher (2007) observe that if teachers analyze the text for language use, and know their students well, they might determine that ELLs do not know the words and that this is an opportunity to teach vocabulary that crosses disciplines, vocabulary that students are likely to encounter in a variety of subjects.  Given the notion that learning a word requires multiple exposures over time, and given the limited amount of time teachers have with students, one might ask, “Which of the words will be of most value?” How do teachers decide which words to teach without overwhelming the student? Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2002) recommend choosing vocabulary words by determining their usefulness, frequency, and the ease with which students can restate the meaning in their own words. The authors characterize three types of words:

1. Tier One words are basic sight words (e.g., baby, clock, and walk).

2. Tier Two words are words that a student will see frequently, but are difficult and may require explicit instruction (e.g., prosperous, assert, and coincidence).

3. Tier Three words occur infrequently and are typically specific to certain content areas (e.g., flashback, colonize, and molecule).

In a particular text, words to pull out for special vocabulary instruction are Tier Two words, as well as any Tier Three words necessary to comprehend the text.

Likewise, Blachowicz and Fisher (2005) suggest choosing the following kinds of words:

• Comprehension words (necessary for comprehending the subject or content)

• Useful words (practical across several fields)

• Academic words and phrases (such as “essential message” , “in contrast to”)

• Generative words (prefixes, suffixes, and roots that can be identified and applied to other words)

When beginning vocabulary instruction, teachers may take a brief passage and choose four or five words that students may not know, but that they will run across frequently in other assignments. This introduction will provide students with a manageable number of words that are essential core vocabulary words for the lesson.  Explicit vocabulary instruction may support all students, including ELLs.  Extensive listening, speaking, reading, and writing practice strengthen the ELLs accuracy as well as fluency.

Canton-Harvey (1987) recommends ample time for purposeful reading and writing and for the oral interactions that clarify each task and relate it to conceptual knowledge. Abundant oral practice needs to be made available to students in order to afford them the steps to create with language. Teachers benefit students by modeling English with clear pronunciation and diction. Ells rely on both verbal and nonverbal cues. They watch the words being formed by the speaker’s lips as well as the speaker’s face for other nonverbal cues for meaning.  Therefore, speaking while facing away from the student could be an obstacle to comprehensible input. Slowing down the rate of speech slightly, and pausing between key vocabulary words gives ELLs time to process what they have heard and time to catch up.

Second language acquisition is a gradual process based on receiving and understanding messages, building a listening (receptive) vocabulary, and slowly attempting verbal production of the language in a highly supportive, nonstressful situation. ELL students acquire more new vocabulary items when they are engaged in an activity in which they do not feel pressured. In 1985, Krashen found that when students feel anxious, defensive, frightened, and nervous, their affective filter is high and acts like a mental block to additional language acquisition. When their affective filter is low, they feel motivated, respected, and free to take risks.  Teachers will (a) facilitate vocabulary comprehension by using relevant visuals, gestures, concrete referents, and paraphrasing, and (b) promote vocabulary fluency by encouraging interaction in small peer groups with activities that integrate the learning of academic content and language. By incorporating a variety of strategic activities, accommodating instructional delivery, and motivating students to learn, teachers will find communicative activities that promote the natural acquisition of language as well as the purposeful learning of content and thus help ELLs reach their goals of becoming competent and productive communicators in English.

Finally, a smile is international. Smiles help to assuage fears and doubts. A smile from the teacher is priceless.


Beck, I., McKeown, M., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. N.Y: Guilford.

Blachowicz, C., & Fisher, P. (2005). Teaching vocabulary in all classrooms. Columbus, Ohio: Merrill –Prentice Hall.

Canton-Harvey, G. (1987). Content area language instruction: Approaches and strategies. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.

Cummins, J. (1981). The role of primary language development in promoting educational success for language minority students. In Schooling and language minority students. Los Angeles: California State University, NEDAC.

Fradd, S. H., (1998). Literacy development for language enriched pupils through English language arts instruction. In S. F. Fradd & O. Lee (Eds.), Creating Florida’s multilingual global work force: Educational policies and practices for students learning English as a new language (pp. III-1-9).

Tallahassee, FL: Florida Department of Education.

Krashen, S. D. (1985). The input hypothesis: Issues and implications. New York: Longman.

Rothenberg, R. & Fisher, D., (2007). Teaching English language learners: A differentiated approach. Columbus, Ohio: Merrill – Prentice Hall.


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