Vocabulary Development for Multilingual Students

Vocabulary selection and instruction is an important part of teaching academic language skills, particularly to English language learners. However, it is easy to become overzealous about teaching vocabulary and inundate students with too many new words for them to possibly remember most of them. Rather than flooding students with new vocabulary and hoping some sticks, it is beneficial to decide on 3-5 words to study deeply each week. These words should be words that are going to be useful in a variety of subjects and that are already or can easily be incorporated into various activities throughout the day all week long as well as being likely to come up several more times before the end of the school year.

Starting with some words that seem particularly important and narrowing it from there based on how often students are likely to encounter the word across subjects and how common the words’ patterns are to other important academic words can be very helpful. Sometimes it is easy to see which words are the most important and narrow the list to 3-5 words for the week. Other times, the most important words are not obvious. In those cases, you could narrow it to only tier II words or use a matrix listing all of the things that might make a word more useful for students to know and choose ones that check the most boxes for potential usefulness.

With your small vocabulary list in hand, it is time to decide how to teach it. It turns out that having students look up the words in the dictionary is not a productive use of vocabulary time. While learning to use the dictionary is important, it tends to be rather boring and unmemorable, which is the opposite of what a good vocabulary lesson should be. A memorable and engaging vocabulary lesson is much more likely to result in the vocabulary words actually becoming a part of the students’ vocabulary.

Fortunately, making memorable and engaging vocabulary lessons does not require elaborate materials or even extensive time and energy most of the time. Instead, it requires paying attention to what students already know and capitalizing on connections that can be made between their current knowledge and the new vocabulary words. Looking at cognates in students’ home language(s) is one way to make that kind of connection. Sometimes the words students need to know do not have helpful cognates, but a simple translation will be sufficient for students to understand the word and start making connections to its meaning in both languages. Other times, describing its meaning and creating some examples using it in contexts familiar to the student will be what is needed to make the connection. Whatever method is used, the goal is for students to start coming up with ways to use their new vocabulary words in contexts that are familiar to them.

As they start to be able to do this out loud, it is important for them to then transfer the new knowledge they are gaining into another format. Depending on the students, this may take different forms. For example, it might be in the form of an art project depicting the meaning of the word or in the form of a graphic organizer with a written definition and some characteristics of the word, as well as examples and non-examples if the organizer is like the Frayer Model. Making a foldable and/or adding to a vocabulary book are also good ideas.

After students have a basic grasp of the meaning of the new vocabulary words, repetition is key. Students need to hear and use the word many times for it to become a natural part of their vocabulary. Building the words into various lessons throughout the day and week will help reinforce its meaning, will give students opportunities to practice using it meaningfully, and will create some classroom wide memories that can be used to bring the vocabulary lesson back to all of the students’ minds with just a few words.

It will also continue to enhance their understanding of the word and nuance it as they encounter the word in various academic disciplines throughout the day, week, month, and year. This is especially true if variations of it are also found throughout the academic work of the week, month, and year as it can allow students to gain a better understanding of the predictable ways in which words can be changed or conjugated to convey different meanings and tenses. When prefixes, suffixes, and roots are identified and explicitly taught as part of vocabulary lessons, noticing how these things change as the word’s usage changes in different contexts can help students learn more language patterns and pay more attention to them in various contexts.

Even if you only teach 3 academic words per week, that is more than 100 academic words students will learn deeply over the course of a 180-day school year. If some of these words have common prefixes, suffixes, or roots, and the vocabulary instruction has included teaching students about these patterns, knowing these words and the ways they conform to these patterns will also allow students to have a rudimentary understanding of many words they have not yet encountered, making future vocabulary easier for them to master as well. Really learning 100 words well is an important part of building students’ knowledge of English and their understanding of academic language, so putting effort into choosing and really teaching 3-5 words each week is definitely worth the time and energy expended.

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