| | |

Professional resources for taking teaching ELLs vocabulary to the next level

Sharing is caring!

This post may contain affiliate links which won’t change your price but will share some commission.

Vocabulary. It’s sooo important, we all know that. ELLs need to acquire a ton of high-quality vocabulary in order to be successful in the content areas and become proficient in English. But it can be SO easy to get into a rut with vocabulary instruction. Word list, practice, quiz, repeat. This is not the way!

There is a consensus in the field the quality vocabulary instruction should follow the guidelines and research principles set out by Robert J. Marzano. Kids need exposure to new vocabulary whopping 17 different times, in different contexts before the word becomes part of their own, expressive vocabulary. That’s a bit crazy in sheer amount. Further, it means that we have to be intentional about contextual vocabulary instruction.

There are six steps to Marzano’s method that you could learn in any course covering research-based methods about how to teach vocabulary. There are about 1,000 different resources outlining, explaining and providing activities for these six steps, but here they are briefly in review:

Marzano’s Method:

  1. Provide a description of the word.
  2. Ask students to write a definition using their own words.
  3. Have student draw a picture or create a visual representation of the word.
  4. Students use the word in activities that show ways and contexts to use the word.
  5. Students have discussions about the word and how to use it.
  6. Play games to practice the words.

Now, down to the nitty-gritty. How do you actually go about doing some of this in your room, with your ELLs students? It’s definitely easier said than done. Seventeen exposures is a TON of exposures. Mostly I feel like there are not enough hours in the day to teach vocabulary on top of everything else that ELLs and students in general, need to learn. However, vocabulary is the building block of language and without it, students will be unable to communicate at all, so really it is the most important thing ELL students can learn.

Over the years I have tried many, many things to teach vocabulary and get maximum student engagement. I will outline some of them here and provide my thoughts about each.

My Favorite Vocabulary Resources:

I first took a graduate course on vocabulary acquisition and was asked to read Teaching and Learning Vocabulary: Bringing Research to Practice by Hiebert and Kamil. This book is super dense and I would not have ever read it independently had it not been required. It’s basically all research studies, but it is super informative. HOWEVER, that book directed me to Bringing Words to Life by Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown, and Linda Kucan. Which is a book I would recommend to anyone and everyone.Bringing words to life beck and mckeown

Bringing Words to Life is, to this day, my favorite resource on vocabulary instruction. It’s full of amazing suggestions for bringing more vocabulary into your classroom. There is also a part 2, which is equally good: Creating Robust Vocabulary: Frequently Asked Questions & Extended Examples

Quick explanation of Tier 1, 2 and 3 Words:

  • Tier 1 words are the basic, concrete words that can be learned easily like, dog, run, hair, table., etc.
  • Tier 2 words the more academic and more sophisticated words that can be used across disciplines. Students need these words to be proficient in reading and writing in academic English.
  • Tier 3 words are the technical words that are used in specific fields, this includes science and math words like, eukaryotic and hypotenuse.

Focus instruction on Tier 2

Basically, direct vocabulary instruction should stick mostly to Tier 2 words. A great practice is to pre-select Tier 2 words out of a text that you are reading or working with as a class (class novel words best). Pre-teaching the words before encountering them in the reading helps in two ways: it increases the understanding of the context for the student and provides direct vocabulary instruction in context which can be difficult to do otherwise.

In fact, I used to pull all of my vocabulary words directly from my in-class read alouds. I’ve gotten away from it his year because it is really time-consuming to determine what you will be reading during the week, pull words in advance, and then create all the necessary activities for kids to practice the words, but it is still the most authentic way and I will be getting back to it as soon as my schedule allows.

My typical weekly or biweekly vocabulary routine looks like this:

  • Monday: Hand out a list of pre-selected from a text.
    • Provide students with descriptions of each word
    • Students create vocabulary card or pages that look like this (insert template)
    • Put words on the word wall
  • Tuesday: Hand out vocabulary practice activities
    • Self-created vocabulary materials created using the ideas and activities using the ideas from, Bringing Words to Life
  • Wednesday through Friday:
    •  Specifically, notice the words while reading
    • Use the words whenever possible during instruction
    • Share word wizards (explained below)
  • Friday: vocabulary assessment
    • Vocabulary quiz
    • Interactive activity requiring students to use the words
    • Game used as a formative assessment. (You can use Around the World to gauge how well students are doing with a particular word list. See my post on games here.)

If you would like to see what type of words I pull from a novel and the activities I create, as well as an assessment there’s an example from the book Unwind  by Neal Shusterman for chapters 1 & 2 in my Freebie Library. If you want to download just subscribe to the mailing list and get access to the Freebie Library. I often read Unwind to my ELL classes. For more information on read alouds see this post!

Here’s what the vocab I do with my kid weekly looks like:

It probably looks like a lot of work to pull words from what you are reading and then create opportunities for practice- it is, but I often use the same texts year after year so I have a built up library of vocabulary practice to go with a lot of different readings. I feel like there is no other way to get the same amount of vocabulary benefit and buy-in as you do when reading a book, pointing on the words o the students and the deliberately using those words in the classroom at every opportunity and asking the kids to do so as well. If vocabulary lists are devoid of context and not see an “useful” the kid won’t learn the words. Which brings me to my favorite strategy of all time…

My Favorite Vocabulary Strategies: Word Wizards

The vocabulary instruction I did with the most buy-in was a strategy from Bringing Words to Life, called, “word wizards.” I did this for two years with a fifth-grade self-contained class (newcomer to advanced), though it could work for younger or older students.

It’s amazing.

As a class, I assigned a number of words each week that were pre-selected from our in-class novel. The recommendation for the number of words per week varies by age. The guidelines, approximately are:

  • Lower elementary 5-7 words per week
  • Upper Elementary 7-10 words per week
  • Middle school 10-12 words per week
  • High school: 12-15 words per week

The “word wizard” aspects come into play whenever they hear or see those target, weekly words in context. I provided slips with a space for the target words and the exact sentence. Students then wrote down the exact sentence or context in which they heard the word on the slip and submitted it for one word wizard point.

Additionally, I created a bulletin board to track the different levels of “word wizards,” e.g. “word worker,” “word knight,” and so on. Each student had a star with their name on it which would move up the board to the different levels. Each level of word wizard required a certain number of vocabulary “points”. I gave certificates for ascension to a new level. Any student who made it to the top level got a prize. The kids loved seeing the visual representation of how they were doing compared with their classmates.

I will tell you that I have never had students noticing words as much I as did when I was implementing word wizards. They also began to use the words in everyday conversation, including the low-level ELLs. Sometimes they would use the words as the wrong part of speech, but that was easily correctable if the basic concept of the meaning was right. Honestly, it was impressive.

Packaged Vocabulary Programs:

Below are three different packaged vocabulary programs/ workbooks that I have used with varying degrees of success. I like all three, however, these are all difficult because the instruction is not contextualized in any way, you have to specifically create contexts during your instruction.

I like the way this workbook is set up. I have it at a variety of levels. It is good for intervention or for times when you really don’t have a lot of time to do vocabulary but you need something. Again, you have to make your own contexts for the words.

This book divides the words into sets. The sets go in alphabetical order which I don’t love because you end up teaching all “A” and “B” words and then all “C” words etc. That can be confusing, especially for ELLs. However, it does a good job of providing a lot of random contexts– stories to read and things for kids to write using hte words. Also good for upper elementary and middle school– it has many activities that ask kids to notice things about the words spelling, parts  and usage.  It’s not just practice with the meanings. I like that it really digs into the words with the hope that after they finish the practice for each set they are really, really familiar with the word. They have this book a couple of different grade levels but it’s fairly old and can be difficult to find all the levels.

Wordly Wise 3000

wordly wise book covers

I have only used this briefly but it is obviously a giant system that has all the work done for teachers, so that is not to be discounted. A school could use this across all the grade levels because there are books for all levels. There is the workbook, picture here, as well as the assessment book. It’s very systematic- introduce the words, do the practice and then take the assessment. My kids did NOT enjoy this, but I thought it was great the way it was laid out. I think I could do a better job of making the instruction more authentic and contextualized the next time I use it.

These professional resources can help you design better vocabulary instruction for your ELLs. Keep in mind that making vocabulary relevant is key. The more you can get ELLs to take ownership and interest in the words they are learning the better they will be at learning new words. And don’t forget that READING is one of the best ways to generally improve vocabulary knowledge!

Similar Posts


    1. I would choose one or two words per session and try building some context around them. Keep them on cards and do some of the Frayer models, or sentence building. Then you will eventually have a lot of cards with different words on them to review and work on with the student. I would say start small and build over time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *