6 Steps to Making New Words Go From Unknown to Acquired

Years ago, I began Chinese lessons to better understand what it’s like to learn a language. I went from feeling giddy when I recognized a few characters to frustrated at how many I didn’t understand in the time it took to look at the bigger piece. Years later, I can identity many more common characters, but every time I start a new lesson repeat the cycle of going from overconfident to overwhelmed when I see how many new words I have to learn.

That experience made me think about how my students feel when I start previewing vocabulary for a new lesson. The first vocabulary preview can seem intimidating and strange when you don’t recognize anything in the list. Lessons can reinforce what the students learn, but there is a big difference between knowing a word well enough to answer a multiple-choice question and actually adding it into the students’ language repertoire. The result is that students tend to “learn” the word for a short while without “acquiring” it into their developing language.

As fate would have it, while I struggled with this issue, my school did a professional development session on Robert J. Marzano’s six steps towards vocabulary acquisition (Marzano, 2009). These were developed for mainstream students and taught to us as a cross-disciplinary approach, but I found it easy to adjust these to the needs of ELLs.

The steps are:

1. Explain, describe, and give an example of the word. Notice how I didn’t use “define” in this heading. Instead of just telling what a word means, I found it helps to show it in the context of students’ lessons—when possible, I even use a copied page from the content teacher’s book. That gives them an idea of how that word fits into their world and, if I’m lucky enough to get an illustration, an example of how it’s used. And for description, you can look at the morphology of the word, particularly if it has a common root that can connect to another meaning, to tie it in with what they already know.

2. Have the student describe, explain, or give an example of the word in his or her own words. This part makes for some great writing prompts. You can include the word in a question that directs the students to tie their own experience to it. For instance, when I had the word “indicator,” I asked the students to describe some “indicators” that it will rain in their own words. The answers ranged from watching forecasts to feeling raindrops, but it served as a good “indicator” of who understood the word.

3. Have students make a picture, image, or other representation of the word. In practice, this works rather well for nouns, but adjectives or verbs can be rather difficult to convey without some comparison. Still, every class has a few students who learn more from visual activities than others.

4. A few days later, review the vocabulary. Find an opportunity to remind them of the words, even if it’s a formative assessment. You can even go over the pictures again if that activity went well.

5. Let the students discuss the terms. This is a good opportunity for collaborative activities. How do the new words compare to old ones—such as “indicators” with “alerts”? When would one be better than the other? This step also lets you get the students who were absent when the words were introduced up to speed.

6. Play some games. It’s been a lot of work, so it’s time to do some fun things to reinforce the meaning. One game I found works well is vocabulary bingo, where I pass out words with the cards for the students, read the word with it used in a sentence, and have students define at least three of the words in their completed row or column to get their bingo prize. When this is done, it’s time to get serious with a summative exam.

After I reduced my vocabulary list from about a dozen words to five to six, I found lots of time to incorporate these into my lesson planning. The result is that I am doing smaller groups of words, but the students seem to be retaining more. (And, perhaps selfishly, I began using these techniques for myself to remember more Chinese words, which made the new terms seem less scary.)


Marzano, R. J. (2009). The art and science of teaching/six steps to better vocabulary instruction. Educational Leadership, 67(1). Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept09/vol67/num01/Six-Steps-to-Better-Vocabulary-Instruction.aspx

About Nathan Hall

Nathan Hall
Nathan Hall, MA TESOL, MS Education, lives in Pottstown, PA with his wife and two daughters. He has been involved in ESL since he volunteered as a tutor in 2001, which inspired him to leave the field of journalism for education. He has since taught English language learners in a variety of settings ranging from community programs to colleges as well as in several different types of middle schools and high schools. He is currently an ELL specialist at Achievement House Cyber Charter School in Exton, PA.
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