Teaching Content-Area Vocabulary to ELs

If ESL teachers want to help their students understand content-area texts, they need to aid classroom teachers in learning  teaching strategies  that help English learners (ELs) gain new content area vocabulary. In a recent TESOL blog,  I discussed modifying teaching methods and materials. In this blog, I will talk about strategies for teaching vocabulary to ELs that can be used by ESL and content-area teachers alike.

Use Explicit Instruction of Vocabulary

ELs generally have difficulty in learning new vocabulary implicitly. They don’t read independently in English and seldom have interactions with adults in their home environment who can help them gain new English vocabulary. It is my belief that ELs need direct, explicit instruction of vocabulary and many more exposures to new words than their native-English-speaking peers. It is important for teachers to give  English learners multiple opportunities to practice new vocabulary. ELs need to learn cognates, prefixes, suffixes, and root words to enhance their ability to make sense of new vocabulary. Understanding context clues such as embedded definitions, pictures, and charts builds schema that helps ELs’ reading comprehension. According to Debbie Zacarian in a workshop at TESOL 2010, ELs should actively engage in holistic activities to practice new vocabulary because learning words out of context is difficult for these students.

Choosing Which Vocabulary Words to Teach

Don’t overwhelm ELs with new words. I find that choosing  five to seven vocabulary words that are absolutely essential to the concept that you are teaching works well.  Introduce the vocabulary in a familiar and meaningful context and then again in a content-specific setting. For example, in a unit on tornadoes that I taught to 5th graders, the word “front” needed to be reviewed in a familiar context and then taught in the context of the unit. Provide experiences that help demonstrate the meaning of  new vocabulary words. In my tornado unit, diagrams, photographs, and videos were particularly helpful.

Introducing New Vocabulary

Teachers need to know what ELs have already learned or experienced. Explicit links to previously taught text should be emphasized to activate prior knowledge. Review relevant vocabulary that was already introduced, and highlight familiar words that have a new meaning. Access the knowledge that students bring from their native cultures. In learning about tornadoes, for example, my students talked about some extreme weather found in their home countries and used Google Korea  and Google Japan to find examples of such types of weather.

Essential vocabulary can also be introduced through a fictional story before it is taught from the textbook. For example, I read an excerpt from The Wizard of Oz before teaching the information about tornadoes from the textbook.  My students then gathered around the classroom computer to watch a video of a tornado. “Look at the funnel! It’s twisting! It’s going to touch down!” students exclaimed. They had already learned some of the vocabulary from The Wizard of Oz and I was pleased to hear them use these words as they watched the video.

Use Visuals When Introducing New Words and Concepts

Elementary-aged ELs are usually visual or kinesthetic learners. When a teacher simply lectures, ELs have very little understanding of the concepts being taught. It is therefore helpful to use realia, pictures, photographs, graphic organizers, maps, and graphs. Write key words on the board, and add gestures to help students interpret meaning. Have students create their own visuals to aid their learning. In the tornado unit, each student was assigned a few content-specific vocabulary words. They had to write simple definitions and draw pictures to show what the words meant.

Divide Vocabulary Into Three Tiers

In Bringing Words to Life, Second Edition: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (2013), reading researchers Beck, McKeown, and Kucan  divide vocabulary into three tiers:

Tier 1 includes basic 1–2 syllable words or phrases used in everyday conversation (e.g., blue, pencil, chair).
Tier 2 words are synonyms for Tier 1 words and translation words that mean and, but, and so.
Tier 3 words are low-frequency multisyllabic words that students often learn in subject-area study. These words are not generally used outside of the classroom.

According to Beck, McKeon, & Kucan, English learners and students who struggle to learn are often not directly taught much needed Tier 2 words. They believe that vocabulary should be taught in chunks as opposed to single words.

Provide a Variety of Activities to Practice New Vocabulary

It is my experience that EL learning is more effective when students give input into the vocabulary they need to learn. To give students plenty of practice with words, Debbie Zacarian (2010) recommends providing two word walls. On one wall, write everyday words that students need to learn and practice. On the second wall, post unit- or content-specific vocabulary.

There are three general suggestions that I give teachers for word walls that make them more accessible to ELs:

  • organize words into categories
  • increase students’ engagement in vocabulary by having them create word walls
  • make walls that can be seen from a distance

I ask students to post unfamiliar words from the text on a word wall. They select key vocabulary by looking at chapter titles, headings, and bolded words. I also have students make a portable word wall which they keep in their binders so that they have their vocabulary handy when they do homework. New vocabulary should be reviewed every day. Students can work together to write a simple sentence for each word or complete a cloze activity. They can also draw pictures to illustrate vocabulary, make flashcards, or compile their own dictionaries in a notebook.

Promote Oral Language Development Through Cooperative Learning Groups

ELs need ample opportunities to speak English and authentic reasons to use academic language. Working in small groups is especially beneficial because ELs learn to negotiate the meanings of vocabulary words with their classmates. When students work on the previously mentioned vocabulary activities in pairs or small groups, they can better understand and discuss the key concepts of the content-area unit.


Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2013). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Haynes, J., & Zacarian, D. (2007). Teaching English language learners across the content areas. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervisors and Curriculum Developers (ASCD).

Zacarian, D. (2010). Using word walls is more than displaying words. Workshop conducted at the TESOL Annual Convention & English Language Expo, Boston, MA.


About Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes
Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.
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13 Responses to Teaching Content-Area Vocabulary to ELs

  1. Amy Roberts says:

    This is a good introduction. I would love to see some examples.

  2. Cindy Hamilton says:

    I love using the organization technique of word walls by concepts so students can see the association of the words to the concepts.

  3. Annette says:

    I have quite a few Ells in my classroom. I use a word wall to introduce new vocabulary and I always include a picture.

  4. Janice R says:

    I teach K4 and I use the white board a lot to show visual for learning ELA and Math for example.

  5. Dina Baczkowski says:

    I find a word wall works in early education, especially if you have pictures next to it.

  6. coral says:

    It’s very helpful and the students get excited when they create their own word vocabulary wall. Thank you for sharing all the ideas.

  7. Patty says:

    I was planning on doing a word wall this year. I think it will help all students.

    • MaryAnn Beranek says:

      The word wall is something I have always used with especially my younger gifted students in Science. I am particularly sensitive to the fact that one of the most creative 5th grade teachers I know always wants me to teach more challenging words to her gifted students out of context, including Latin words. It simply does not work.

  8. Sue Clark says:

    Loved the word wall ideas. I am working on a vocabulary word wall for my class.

  9. Ann O'Rourke says:

    Thank you so much for the suggestions regarding incorporating content vocabulary into ELLs content-area texts. I especially appreciated the practical suggestions you included!

  10. mohan sharma says:

    good idea

  11. Nancy Yi-Cline says:

    Thank you for sharing the wonderful ideas in teaching ELs content-area vocabulary. A good site I use with my ELL students is http://www.memrise.com. Students can collaborate and create their vocabulary list, add audio/visual, and example sentences. Students seem to enjoy Memrise and have fun with vocabulary. I’d recommend it to everyone!

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