Vocabulary: The Key to Teaching English Language Learners to Read

By Wallace, Christopher | Reading Improvement, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

Vocabulary: The Key to Teaching English Language Learners to Read


Wallace, Christopher, Reading Improvement


The greatest challenge inhibiting the ability of English-language learners (ELLs) to read at the appropriate grade level is perhaps a lack of sufficient vocabulary development. While extensive reading is beneficial, these students must acquire the necessary vocabulary in order to read extensively. Both vocabulary breadth and vocabulary depth are of equal importance to reading performance. The use of cognates, teaching the meaning of basic words, and review and reinforcement are important steps in developing the vocabulary of ELLs. Direct instruction in vocabulary, combined with word-learning strategies, was also found to be effective. Ultimately, vocabulary knowledge is a critical component of reading comprehension.

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What is the greatest challenge affecting those who are teaching students English as a second language? While initially the focus may be to teach them to speak English, it quickly becomes an extensive endeavor to teach them to become proficient readers. Although many of these students possess a fluent oral vocabulary, many English-language learners (ELLs) struggle with achieving the reading level necessary to function at the appropriate grade level. As a result, this leaves both the teacher and the students striving for a level of achievement that may not be quickly or easily attained. A review of the literature on effective practices for teaching vocabulary to ELLs revealed the learning predicament faced by these students, the need for continued attention toward vocabulary development, the importance of vocabulary breadth and depth, strategies for teaching vocabulary, and the important link between vocabulary and reading comprehension.

The Learning Predicament

When considering teaching vocabulary, perhaps one of the first dilemmas faced by teachers of ELLs is what to teach. Should the focus be on developing vocabulary or participating in extensive reading? In reality, ELLs need sufficient vocabulary in order to read effectively, while at the same time, extensive reading is a necessary component for acquiring a sufficient vocabulary. Although extensive reading has been found to help develop sight vocabulary, general vocabulary, and the knowledge of the target language (Renandya & Jacobs, 1997 as cited in Tran, 2006), explicit instruction can also help develop English language skills, especially with vocabulary (Coady, 1997 as cited in Tran, 2006). Furthermore, the minimum number of words needed for extensive reading to occur is believed to be somewhere around 3,000 to 5,000 words. Without the necessary vocabulary, teachers should not plan authentic text reading (Tran, 2006).

Needed Vocabulary Development

Considering the fact that students must acquire sufficient vocabulary in order to read extensively, there is a need for continued attention toward vocabulary development. While students learning to read in their first language have already acquired from 5,000 to 7,000 words before they begin formal reading in school, this word count is not commonly found among ELLs. For example, although there are no dependable estimates of the number of vocabulary words for Spanish-speaking ELLs beginning school or of the size of their vocabulary growth attained during a school year, the growth rate of Spanish-speaking ELLs are well below the level needed to even come close to their English only (EO) peers. Therefore, a "large and persistent" gap remains between the reading performance of ELL and EO students (August, Carlo, Dressler, & Snow, 2005).

Vocabulary Breadth and Depth

This disparity exists both in the number of words known (breadth) and the meaning of words (depth) of critical vocabulary knowledge. While breadth refers to the amount of words known, depth of word knowledge includes "all word characteristics such as phonemic, graphemic, morphemic, syntactic, semantic, collocational and phraseological properties" (Quian, 2002, p. …

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