Building English Language Learners' Academic Vocabulary: Strategies & Tips

Article excerpt


According to Beck, McKeown, and Kucan's Three Tier Model (2002), when it comes to language instruction the distinction between academic vocabulary words and content specific words has a significant bearing on the language success of English language learners (ELLs). By using the strategies decribed in this article teachers and parents will have the means to develop ELLs' vocabulary through reading, direct instruction, and reinforcement activities and games. Teachers and parents can use these strategies before, during, and after reading, and thus provide students with a set of tools they can use independently as they read.

Often vocabulary instruction receives inadequate attention in elementary and secondary classrooms (Biemiller & Boote, 2006). Academic vocabulary, specifically the language that may occur in multiple contexts or the precise words that are presented in a specific context, can help students acquire new learning strategies and skills (Marzano, 2005).

Academic vocabulary, however, is notably more difficult to learn than conversational language because it is more specific and sometimes abstract, making it difficult to grasp. Knowledge of this kind of technical vocabulary in any specific content area-for example, social science, science, mathematics, or language arts-is directly linked to content knowledge. Stahl and Fairbanks (1986) found that such vocabulary instruction directly improves students' reading comprehension of textbook content.

While the majority of teachers develop students' vocabulary across the curriculum, it is essential that English language learners have explicit instruction about the academic vocabulary that is necessary for their success in school.

The Importance to ELLs

When English language learners struggle with reading comprehension, it can often be attributed to their difficulty with understanding the vocabulary. Many studies report that low academic language skills are associated with low academic performance (Baumann, Edwards, Font, Tereshinski, et al, 2002; Biemiller & Boote, 2006; Carlo, August, McLaughlin, Snow, et al, 2004). These studies also report a discrepancy among students of diverse ethnicities related to the amount of vocabulary they know and the depth to which they know and use that vocabulary. According to Beck, McKeown, and Kucan, "there are profound differences in vocabulary knowledge among learners from different ability or socioeconomic (SES) groups" (2002, p. 1).

Thus, students with smaller vocabularies are at a greater disadvantage in learning, and this lack of knowledge too often is the main barrier to their comprehension of texts and lectures (Newton, Padak, & Rasinski, 2008). According to Graves (2006) and Zwiers (2008), ELLs require assistance in developing content-related vocabulary in their second language if they are to experience success in school.

Both native English speakers and ELLs need support in learning the language that is used in the classroom as part of instruction, reading, discussion, and assignments. Interweaving direct instruction in academic language helps students acquire an understanding of abstract concepts, multiple meaning words, and content vocabulary. When students are able to understand the vocabulary for the that content they are reading and hearing, they will have a better understanding of the material. While wide reading promotes vocabulary growth, ELLs who do not read enough cannot acquire the word wealth that would help them with language learning.

Three Tier Model

Beck, McKeown, and Kucan's (2002) Three Tier Model places vocabulary words into three categories: Tier 1 which consists of basic or common words, Tier 2 which involves words that are used across the curriculum and multiple meaning words, and Tier 3 which is content specific vocabulary. In this model (see Figure 1), Tier 1 words are the most common words in English and they make up a significant percentage of the words students read. …