Best practices in vocabulary instruction for English language learners

English language learners (ELLs) are the fastest growing population of students in the United States. Nationally, 1 in 5 students are learning English as their second language. How can teachers tailor vocabulary instruction to meet the unique needs of these students?

0402teacherWhile most research suggests that teachers should generally focus vocabulary instruction on word learning strategies (e.g. context and structural clues), Blachowicz and Fisher explain that ELLs cannot effectively use these techniques without first establishing a solid base of known words: “There needs to be a critical mass of knowledge, including word knowledge, for incidental word learning to occur…studies suggest the importance of learning  core vocabulary in order to facilitate and supplement learning from context.”

The U.S. Department of Education recommends several best practices for teachers to support ELL students’ vocabulary development. The department emphasizes depth over breadth—instructors should focus on 5-8 words that are reinforced over the course of several lessons. Instruction should be anchored in a brief informational text that connects to students’ prior knowledge and contains the target vocabulary words. Student-friendly definitions should be accompanied by visuals such as images, videos, and diagrams.

Students should take an active role in constructing meaning of new vocabulary by building word maps that include definitions, synonyms, antonyms, examples, and non-examples. Other activities include written responses to questions that require understanding of the word meanings, and representations of the words through drawing or acting.

ELL students benefit from partner and small group conversation that enables them to practice using new words before speaking in front of the class. Effective discussion prompts include questions about the anchor text and opportunities to relate new vocabulary words to personal experiences.


Baker, S., Lesaux, N., Jayanthi, M., Dimino, J., Proctor, C. P., Morris, J., Gersten, R., Haymond, K., Kieffer, M. J., Linan-Thompson, S., & Newman-Gonchar, R. (2014). Teaching academic content and literacy to English learners in elementary and middle school (NCEE 2014-4012). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from the NCEE website:

Blachowicz, C. & Fisher, P. (2008). Vocabulary instruction. Handbook of Reading Research. New York: Routledge, 503-523.

Cole, M. (2014) Speaking to read: Meta-analysis of peer-mediated learning for English language learners. Journal of Literacy Research, 46(3), 358-382.

National Council of Teachers of English. (2008). English Language Learners: A Policy Research Brief. Urbana, Illinois: Author. Retrieved from








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