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Words To The Wise: Effective Vocabulary Instruction Can Close ELL Gap

by Elva Smith, Achieve3000

Vocabulary is so central to the challenge of instructing English language learners (ELLs) that teachers and districts simply cannot afford to make any assumptions.

Case in point: When a Massachusetts third-grade teacher read William Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” to her class, she previewed the vocabulary she expected to be unfamiliar to her students, such as “pensive” and “jocund.” But she assumed everyone shared a mental image of the flower in question. Only after extensive classroom discussion, in which many of the third graders shared thoughts about the use of metaphors and descriptive language in the poem, the rhythm of the poem, the way it made them feel, and other literature they connected to it, did Jose (not his real name) raise his hand, somewhat tentatively, and ask, “What’s a daffodil?”

Chagrined at her error, the teacher in this real-life example used her virtual whiteboard to display a photograph of a daffodil that was just a quick Google Image search away; Jose connected the flower to his experience and immediately derived meaning from the poem. The use of images is a key instructional technique that is especially useful when teaching vocabulary to ELLs.

Of note, this story illustrates the larger challenge educators face when it comes to ensuring that all students have the vocabulary they need to effectively make meaning of content. For ELLs, vocabulary instruction is especially important. ELLs may know as many words in their native language as their English-speaking classmates know in theirs — but they likely know fewer words in English. Thus, ELLs are working not only to acquire new vocabulary, but also to catch up with the vocabulary of their native English-speaking peers. This gap can be difficult to close, especially with older students, as academic vocabulary adds to the challenge. Further, the integration of Common Core standards is holding all students — including ELLs — to a “one goal, one bar” mandate.

Start With Native Language Assessment

“To measure performance in a second language, it’s critically important to assess what the student comes in with from their first language,” says Dr. Maria de Lourdes Serpa, a professor in the Division of Language and Literacy at Lesley University’s Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, Mass.

Dr. Serpa noted that while teacher training is improving, many educators are challenged when it comes to assessing students’ progress and levels of achievement. For example, she said, many teachers do not have a firm understanding of the stages of second language acquisition, which can too often lead to mis-labeling students as “struggling.” Those six stages are1:

• Pre-production: Student listens but does not speak the new language. • Early production: Student begins to speak using short words and sentences,

but emphasis is still on listening.

• Speech emergent: Speech becomes more frequent, and words and sentences are longer; vocabulary increases and errors decrease.

• Beginning fluency: Speech is fairly fluent in social settings, but new contexts and academic language are still challenging.

• Intermediate fluency: Student is able to demonstrate higher-order thinking skills in second language.

• Advanced fluency: Student communicates fluently in all contexts.

One of the keys to moving students through the different stages is acquiring vocabulary — both discipline-specific and cross disciplinary — and using that vocabulary in authentic discussions so they are able to gain a fluency in language, according to Dr. Susan Gertler, Chief Academic Officer at Achieve3000®. The company’s Achieve Language online software-as-a-service (SaaS) offering provides an intensive focus on both discipline-specific and cross-disciplinary vocabulary acquisition. Because every student reads about the same topic, presented via differentiated text leveled to the ability of each individual student, it is possible for every student to acquire and use new vocabulary in meaningful, whole-class discussions, Dr. Gertler explains.

Continuous evidence-based assessment is another key, both to the initial understanding of where an ELL student stands and his or her ongoing progress. ELLs should be continuously assessed as they acquire not only the Tier 2 (high frequency/multiple meaning) and Tier 3 (academic ) vocabulary that their native-English peers are acquiring, but also the Tier 1 (basic) vocabulary that they may have in their native language but not in English.

The following are just some of the strategies that help increase ELLs’ oral and written vocabulary. These strategies can also be used to improve the vocabulary of struggling native-English readers.

Exploit Technology – Especially Digital Video

The technology that schools provide or that students bring in themselves can be leveraged to improve ELLs’ vocabulary. Lesley University’s Dr. Serpa notes that technology is something of an equalizer in the classroom, as all students — no matter what their first language — typically are fluent in the use and language of computing devices and applications. ELLs can use Internet-connected devices in the classroom to quickly and easily look up definitions of unfamiliar words and listen to the pronunciation of words at websites such as They can also search for images that connect words to concrete meaning.

And while digital images can be extremely useful, as shown in the story that began this article, Dr. Serpa also believes that digital video can be a more powerful tool for boosting ELLs’ expressive English language as well as their confidence. Dr. Serpa said she often uses video as an assessment tool, recording ELLs periodically to determine their abilities when they enter the classroom as well as their progress over time. “This can be documented with video, and used at least three times a year with a rubric to evaluate performance,” she suggests.

Dr. Serpa noted that the prevalence and relatively low cost of devices such as flip cameras and tablet PCs makes such video documentation easy to do in most school settings, adding that the process yields many benefits. “Video gives us a way to see and hear what students are doing and saying,” she said.

She added that video also opens up opportunities for students to get involved in group projects, no matter what their primary language. “For any project, such as in science or math, kids working in groups can use video to demonstrate their understanding, which they sometimes need to do in their first language. Those who know more English could, for example, add subtitles. Video gives all students – especially ELLs and special education students – a chance to do different things to demonstrate their understanding.”

Pre-Teach Academic and Cross-Disciplinary Vocabulary

Before beginning a lesson or reading a story, teachers should preview words that may be unfamiliar to ELLs — especially academic and cross-disciplinary words — including pronunciation and meaning. Students should be given the chance to practice reading and speaking the words in a variety of settings.

Differentiated online literacy solutions such as Achieve3000 provide an intensive focus on the acquisition of academic and cross-disciplinary vocabulary, the latter of which has been shown in some studies to increase comprehension by up to 10%. Achieve3000 provides this focus in two ways. First, by highlighting for teachers the words that they should be instructing on and giving them the lesson plans necessary to provide that instruction. Second, it provides students with independent exposure to, and practice with, level-appropriate words. In a systematic model, Achieve Language provides multiple exposures to vocabulary and takes a multimodal approach by teaching vocabulary through text, picture associations, and songs, among other means.

“This approach to unpacking academic vocabulary ends up teaching more than vocabulary — it gives students the strategies and skills they need so they will always know what to do when they encounter an unknown or unfamiliar word,” says Achieve3000’s Dr. Gertler. “This strategy helps scaffold ELLs toward better access to grade-level text.”

Online Differentiated Instruction Technology

Differentiated instruction is a key ingredient to the success of ELLs. However, identifying the proficiency level and creating a plan to meet the needs of every individual student is a daunting challenge. Emerging online technology, such as Achieve Language, can help meet this challenge by automating much of assessment and differentiation process — and monitoring both over time.

Achieve Language, for example, has a unique engine that not only meets every student where they are, but also moves them progressively closer to grade-level proficiency. By delivering differentiated text precisely matched to every student’s reading level, Achieve Language provides multiple ways to help ELLs acquire vocabulary at their level and scaffold them toward grade-level achievement; it provides an intensive focus on the acquisition of academic and cross-disciplinary vocabulary, it helps them overcome any reluctance to share in front of the class, it provides in-context instruction on idioms and, perhaps most important, it equips them with strategies and skills to decode unfamiliar words on their own in the future.

Make Students Aware of Cognates

Cognates are words that have similar spellings, meanings and pronunciation across languages (for example, “family” in English and “familia” in Spanish). Cognates occur commonly across English and Spanish. Indeed, about 40% of words in English have Spanish cognates. Making students aware of these connections and explicitly teaching them how to use words they know in their native language to understand words they don’t know in English will go a long way toward increasing their English vocabulary and understanding.

Explicitly Teach Idiomatic Expressions

One form of expression that does not cross from English to other languages is idioms. Educators don’t realize how often they use idioms and other figurative language to express themselves. While native English speakers who don’t know a particular idiomatic expression can sometimes figure it out based on their knowledge of the individual words, ELLs have little chance of effectively interpreting idiomatic language without explicit instruction. Tools like Achieve Language effectively eliminate or explicitly teach idiomatic expressions to ELLs — always within the context of an authentic reading environment. “In other words, the instruction of idioms is embedded in the context of what students are learning as opposed to being taught in isolation,” says Dr. Gertler. “This is also true of any other instruction that we provide, including vocabulary. The idea is to embed the instruction into material that students are reading, writing and speaking about, making the instruction much more effective.”

Encourage Oral Language Use by Facilitating Classroom Discussions

The integrated instructional approach Dr. Gertler describes in the preceding section is highly effective for ELLs, but they often do not get practice speaking English at home, where their native language may be the only one spoken. They will become more proficient in their understanding and use of English vocabulary through extended oral practice, both in the classroom and more informally with their peers.

Importantly, technology like Achieve3000 provides a unique opportunity for ELLs and native English speakers to participate in the same discussions and acquire the same content. By differentiating the same topic to multiple reading levels, Achieve3000 enables all students in a classroom to come together in meaningful, authentic discussions around that topic, even though each student is reading about the topic at their own Lexile® reading level, or even in their own language.

Be sensitive to the fact that ELLs may be reluctant to share in front of the whole class because of a lack of confidence in their abilities, so provide opportunities for interaction in smaller, less intimidating groups. This is also an area in which Achieve3000’s online delivery of differentiated text in English and Spanish creates a unique opportunity. It helps to overcome such reluctance to share with the class by enabling ELLs to acquire meaningful content for classroom discussion. By using vocabulary authentically in classroom discussions, ELLs can more rapidly scaffold toward oral language fluency.

Conclusion: Assume Nothing, and Use Powerful Tools Now Available

Educators cannot make assumptions when it comes to the vocabulary that ELLs bring into the classroom. Strong vocabulary skills — in both students’ native language and in English — are key to the ability to meaningfully comprehend text and, by extension, achieve academic success. Teachers must carefully evaluate what they say and how they say it, not to mention the content students are being asked to consume.

Further, teachers and districts should use all the academic strategies and technology tools at their disposal, especially differentiated instruction matched to each student’s reading level, to ensure that all students have the opportunity to succeed.

Sources: 1. “Language Acquisition: An Overview,” Colorin Colorado, 2008;

by Achieve3000

Contact: Elva Smith Tel: +1 321-558-4093 Email: Skype: elvaachieve3000Words To The Wise: Effective Vocabulary Instruction Can Close ELL Gap


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