What type of academic vocabulary instruction is most effective for ELL students? - Digital Promise Research Map

What type of academic vocabulary instruction is most effective for ELL students?

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Asked by
Rebekah Kim

Rebekah Kim is the Director of Instructional Supports in Highline Public Schools. In this role, she supports P-12 schools in several areas of work which include differentiation, highly capable, personalized learning and social emotional learning. Her passion for equity is the driving force and lens in which she approaches these areas of work in her support of students in Highline. Before Rebekah moved to central office, she spent 12 years as a building principal. During her principalship, she moved one of her schools to a K-6 comprehensive blended classroom model. Her instructional leadership involved the work around building culture shifts to a more innovative mindset to differentiate the varying learning needs of her 700+ students. She is passionate about family engagement, varying instructional planning for the academic and social emotional needs for all learners. For more information see Highline’s district website. You can also find Rebekah on Twitter @EdLeaderKim


Vocabulary instruction — explicit teaching and guided practice — should be consistent across all instructional formats

By Paola Uccelli

Educators often ask us: Which types of words should I teach to English learners? And what types of instructional formats support this word learning?

For emergent bilinguals, also called English language learners (ELL), research shows that vocabulary instruction — explicit teaching and guided practice to expand students’ knowledge of words’ meanings — needs to be conducted consistently across all instructional formats. Different instructional formats, however, are useful in teaching different kinds of words.

  • Classroom-Level Instruction: Research shows that academic vocabulary words tend to be challenging for many students — ELL students and large proportions of monolingual students. Discipline-specific vocabulary, such as “hypotenuse” or “renaissance,” are typically taught to the whole class by content area teachers. These complex concepts need to be connected to background knowledge and taught through modeling, rich-print exposure, discussion, and writing. Cross-disciplinary all-purpose academic vocabulary also require instructional attention. These are high-utility words, such as “process,” “interpret, “however,” and “therefore,” that appear frequently in texts across content areas. These words are often unknown to students, yet typically, teachers do not perceive them as challenging or recognize them as necessary targets of instruction. All-purpose academic words need to be taught explicitly through discussions of academic texts.
  • Small-Group Instruction: Small groups offer a chance for deeper discussion of word knowledge. Literacy interventions in small groups should focus on specific content-area language needs that might have been identified via English proficiency assessments (for example, the ACCESS for ELLS by WIDA). Small-group instruction also needs to pay attention to basic vocabulary words. Because English learners’ lives outside of school often happen mostly in their first language, these students tend to need support with basic vocabulary knowledge, such as house items and kinship terms. This instruction looks and feels very different from the instruction around words that refer to abstract concepts. With basic vocabulary, students often need labels in English for meanings they already know in their home language. We advocate for a model that teaches everyday vocabulary and academic vocabulary simultaneously, rather than first focusing solely on everyday words.
  • One-on-One Instruction: Students identified as requiring individualized interventions might also need targeted attention to word recognition skills and word reading fluency. What is critical to remember is that even in the case in which word recognition skills (for example, sounding out words) are just emerging, the teaching of word meanings cannot be overlooked. The expansion of vocabulary knowledge supports both more efficient word recognition skills and better text comprehension.

Across all instructional formats, the following elements are important:

  • Explicit instruction: Teachers need to provide accessible definitions of unfamiliar words, introducing new meanings in context through vocabulary lessons that support text understanding and/or content learning. This explicit instruction also activates, incorporates, and extends students’ background knowledge.
  • Production and recycling: Students need to repeatedly practice newly learned words orally and in writing. Instructional activities should reinforce and expand learning by recycling previously learned words. Remember, learning happens over time, so students may use words in unconventional ways at first — this is part of the learning process.
  • Multiple exposures to meaningful information about word meanings: Word knowledge is incremental. Learners continue to accumulate knowledge about a new word over time by finding and using the newly learned word in an increasing variety of contexts. It takes time to understand nuances and idiomatic expressions. Teachers modeling the use of new and recycled words can serve as a scaffold throughout this process.

Emily Phillips Galloway and Gladys Aguilar also contributed to this response.

This answer was developed in partnership with Usable Knowledge at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Resources for Further Learning

  • Word Generation

    Strategic Education Research Partnership (SERP) program


About the Researcher
Paola Uccelli

Paola Uccelli is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She studies literacy development and differences in skill levels among readers, with an emphasis on multilingual students. She has also researched ways to increase reading comprehension by focusing on how the words in a text connect. She has developed a tool to assess elementary and middle school students’ language skills, which teachers can use to provide more targeted interventions. Read full bio

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