Guiding Questions
  1. Why is vocabulary instruction important for ELLs?
  2. Why is teaching vocabulary in context important?
  3. How can educators teach vocabulary in context?

Welcome to the third and final set of the Visible Literacy series, Vocabulary Instruction.  I conclude the series by sharing different vocabulary instruction approaches.  This is the first of several articles on providing vocabulary instruction to ELs, which introduces the concept of tiered vocabulary words and share a process to teach Tier One words. 

Research Says

Beck, McKeown, and Kucan state that, “The major purpose of having a large vocabulary is to use it in the service of reading comprehension and writing” (2008, p. 183). Research indicates that the development of vocabulary plays the most critical role in ELs’ language acquisition and academic achievement (August, Carlo, Dressler, & Snow, 2005; Chung, 2012). Because vocabulary impacts students’ general comprehension, research suggests that explicit vocabulary instruction enhances reading comprehension as well(Beck, Perfetti, & McKeown, 1982; McKeown, Beck, Omanson, & Perfetti, 1983; National Reading Panel, 2000, Graves, 2007).

As educators who work with ELs, we understand that vocabulary is a gate-keeper skill that either opens ELs to a world of academic language when the skill is developed or shuts students access to content and learning when the skill is underdeveloped.  The question that remains is how to teach vocabulary.  I’ll share my personal approach within these next three articles.

Mistake # 1: Ignoring Vocabulary For the first few years of my teaching career, I flat out ignored vocabulary instruction.  I was overwhelmed by the act of teaching – management, planning, assessing, and complying with the district and state mandates. The newness of teaching paralyzed me from taking any action until I found my teaching stride a few years later.

Mistake # 2: Lazily “Look It Up” Strategy Instead of vocabulary instruction, I dismissively told my students “Look it up” whenever they didn’t understand a word. Unfortunately, that direction rarely helped because the dictionaries did not provide a student-friendly definitions for ELs.  For example,this is Google Definitions (n.d.) defines the word “analyze”: Vocabulary instruction for ELs Helpful, right?! This abstract definition was full of complex words that went right over my ELs’ head.  They felt disempowered because, despite putting out effort to understand and learn, they received no success and no help from me. My students began to identify learning vocabulary as something of an isolating experience. Speaking of dictionaries, I recommend ONE in particular because it is more student-friendly than the rest.  

Consider using the Collins-Cobuild )dictionary with ELs because it provides full sentences with contextual clues instead of short, complexly-worded phrases like most traditional dictionaries. As an EL myself, I know the value of vocabulary in trying to communicate, so I conducted some research to learn how to best teach it.  During my investigations, I discovered Isabel L. Beck, Linda Kucan, and Margaret G. McKeown’s book called Creating Robust Vocabulary: Frequently Asked Questions and Extended Examples (Solving Problems in the Teaching of Literacy) (2002).  

This book has been the most influential resource in the development of my vocabulary program.   By purchasing the book, you also support this blog. Reading their book was like taking a master’s class with veteran teachers: they provided practical theory and suggested actionable strategies to develop my own program. It has been invaluable and should be recommended reading for teachers in our field of education.    The following section is a description of my practices that you are free to adapt and adopt.

Current Practices

What Words to Teach? Before I explain how I teach vocabulary in context, I have to pause and answer the question of “What words should I teach?”  This is answered by the concept of the Tiered Vocabulary Words (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002).   Words carry different weight.  Choose the ones that tip the academic scale Twitter .  Some are concrete, non-abstract words that do not need direct instruction like such as the words “bathroom” and “trees”.  \

Sequence words such as “then”, “first”, and “after” are also Tier One words because they are commonly used in social language.   Tier One words are also sight words.  Here’s a link to the Fry’s Sight Words Lists, which provides PDFs that break down the words into groups of 100 according to the frequency in which they occur.  TeachlikeaChampion.com also has a fantastic article explaining Tier One words. Robust Vocabulary Instruction for ELs

Strategy # 1: Free Reading

One the best and most low-prep strategies to develop vocabulary is allowing students to read for fun.  Research suggests that written texts contain a more rare and diverse range of words than oral speech (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998).   Nagy, Anderson, and Herman’s (1987) research showed that free reading produces a measurable gain in vocabulary growth.  Lastly, Blachowics found that out-of-school reading contributes significantly to learning vocabulary (2006).  

Best of all, this strategy helps develop vocabulary at all three tiers. Nagy, Anderson, and Herman’s (1987) research showed that free reading produces a measurable gain in vocabulary growth.  Lastly, Blachowics found that out-of-school reading contributes significantly to learning vocabulary (2006).  Best of all, this strategy helps develop vocabulary at all three tiers. If you are interested in creating your own free reading program, scan through one of my most visited post entitled “Preventing ‘Readiciding’ ELLs by teaching a Free Reading Program. The article has accompanying videos and photos of the process.

Strategy # 2: Tier One Words 

Tier One words, such as “chair”, “room”, and “after”, do not need to be taught to ELs who have some English proficiency because they are commonly used words in all languages .  Only students completely new to English need to be explicitly taught Tier One words themselves.   The majority of ELs, however, do need a strategy to quickly understand these words when they encounter them in text. The following two strategies are meant to be used by students to both independently understand the meaning of a word and continue with reading the text.  

They are not meant to teach students vocabulary words because often, ELs just need to know what the Tier One word is in their language or to see a picture of the word to understand it. Let’s take an example from my 6th-grade English class.  We were reading Patricia McCormick’s Sold during a unit where we explored the concept of “family”.  As we were engaged in Visible Reading (my version of guided close reading), we stumbled onto the word “thatched”.  Below is my dialogue with the students illustrating how I teach Tier One words in context.

Stephanie: “What’s ‘thatched’?”

Mr. Tan: “What strategy can we use?”

Army: “Translate” (and yes, I have a student named “Army”).

(Everyone goes to their devices and Google translates “thatched” in Korean, Laotian, Chinese, German, Thai and Japanese.)

Moji: Wait. I don’t get it. (Google Translate sometimes helpful, and when it’s not, we use a different strategy.  I try to encourage Google Translate as a first step for vocabulary because it honors my ELs’ home language and it’s an efficient step).

Jake: It’s like, like something with straw.

Stephanie: Google Translate doesn’t have Papua New Guinea.

Dexter: I know how to say it in Lao but can’t describe it in English.

Mr. Tan: So what’s another strategy?

Stephanie: Google Image

(They return to their laptops to search “thatched” in Google Image.  Then they understand the word and we move onto the reading.)

Yeah, I could easily have told them the word and we would have moved onto the reading faster, but my teaching philosophy emphasizes solving problems and developing transferable skills to foster literacy independence, not rote memorization.  In the future, they will know that when they do not know a word, they can either translate it (if they speak another language) or Google Image it, especially when the translation isn’t helpful. In this video below, two Shungo and Oliva encountered the word “rural”, which was unfamiliar to both.  They tried Google Translating, but they didn’t understand the translation in Japanese or Danish.  They moved onto Google Imaging the word to help them understand.

The video shows their reflection on the use of Google Imaging when Google Translate doesn’t work. https://youtu.be/LLuaAMk0a6w I actually remember having to learn the word “thatched” in my 8th-grade English class in a way that was “out of context”.   Wanting us to have a sophisticated vocabulary, my teacher would have us complete one chapter in a SAT vocabulary  workbook each week.  Each chapter contained a set of vocabulary words and accompanying exercises to instill the word in our memory. In contrast, what I just demonstrated with my approaches requires no exercise books, consumes less time, and is connected to a shared context.

Room For Google Translate:

I know that many teachers dislike Google Translate.  I agree with them for various reasons, but at times, it’s the simplest way to understand a word’s meaning.  GT is best used for translating individual words and NOT for translating whole phrases and sentences because the translation is often incomprehensible. In this video, you will see my ELs working in groups to read a shared text. One group of boys is using Google Translate to understand the word “poverty” in Laotian. Another Korean student is Google Translating unfamiliar words into Korean. Then he annotates the text to show his understanding.

Allowing students to Google Translate is recognizing that their native language is a tool to support understanding, communication, and engagement.  https://youtu.be/j-ok8BeE9wc   I find GT most helpful when an EL is at the Entering phase of language development.  We must ensure comprehensible input if we are to expect them to offer some output.  Below is an image of when I worked with Ayaka, an EL at the Entering phase, understand science content. Because she didn’t understand oral English yet, I needed GT to help support her understanding and facilitate some output from her. Teaching ELs grammar in context I like to end this session with having you hear from my students directly about their experience using these two Tier One vocabulary strategies (Google Images and Google Translate) to help them understand unfamiliar words. https://youtu.be/-GI9F35UTuk

To be continued

Let’s pause for now because we went through quite a lot of information in this post about the importance of vocabulary for ELs, the concept of tiered vocabulary words, and the different forms contextualized vocabulary instruction can take.  I hope that the initial ideas shared in this article provide you with some food for thought and validate your own vocabulary program. In the next couple of posts, I’ll share a process to teach Tier Two words, which are considered high-utility words that are found frequently across different disciplines.   

  1. Explicit vocabulary instruction is important for ELs to be successful in schools.
  2. Each vocabulary word can be placed into a tiered system.
  3. Teaching vocabulary can be differentiated to meet each word type.

Empowering ELLs a16-tiered-vocabulary


Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G. & Kucan, L. (2008). Bringing words to life: robust vocabulary instruction. New York: The Guilford Press. Beck, I. L.,

Perfetti, C. A., & McKeown, M. G. (1982). Effects of long-term vocabulary instruction on lexical access and reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 74(4), 506-521.

Blachowicz, C., Fisher, P., Ogle, D., & Watts-Taffe, S. (2006). Vocabulary: Questions from the classroom. Reading Research Quarterly, 41(4), 524-539.

Chung, S. F. (2012). Research-Based Vocabulary Instruction for English Language Learners.The Reading Matrix, 12(2), 105-120. Retrieved from http://www.readingmatrix.com/articles/september_2012/chung.pdf Cunningham, A. E., & Stanovich, K. E. (1998). What reading does for the mind. American Educator, 22(1 & 2), 1-8. Retrieved from http://www.csun.edu/~krowlands/Content/Academic_Resources/Reading/Useful%20Articles/CunninghamWhat%20Reading%20Does%20for%20the%20Mind.pdf

Graves, M. (2007). Conceptual and empirical bases for providing struggling readers with multifaceted and long-term vocabulary instruction. In B. Taylor & J. Ysseldyke (Eds.), Effective instruction for struggling readers, K-6 (pp. 55-83). NY: Teachers College.

McKeown, M. G., Beck, I. L., Omanson, R. C., & Pople, M. T. (1985). Some effects of the nature and frequency of vocabulary instruction on the knowledge and use of words. Reading Research Quarterly, 20(5), 522–535.

McMillan, B. (1997). Night of the pufflings. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Beck, Isabel L.; McKeown, Margaret G.; Kucan, Linda. Creating Robust Vocabulary: Frequently Asked Questions and Extended Examples (Solving Problems in the Teaching of Literacy). Guilford Publications. Kindle Edition.

Nagy, W. E., Anderson, R. C., & Herman, P. A. (1987). Learning word meanings from context during normal reading. American Education Research Journal, 24(2), 237-270.

National Reading Panel (NRP, 2000). The report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health.

August, D., Carlo, M., Dressler, C., & Snow, C. (2005). The critical role of vocabulary development for English language learners. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 20(1), 50-57.