Strategy 6

6. Teachers expand students' vocabulary through systematic, explicit instruction.

Limited vocabulary knowledge is often a major hindrance to reading comprehension for ELLs. Some ELLs may be able to repeat or pronounce English words and phrases without really understanding them. They may be able to decode words and produce the appropriate sounds without extracting or constructing meaning.

ELLs learn word meanings through explicit instruction and through rich opportunities to listen, observe, participate, and interact. Beginners link word sounds to meanings through the context provided by predictable routines, concrete objects, pictures, gestures, physical movements, and experiential activities. ELLs also learn word meanings through listening to repeated readings, explicit explanations, and discussions of books on a variety of topics in fiction and nonfiction.

Most ELLs acquire the vocabulary involved in daily routines, play, and social interaction before they learn academic and rare words. Inferring the meaning of unknown words from context can be difficult for ELLs who may not fully understand that context.

ELLs need explicit instruction and practice in word analysis. Learning word roots and the meanings of common prefixes and suffixes helps ELLs to understand many unfamiliar words. Speakers of languages that share commonalties with English, such as Spanish and Portuguese, may find cognate or "sister words" (e.g., intelligent; inteligente) to be a valuable resource when reading English. ELLs who are literate in Spanish may be taught to recognize and use cognates ("sister words" sharing common origins and meanings across languages) as a comprehension strategy. Students have a great advantage when they read words such as ancient and enormous and are able to understand them because of their Spanish cognates anciano and enorme. Teachers point out to students that not every pair of look-alike words is a cognate pair. Pie in English is a pastry dessert, while the Spanish pie means foot.

Vocabulary is of critical importance to ELLs. In addition to learning word definitions, ELLs need multiple exposures to new words in a variety of formats, as well as opportunities to use the words in meaningful contexts. When English-proficient bilingual students explain English word meanings to less-proficient classmates, they can provide a valuable service while increasing their own interpretation skills.

Effective teachers promote vocabulary learning through multiple strategies. For example, they can have students choose which of two newly learned words best applies to a given situation, discuss semantic features that differentiate close synonyms (e.g., shout and scream), and rank words according to meaningful criteria to help ELLs achieve deeper understanding.

Teachers say things like:

In the story, is Henrietta stingy or thrifty? Explain your choice.

What do the words feast and snack have in common?

How are they different?

Effective teachers provide explicit explanation of potentially confusing words such as homophones (e.g., to, too, two; due, dew, do) and homographs (e.g., wind, wind; sow, sow). They also provide explicit help in matching pronunciations with print forms of words (e.g., debris, chaos). Explicit instruction and practice in word analysis, including word roots and the meanings of common prefixes and suffixes, help ELLs understand many unfamiliar words.

Teachers promote word awareness by having frequent vocabulary discussions; encouraging students to ask questions about words; and developing word webs, lists, and semantic feature charts with students. Semantic feature analysis charts can help students differentiate among words that have similar meanings.