Vocabulary Development

3.  Vocabulary Development

In order to truly read and write in English, ELLs must understand English word meanings. 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 initially learn word meanings best through explicit instruction in combination with rich opportunities to listen, observe, participate, and interact. Learners 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 picture books on a variety of topics in fiction and nonfiction.

In addition to learning word definitions, ELLs need multiple exposures to new words in different contexts. They also need opportunities to use the words in meaningful contexts. For example, two ways to help ELLs achieve deeper understanding are (1) choosing which of two newly learned words best applies to a given situation and (2) ranking words according to meaningful criteria.

ELLs may learn a single meaning for some words, such as fair, kid, log, will, and mean, and then fail to make sense of spoken or written language where these words represent alternative meanings. Homophones, such as to, too, two and due, dew, do,require explicit explanation, as do homographs, such as wind(noun) and wind (verb). ELLs may need explicit help in matching pronunciations with print forms of words (e.g., debris, chaos).

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.