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Vocabulary Instruction for English Learners

Vocabulary Instruction

Vocabulary is crucial for successful text comprehension. Although not many students understand that at first, it is mainly the teacher’s duty to show students how important vocabulary is and why it should be memorized and used. Sedita (2005) points out that there are several categories of students who might experience problems with vocabulary: students with limited knowledge of English, students who do not or rarely read, students with reading/learning disabilities, and students who have limited vocabulary knowledge. I agree with this observation since all these groups of students often experience difficulties with new texts, text comprehension, and decoding of the text. Nevertheless, I also believe that these students can become good readers once they are taught and trained how to work with vocabulary. It is also important for students to understand that vocabulary is not a separate area of a language but rather glue that helps them stick words and sentences together. Without the glue, the language does not work.

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The connection between a developed vocabulary and a good comprehension is evident: those students who understand and use more words in their daily conversations often become much more advanced readers compared to their struggling classmates (Sedita, 2005). The struggles can be caused by many factors: the student might have a disability or the socio-economic environment at their house does not allow them to train in reading. At last, the student can simply ignore reading because they see it as an annoying activity. Nevertheless, it is possible to break the circle.

The author of the article suggests that students need to be exposed to reading more often since it is one of the main ways to improve students’ vocabulary (Sedita, 2005). She also points out that students who listen to a read-aloud can decode the meaning of a word as easily as those who read the word in a written text. I have also observed this phenomenon. Although some teachers might think at first that students experience more difficulties when listening to the teacher, it is not always the case. Students’ comprehension relies on the type of the text, if it is challenging or easy, if the topic is familiar or not. Students often prefer easier texts they do not have to struggle with. Nevertheless, I believe that students need to be challenged sometimes so that they see the differences in vocabulary in texts (e.g., text A uses more common words, while text B includes new and unclear words that are difficult to decode). Such understanding leads to metacognitive and metalinguistic reflections, where students learn how to tie the known words to the unknown. Sedita (2005) supports this approach and suggests that teachers can provide students with knowledge rating checklist. With this checklist, students can assess their knowledge of words and see which words from the text are unfamiliar. Meanwhile, the teacher can evaluate whether students know the definition of a word or they also understand how this word is used in a context (Sedita, 2005).

Understanding a word from the context is one of the activities that students particularly like, as it seems. For example, when nobody knows the meaning of a new word, I suggest that each of the students provides their own opinion about the word meaning. If some of the students are getting closer to its comprehension, I encourage them and others to reflect more on the word and the context. First, this activity helps students engage background knowledge to decode a word. Second, it also promotes communication between students. Third, students have the possibility to decode the meaning without any assistance. Students are not always capable of decoding the word, but it happens much more often than one expects. Therefore, I believe that context is critical in vocabulary instruction.

Sedita (2005) also suggests teaching students to comprehend words by learning the parts of these words. Although I think that such activity might be seen as a bit complex for students, it is still highly effective because learning with morphemes helps students develop their vocabulary by learning small particles instead of long and complicated words. Such an approach is used by teachers who teach foreign languages since particular morphemes in other languages often define the words’ meaning. When teaching English, teachers should not neglect morphemes-based vocabulary learning. Word analysis is linked to fluent and accurate reading, but not all students understand it. Students might object first and point out that learning whole words is more reasonable (this happened to me). The teacher can provide students with the words based on the same root: biohazard, biofuel, biosphere, etc. as suggested by Sedita (2005). The teacher will show the students the importance of such small parts of the word and how they influence the word meaning. Although such activity can lead to extreme exaggerations (i.e. when students will look for significant morphemes in a one root word), most students find this approach efficient and continue using it during other lessons.

Vocabulary Instruction for English as Second Language Students

Since we discuss vocabulary instruction and building in this course, I would like to present several ideas that other teachers might find valuable. The grade level is middle school, and the content area is English (ESL). I believe these types of exercises and ideas can be transformed to fit into other content areas as well.

The first idea is called concept cube. It is quite widespread and often used when teaching English either as the first or as the second language. The initial idea is sometimes too complicated for elementary students, as it requires students to understand the category of the word. The “concept cube” is a six-square cube that students use to understand how specific words are linked to each other. There are six concepts in the concept cube: vocabulary word, antonym, synonym, category, characteristics, and example. Students make a square out of the cube, roll it, and after one of the concepts lands on the top, students need to explain the relations between the vocabulary word and the antonym, synonym, etc. (Cox, n.d.). I have transformed this assignment so that it is not as time-consuming as the original one (students often have difficulties taping the cubes; this activity generally requires a lot of time). Instead of making a cube, I provide students with pages where several of the vocabulary words are written. The concepts are the same, except for the category (I do not always include it). Then, each of the students can name the original vocabulary word that he or she has on the list and ask any of the classmates to explain the relationship between the original word and any other concept he or she chooses. This way, the assignment becomes less predictive, and students are interested in taking part in it. Furthermore, it also encourages communication and is helpful to shy students who often prefer avoiding communication.

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Another useful strategy that I often engage is the word map. I pick several (up to ten or twelve) unknown words from the new text (either together with children or alone during preparation for the class). The vocabulary word is written on a page; the child or the teacher adds three branches: the class of the word, its qualities, and examples. This activity can be done independently or together in groups. If the teacher chooses independent student work, he or she needs to provide the vocabulary words to children and control the process to see what kinds of struggles students might face during the assignment. Collective work is usually more time-consuming but also more enjoyable for children.

There is also a good strategy that can be engaged to ensure that students can remember a word. First, the teacher presents a new word by engaging students’ background knowledge (a simple definition would not be enough here). The teacher then asks students to repeat the word together several times. After that, several students can try explaining the word verbally (those who want to or those who need encouragement). If the word is not a complicated concept or something that is hard to draw (for example, magnetic fields), the teacher can ask students to make a simple sketch of the new word (pay attention to time: some students can be too engaged in drawing). Students compare their pictures and discuss the word together in pairs or with the teacher. At last, students are asked to create two or three sentences with the new word so that the teacher can evaluate whether they understand the word correctly.

The activity described above can be easily transformed, depending on the students and teachers’ needs. At the same time, it is one of the most effective methods of vocabulary memorization that does not force students to learn every word by heart.

Creating glossaries is more common for ESL teachers but teachers in other content areas can also take this approach into consideration. When creating a glossary, students are asked to divide the page into two parts. The first part includes the new word and the second part includes an explanation either in English or students’ native language (English is more preferred, of course). Students can also write the translation of the word near the explanation (not necessary for other content areas that do not work with foreign languages or students whose first language is English). For ESL, it is also helpful to add other categories, such as the word’s formality (can it be used in a formal conversation or not?) and words that are often used with the vocabulary word (believe + that, think + about, wait + for, etc.). The teacher should not forget to use the new words as often as possible (if appropriate) since some students might have a hard time remembering all the new words from the textbook. At the end of each lesson, the teacher can ask students to repeat the new and the old words together or in pairs.

To conclude, these activities, although simple, are quite entertaining for children and can enhance their interest in vocabulary and the text. All of the activities can be modified and made easier or more challenging; students can participate in these modifications if appropriate.

Vocabulary Lesson

I decided to provide two plans for different lessons that will focus on vocabulary related to the book The Compound written by Stephanie Bodeen. The grade level is middle school, and the content area is English (ESL). The first lesson will focus on creating a vocabulary log for students whose first language is not English (the lesson can be modified if students are fluent in English / native speakers).

Vocabulary chosen for the lesson:

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  1. Dribble (p. 13)
  2. Hell-bent (p. 13)
  3. Emblazoned (p. 14)
  4. Muumuu (p. 16)
  5. Accountable (p. 19)
  6. Guava (p. 19)
  7. Winded (p. 20)
  8. Lousy (p. 20)
  9. Perish (p. 20)
  10. Pua flower (p. 19).
  11. Rant (p. 18)
  12. Routines (p. 15)
  13. YMCA (p. 14).

Day 1: students will be asked to write down the words into their new vocabulary log. The vocabulary log will have a specific table where each new word will be presented:

Word Meaning Example Formal or Informal Related words
Dribble Take the ball and lead it forward with bounces “Terese dribbled past me” (Bodeen, 2008, p. 13). Both Bounce, take, lead
Hell-bent A person who will do anything to achieve their goal “She always seemed so hell-bent on doing the right thing” (Bodeen, 2008, p. 13). Informal Possessed, heady, ambitious
Emblazoned Picture or words displayed on an object (t-shirts, jackets, etc.). “… a T-shirt emblazoned with Dad’s company’s logo” (Bodeen, 2008, p. 14). Formal Inscribed, decorated, sewn
Muumuu A bright, loose dress, traditional clothes in Hawaii “…Gram marched into his office, dressed in a hibiscus-covered Muumuu” (Bodeen, 2008, p. 16). Formal Dress, clothes, outfit
Accountable A responsible person; an event or behavior one expects “Followers were rarely accountable for their actions” (Bodeen, 2008, p. 19) Both Reliable, responsible, capable of explanation
Guava Orange tropical fruit “…guava juice” (Bodeen, 2008, p. 19) Both Fruit, tree, tropical
Winded A person/animal that breathes with difficulty “Eddy was also winded” (Bodeen, 2008, p. 20) Informal Tired, breathless, panting
Lousy Of poor quality; bad or unsatisfactory “… although my lousy shot was proof enough” (Bodeen, 2008, p. 20) Informal Nasty, cheesy, messy
Perish To die suddenly or due to violence/disease “Despite knowing he and Gram had perished on the outside…” (Bodeen, 2008, p. 20) Both Go, fall, die
Pua flower A bright yellow or pink flower associated with Hawaii “…a pink pua flower behind one ear” (Bodeen, 2008, p. 19) Both Blossom, color, aroma
Rant A passionate or angry speech “I rolled my eyes and listened to the rant” (Bodeen, 2008, p. 19) Informal Speech, declamation
Routines Actions that people do every day “…she had her own routines” (Bodeen, 2008, p. 15) Both Schedule, practice, activities
YMCA An organization where young people can develop different skills (sports, reading, learning, etc.) “…the type you’d see in a school or YMCA” (Bodeen, 2008, p. 14) Both Organization, camp, alliance

The example section will be filled not only with the examples from the book but also with the examples students will find (or make up) themselves.

Each of the words will be addressed by the teacher and students. Students will also be asked to discuss the words and explain if any of the words are more complicated to understand than the others.

Day 2: Students can be asked to add new words into their log and discuss the words with other classmates. No more than five words should be added during the lesson since it is a time-consuming activity. Students should be encouraged to add more words (even from other texts) at home. Students can ask their parents to help them with word meanings or look for the meanings in a dictionary.

Day 3 / each four or five days: The teacher should check students’ logs from time to time to ensure that it is still filled with new words. Vocabulary logs help the teacher evaluate students’ understanding of new words. Prior to the new chapter, the teacher should present a set of new words and ask students to write these words down in the vocabulary log.

Second lesson: Dictionary Activities

Day 1: The students will be presented with the list of new words from the second chapter of The Compound:

  1. Glare (p. 22)
  2. Inaugural (p. 23)
  3. Nuclear war (p. 23)
  4. Innocuous (p. 23)
  5. Cyanide (p. 24)
  6. Saunter (p. 27)
  7. Fastidious (p. 27)
  8. Alternate reality (p. 27)
  9. Retaliate (p. 29)

Students will receive a table with the words and mark a particular field:

The word I know what it means I don’t know what it means I’ve heard this word before
Nuclear war
Alternate reality

Students will be provided with dictionaries. The teacher will ask students to form groups or work in pairs. The teacher will name each of the words (but in random order), and students will hunt for the word in dictionaries. The group or the pair that is the fastest to find all the words wins. An important note: students should not be rushed when they read the definition of a word. The purpose of the activity is only to find the word as quickly as possible.

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Day 2: Students will be asked to read the new vocabulary aloud. The teacher will have the opportunity to assess whether students have been practicing at home or not. Students will be asked to practice the pronunciation of the words once more, in pairs so that each partner can control the other.

Day 3: Students will be asked to pick two or three words from the new vocabulary and draw corresponding scenes or the objects (complicated concepts should be drawn in context)

Day 4: Students will be asked to write nine (or more) sentences with the new words. Students will need to place the word in the right (appropriate) contexts so that the teacher can evaluate whether they fully understand its meaning.

The assessment criteria are the following:

  1. The student pronounces the word correctly
  2. The student can explain the meaning of the word with his or her words
  3. The student writes the word correctly
  4. The student can use the word in an appropriate context
  5. The student can translate the word (for ESL students)

Assignment Five: Reading/Learning Log

The second chapter discusses roots and their importance for teachers and students. The authors explain what roots are, why they are important for building vocabulary, why they should be taught, and how they help students develop word awareness (Rasinski, Padak, Newton, & Newton, 2008). The authors also describe the three kinds of roots: the base, the prefix, and the suffix (Rasinski et al., 2008).

The most important idea for me was the suggestion to divide a word into three parts and show students how these parts reflect the meaning of the word. Some of the words also helped me to develop my word awareness; I believe that students will find it interesting to discuss how Greek and Latin roots transformed into other words we use in our everyday life.

I plan to provide students with a list of words that contain either a prefix or a suffix and decode its meaning together, being attentive to all ideas expressed and suggested. After this training, students can be asked to work on a word independently and reflect on some of the roots and their meanings without teacher’s help. This activity will help students use logic when approaching words and seek for patterns. It is possible that students will later find the decoding of the words less difficult than prior to these activities.

Chapter five provides the reader with a variety of activities that can be used in the classroom to teach students the importance of roots and improve their root/word awareness. The discussed activities include word theater, card games, word puzzles, word sorts, and others (Rasinski et al., 2008). The purpose of these activities is to engage students in vocabulary practice that would not seem tedious or tiresome.

I would like to point out several activities that I find both creative and helpful. First, odd word out might look like a game not incredibly entertaining, but its advantage is in its ability to make students view the words from another perspective. Sometimes, the choice in this game might be obvious. The teacher’s role is, therefore, to show students how words can be regrouped depending on the categories we put them in. I think it is advisable for teachers to think creatively when preparing this game. Choosing the most obvious set of words and showing students that these words can belong to a variety of different groups is what I plan to implement during my classes. Working with complicated concepts is an option too, although the teacher should be careful with the word’s complexity because not all students will be able to understand how perspectives on the concepts change. Some modifications of the game suggest adding very similar words and pointing how these can relate to quite unexpected categories.

The next activity is card games. I plan to use different matches, such as prefix/suffix + base, words with the same roots, words with contrary roots, etc. I think I can start the game after the second lesson on roots where students know what roots are but still sometimes struggle to find those in a word.

Chapter seven provides an overview of different strategies that teachers can engage to teach their students to distinguish different roots (e.g. multiple prefixes, prefixes and roots, etc.). When working with multiple base forms, the authors advise showing students how to look for the core meaning of the word (Rasinski et al., 2008). Students are to be taught using patterns, examples, and detailed explanations of relations between roots and meanings (Rasinski et al., 2008).

The idea of looking for core meaning is especially valuable to me. I think that students can be confused when reading and learning about multiple bases, their origins, and similar meanings. I plan to pick several words with the same root and show students how these roots all bear a similar meaning although it might not be so evident. For example, I can use the root provided by Rasinski et al. (2008) – pung / punct or “pierce”. I aim to use the same explanation as the authors, but I also want students to remember the root’s connection to different words. Students will be asked to compose a short text with the words that bear the same root. The texts will be compared, and the best ones (those that display a good understanding of words and are appropriately used) will be placed on the whiteboard for others to read (and, possibly, learn).

Teaching assimilation, as it seems, is more reasonable using card games or working in groups. Card games can be specifically convenient; students will be asked to find the suitable roots (first with teacher’s help) in the cards. After this activity is completed, students will be required to find the appropriate bases and roots independently, without teacher’s help. This activity will help students memorize the connections between roots.

Chapter six appears to be extremely valuable since it provides the reader with real examples from actual schools. The chapter introduces several strategies that can be used in primary, middle, and high school. For example, teachers and students can pick the root of the week or the root of the day together, and use those as often as possible. Roots can be added to students’ stories, written on cards, and seen as a reason to compete (Rasinski et al., 2008).

I am excited to use the root of the day and see how this strategy will work. Students are familiar with “the word of the day” activity, but seeking out a word with a root will be both more challenging and exciting. I think that the root of the day can be used twice or thrice a week as an additional vocabulary activity.

I find the idea of using new roots as often as possible quite reasonable. Although students are used to memorizing words instead of trying to comprehend them, roots of the day will help them become more aware of the roots that surround us in all of the words we use. At last, students will not see Latin classes as boring as they once did.

The last chapter of the book (the ninth chapter) provides a brief history of the English language, beginning from the Romano-Celtic period and ending with the New World. The authors discuss the different root of English, its significance in the modern world, and the changes it keeps going through (Rasinski et al., 2008).

I found this chapter meaningful and useful because it allowed me to see the language as a constantly evolving and growing organism and think about how I can show my students the beauty of it. I believe students need to be taught the history of the language so that they can see the relations between all the tongues used in the world.

Furthermore, students will also be more aware of the importance of language in our everyday life and how it shapes our views and is being shaped by the events of our world. I plan to show students that language is more than a mechanic tool of communication but rather a sense we use to build, perceive, and understand the world around us.


Bodeen, S. A. (2008). The compound. New York, NY: Feiwel & Friends.

Cox, J. (n.d.). Teaching strategies: 5 ideas for instructing vocabulary. Web.

Rasinski, T., Padak, N., Newton, R. M., & Newton, E. (2008). Greek and Latin roots: Keys to building vocabulary. Huntington Beach, CA: Teacher Created Materials.

Sedita, J. (2005). Effective vocabulary instruction. Insights on Learning Disabilities, 2(1), 33-45.

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