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Two Main Ways of Teaching Vocabulary to English Language Learners

Two Main Ways of Teaching Vocabulary to English Language Learners | ITTT | TEFL Blog

Vocabulary has a direct impact on written and spoken language comprehension. All students come to school with differences in their vocabulary knowledge, and part of teaching them how to be successful in English is to teach them vocabulary. Vocabulary development plays a critical role in helping English language learners increase their ability to communicate in the receptive and expressive domains in English. This is why vocabulary must be explicitly and systematically taught.

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Gina A.

Research suggests the following three big ideas about teaching and learning new words:

  • Reading comprehension is nearly impossible when the reader does not know at least 98% of the word meanings in the text (Biemiller, 2005).
  • Reading text aloud exposes students to new words in very powerful ways (Teachthought, 2016).
  • Giving students long lists of words to look up in a dictionary is an ineffective way to teach vocabulary (Teachthought, 2016).

Also read: 4 Super Easy Tips for Teaching Vocabulary to Young Learners

There are two main ways that students learn vocabulary. The first is through incidental learning, which happens through immersion into the language. When English language learners are surrounded by peers who speak English, they learn new words quickly. This is a crucial part of a student's vocabulary growth and happens every day as students talk, listen, read and write. To encourage this type of learning, teachers can ask students to share words that they’ve heard but don’t know the meaning of and record them on a large sheet of chart paper that will be kept in the classroom. This can be a part of each class and be an excellent point of discussion and vocabulary review.

The second main way that students learn vocabulary is through direct vocabulary instruction. One way of doing this is by using vocabulary squares that include the following:

  • a sentence with the word in context,
  • variations of the word, along with a synonym and/or antonym,
  • a picture to represent the word, and
  • a student friendly definition of the word.

Dictionary definitions can be confusing because sometimes there are words that students may not know within the definitions themselves, it leaves too much room for incorrect interpretations of the word, and sometimes the definitions themselves can be so short that they don't include any nuances. (Marciano Pickering and Pollock 2001). For example, the definition of garrulous does not specifically say that it only refers to talking as opposed to text being garrulous.

Although using context clues isn't always a reliable strategy for learning vocabulary, teaching English language learners to use context to derive word meaning can be helpful. Teachers can help students with a skill by modeling through “think-alouds”. This can be done by choosing a text and two or three vocabulary words that students probably will not know from the text. Nonfiction text tends to be better than fiction for this activity. Then read the book allowed to the students, and when you come to a vocabulary word that you think they will not know, sound it out. Then share aloud the process you used to do figure out the meaning.

Maintaining a word collection in a notebook is another good idea for people learning English. Once they can read a little in English, they can collect their words in a vocabulary notebook. For each word, they can include the student friendly definition and refer to the notebook as needed until they are comfortable using the words in speech, writing and reading. Continuous review and formal and informal assessments of these learned words should also be an integral part of instruction.

Although teaching vocabulary can be challenging for both the instructor and the students, it is an essential part of helping English language learners become successful in all language domains and in content learning.

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