In previous articles, we have explored best practices in curricula, methods and approaches, multiple instructional approaches, choosing materials and assessment. In this article — the final in the series — we examine the content elements necessary for inclusion in a best practices-based curriculum.


There is no dispute that a broad and deep vocabulary is necessary for academic success, just as there is no dispute that ELLs generally have a paucity of vocabulary — particularly academic vocabulary — essential to their collegiate and graduate success. As Keith Folse notes, "Vocabulary knowledge is important for all skill areas."

Folse refers to Paul Nation's work in which Nation notes, "While an educated native speaker of English knows about 20,000 word families, which equates to approximately 70,000 words, ELLs know only a fraction of this number." While ELLs appreciate the "comprehensible input" to which they are exposed in classrooms and in "real-world environments," their limited vocabulary frequently means that "the English they hear or read is not comprehensible and therefore cannot serve as useful input and actual intake."

Yet ELLs are eager for more and more comprehensible and useful vocabulary.

Folse observes that the great majority of IEPs have no dedicated vocabulary course, despite the fact that a broad and deep vocabulary is requisite for academic success. Too often, he notes, vocabulary is subsumed in reading courses when, for maximum effectiveness, vocabulary should be incorporated in all courses, and there should be a dedicated vocabulary course.

"My experience with many IEPs through teaching, program visits and communication with teachers in those programs is that almost no IEPs have a plan for teaching vocabulary across the levels the way they do for the teaching of grammar," Folse writes.

Folse reflects the position of experts Kathleen Graves, Robert Marzano and Nation who "call for a comprehensive, systematic approach to teaching vocabulary." Further, Folse notes that "teachers need training in multiple ways that vocabulary can be taught and assessed. Such training would include explicit teaching techniques ... and implicit vocabulary focus through reading and listening tasks."

Yet it is not only the teachers who require training, as "learners need training in noticing, practicing and retaining vocabulary."

When constructing a dedicated vocabulary course, it would be wise to consult Alan Hunt and David Beglar’s seven principles for vocabulary instruction divided into incidental learning, explicit learning and independent strategy development:

Incidental Learning

1. Provide opportunities for the incidental learning of vocabulary: Hunt, Beglar and others observe that extensive reading serves as an excellent opportunity for incidental vocabulary learning, and as students are developing to "read in a sustained fashion," it behooves teachers to include sustained silent reading (SSR) in class until students have developed sustained reading skills.

Explicit Learning

2. Diagnose which of the 3,000 most common words learners need to study: Batia Laufer notes that a "minimum of 3,000 words" is necessary for students in university classes, but "5,000 words indicated likely academic success." Educators can ascertain an estimate of students' vocabulary size by using a number of checklists and refers to Nation's Vocabulary Levels Test, John Read's "Measuring the vocabulary knowledge of second language learners," and Paul Meara's EFL vocabulary tests.

3. Provide opportunities for the intentional learning of vocabulary

4. Provide opportunities for elaborating word knowledge: Elaboration involves expanding the connections between what the learners already know and new information.

5. Provide opportunities for developing fluency with known vocabulary: Establishing fluency requires recycling already known words "in familiar grammatical and organizational patterns." Nation asserts that growing fluency "overlaps most of all with developing the skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing," so it is essential to offer learners multiple opportunities to practice.

Independent Strategy Development

6. Experiment with guessing from context

7. Examine different types of dictionaries and teach students how to use them

Nation and Robert Waring suggest their own considerations for creating a vocabulary curriculum:

  • Representativeness: The corpora that the list is based on should adequately represent the wide range of uses of language.
  • Frequency and range: Most frequency studies have given recognition to the importance of range of occurrence.
  • Word families: The development of a general service list needs to make use of a sensible set of criteria regarding what forms and uses are counted as being members of the same family.
  • Idioms and set expressions: Some items larger than a word behave like high frequency words.
  • Range of information: To be of full use in course design, a list of high-frequency words would need to include the following information for each word — the forms and parts of speech included in a word family, frequency, the underlying meaning of the word, variations of meaning and collocations and the relative frequency of these meanings and uses, and restrictions on the use of the word with regard to politeness, geographical distribution, etc.
  • Other criteria: Ease or difficulty of learning; necessity; cover; and stylistic level and emotional words.

Mary J. Drucker offers her perspective on teaching vocabulary, including employing narrow reading so students are "exposed to a common body of vocabulary." Narrow reading can be achieved in a variety of ways.

For one, students and teachers can "collect newspaper stories on a continuing topic, a topic that will appeal to them." For another, students can bring in magazines or magazine articles on topics "they like." Additionally, students can read material written by one author.

And, Drucker notes, "do not underestimate the power of the read-alouds in supporting vocabulary development." David and Yvonne Freeman reported that when "teachers read aloud a story to students three times a day for a week," the result was that group vocabulary scores increased by 40 percent.

IEPs at Northern Arizona University, Pace University, the University of San Francisco, Loyola University of Chicago, DePaul University, The University of Maine, The University of Maryland Baltimore County, West Los Angeles College, Grand Valley Community College and West Valley College are among those that have dedicated vocabulary courses or combine reading and vocabulary courses. The University of San Francisco's IEP combines vocabulary and idioms in one course, and as we will see, idioms are the domain of vocabulary.

There are many substantive best practices sources available for consultation when designing and implementing a dedicated vocabulary course. For now, the message from best practices evidence is that a dedicated vocabulary course is an essential piece of any IEP.


Though typically addressed in the domain of listening and speaking, idioms nonetheless are a fundamental part of native language fluency. As seen previously, Nation and Waring include idioms in their chapter, "Vocabulary size, text coverage and word lists."

As Folse and many others note, comprehensible and useful input is key to ELLs success in their non-native language(s), and idioms "are often equated with native speaker fluency," as Rita Simpson and Dushyanthi Mendis note.

In Simpson and Mendis' study, they found that "idioms occur in academic speech and are not as rare a phenomenon as they might appear when taken as whole." Yet it is a challenge for those who create materials "to make principled decisions about which idioms would be taught."

To that end, they direct educators' attention to the Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English (MICASE), "a specialized corpus of contemporary speech." Over 14 years, researchers recorded "197 hours of speech, totaling about 1.7 million words in 152 speech events," including academic lectures, dissertation defenses, one- on-one office hour interactions and small peer-led study groups. All of this information is available free on the Web and is searchable.

Such a corpus allows teachers and learners to hear the "authentic contexts rather than in the contrived ones found in textbooks or thought up by teachers." Additionally, the corpus allows idioms to "be taught from a discourse perspective rather than as isolated lexical items."

Dilin Liu, in his TESOL Quarterly article, explains the extensive work he conducted to create a vast corpus of the most frequently used spoken American English idioms. He drew upon three existing corpora: Barlow's Corpus of Spoken, Professional American English (CSPAE); the aforementioned MICASE; and his own corpus of spoken American media English.

Using these sources, Liu created "the largest available spoken American English corpus to date," which includes television shows, "news reports, debates, interviews, magazine shows and talk shows." As part of his work, Liu compared his corpus with seven mass-produced idiom dictionaries and found the dictionaries' selections of idioms "seems sometimes inconsistent ... A more important disparity between the publications and the results [of Liu's corpus] is that the primary meaning and typical use of an idiom introduced in these publications are not those found in the corpora."

Liu concludes that, when choosing idioms for teaching, there must be a "more rigorous, systematic way, and should be based on authentic language rather than intuition." Further, instead of having students rely on "made-up sentences for idiom use illustrations," examples should come from Liu's voluminous corpus as those examples are authentic. He cautions that teachers should provide idiom variations to "help make students' learning of idioms more complete."


There is longstanding consensus that students must be able to read at a high level for them to succeed academically and professionally. However, as William Grabe notes, there is no one approach, strategy or technique that is a panacea: "Teachers cannot wait for the 'definitive research study' [for how to teach reading]; it will never happen in any case."

Instead, Grabe notes: "The ideal for effective reading instruction ... is a merging of practitioner knowledge and persuasive research support. Both are needed for effective instruction. There is certainly a need to recognize practitioner knowledge, good teaching ideas and positive instructional outcomes."

However, he warns that "there is not enough research being done particularly in L2 contexts, on the effectiveness of instructional practices and the direct effects of specific abilities on reading comprehension development." With that said, Grabe identifies "a set of implications for L2 reading instruction" culled from reviewing a decade of reading instruction literature.

  1. Ensure word recognition fluency.
  2. Emphasize vocabulary learning and create a vocabulary-rich environment.
  3. Activate background knowledge in appropriate ways.
  4. Ensure effective language knowledge and general comprehension skills.
  5. Teach text structures and discourse organization.
  6. Promote the strategic reader rather than teach individual strategies.
  7. Build reading fluency and rate.
  8. Promote extensive reading.
  9. Develop intrinsic motivation.
  10. Plan a coherent curriculum for student learning.

Repeatedly,best practices research emphasizes the need for a comprehensive focus on reading. Jack C. Richards and Willy A. Renandya observe that reading "receives special focus" in many second and foreign language programs. They see the integration of skills, "good reading texts also provide good models for writing, and provide opportunities to introduce new topics, to stimulate discussion and to study language" including vocabulary, grammar and idioms.

Richards and Renandya echo what so many of their colleagues (referenced herein) identify as necessary for an effective approach to reading instruction:

  • The teaching of strategies is contextualized.
  • Strategies are taught explicitly through direct explanation, modeling, and feedback.
  • There is a constant recycling of strategies over news texts and tasks.
  • Strategies are taught over a long period of time.

As there is copious research available for curriculum designers to consult when creating a vocabulary course, so is there such research available for developing a reading course.


Writing in one's mother tongue can be a formidable task. For writers composing in their non-native language, the task can seem insurmountable.

Tony Silva explained his L2 students' perceptions of writing in English, and Ilona Leki urges all L2 writing teachers to read again and again Silva's article in order to appreciate the overwhelming challenges L2 writers face when writing in their non-native language.

Beena Giridharan and Alison Robson researched "four essential criteria for developing good academic writing skills" in L2 writers. They studied 206 students' "attitudes toward academic writing tasks, planning, writing paragraphs and essay, and evaluating one's own writing" as well as the demands the students encountered in academic writing and found "common grammatical, structural and syntactic errors."

Ultimately, Giridharan and Robson suggest "interventions and techniques" to help L2 writing students succeed. Thier findings of students' perceptions are striking. The researchers used a five-point Likert scale: strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree and strongly disagree.

  • 53 percent of students "could not agree or disagree" with the statement, "Academic writing is enjoyable for you and you are able to draft easily."
  • 15.5 percent "clearly did not enjoy academic writing nor were they able to draft essays without effort."
  • 6.7 percent disagreed with the statement, "You work well with peers to brainstorm ideas and viewpoints for assigned topics." And 39 percent "were unclear about their perceptions" in response to the same statement.
  • 4.8 percent disagreed that they read for "gaining a better understanding" of assigned topics, while 38.3 percent neither agreed nor disagreed.
  • 12.1 percent noted they were "unable" to paraphrase and synthesize information while 51 percent "were unclear about their abilities" to do so.
  • When asked about the correctness of their sentence grammar and structure, 47.5 percent were unsure of their skills, and nearly 21 percent believed their grammatical skills and sentence formation were ineffective.
  • In terms of their correct verb tense use, nearly 49 percent were "unsure" of their skills, and nearly 12 percent believed they were unable to correctly use verb tenses when writing.
  • Nearly 60 percent were "unsure" of their ability to evaluate their own writing, and 15 percent believed they were unable to evaluate their own work.
  • Nearly 70 percent "were not sure that evaluations of their writing were similar to instructor evaluations of their writing," and nearly 16 percent disagreed that their evaluations were synchronous with their instructor's evaluation.

The open-ended questions section of the survey also yielded a wealth of information pertaining to how students feel about academic writing.

Curriculum designers and teachers can learn a great deal from this research, whose data "concurred with data identified from research journals and draft feedback" the researchers recorded. The researchers identify the following points that should be included in writing courses:

  • Vocabulary learning
  • Targeted instructional strategies
  • Grammar activities to improve sentence and paragraphs
  • Instructor awareness of individual ESL learner differences
  • Techniques for improving planning and organizing, drafting and editing
  • Techniques to help students improve self-evaluation
  • Domain or discipline based texts
  • Feedback on content, structure and overall language proficiency

As other teacher-researchers have highlighted, Giridharan and Robson emphasize the need for administering and analyzing student needs analysis; using EVF; administering and analyzing MI and learning style inventories and helping students understand and apply the results; providing relevant reading material; teaching targeted instructional strategies; and providing contextualized grammar feedback.

Icy Lee observes that a successful writing curriculum include Assessment for Learning (AfL), an integration of teaching, learning, and assessment. AfL, which originated in the United Kingdom, has been influential in educational reform there and in Australia and Hong Kong.

Assessments are continuous because teachers should continually use information from assessment to fine-tune their teaching, improve learning and facilitate planning for the next instructional cycle. Thus, through AfL, teaching, learning and assessment form a symbiotic relationship, with assessment being integral to teaching and learning.

AfL promotes learner autonomy because a key element is student self-evaluation. "The teacher needs to provide guidance and training and vary the demands of self- and peer assessment according to students' abilities, such as by giving students checklists," Lee writes.

As an appendix to her article, Lee provides a sample checklist. Likewise, Appendix A is an explanation of the assignment process and grading guidelines this article's author developed and successfully used for many years in composition classes. As Lee states, "To ensure that assessment truly serves the purpose of enhancing learning rather than simply evaluating writing, teachers have to work out a consistent error feedback policy."

A successful writing course nurtures learner motivation and autonomy, writes Lee. Instructors can promote learner motivation and autonomy in a number of ways, including:

  • Using self- and peer evaluation
  • Writing journals in pairs or groups
  • Compiling their own portfolios
  • Keeping error logs
  • Writing reflective journals or progress logs on how they can improve their future compositions
  • Suggesting areas of error feedback for the teacher
  • Participating in the development of feedback forms or checklists

Once again, we see the need for self-assessment, self-reflection and portfolios. This series on best practices began by examining overarching themes that contextualize curriculum and program design. The series then investigated the elements essential, ultimately focused on reading and writing, for constructing a curriculum and a program grounded in best practices.

We have learned that a best practices curriculum is one that

  • begins with a students' needs analysis
  • is integrated and culture-infused
  • is grounded in and constructs lessons informed by multiple intelligences and learning styles research
  • incorporates substantive and regular student self-reflection and self-assessment
  • uses authentic materials
  • incorporates critical thinking exercises, especially in the forms of community-based (service) learning and project- and problem-based learning (critical thinking)
  • has a dedicated vocabulary class
  • relies on portfolios and other forms of formative and alternative assessment to assess students' work
  • regularly reviews students' and programmatic needs and makes appropriate revisions based on needs analyses' findings