Vocabulary is a hot topic in education. Teachers, parents, administrators and community members know words are important. Words help us understand concepts, articulate our knowledge, express our feelings, ask questions and more.

Teachers of English learners know vocabulary instruction plays a pivotal role in educating this group of students, and all students. Research also identifies the importance of vocabulary in language and literacy instruction (e.g.,Graves, 1986; Chall, Jacobs and Baldwin, 1990; Beck and McKeown, 1991; Carlisle, 2010).

Without knowledge of the vocabulary in the subject areas, English learners will likely struggle academically. Given that these students have gaps in their vocabulary that other students may not have, how do we know which words we should teach them? What are the best ways to teach vocabulary to English learners?

Choosing words worth teaching

Perhaps it is easiest to start with the work of Beck, McKeown and Kucan. These researchers established a categorization of words that considers the commonality and applicability of words. They categorize words into three levels, or tiers:

  • Tier 1: The most common and most broadly applicable words — conversational language.
  • Tier 2: General academic vocabulary — those words that appear in many different contexts and content areas, that impact meaning but are often abstract or not defined within the text.
  • Tier 3: Domain-specific words of the various disciplines students study — the least frequently occurring and the most narrowly applicable.

In the context of instruction, conversational language is often taught to English learners through specific English language development courses or instruction. English learners will, of course, also acquire conversational language through their interactions with other students, teachers and in the community.

This does not imply that English learners especially newcomers and students at the more beginning proficiency levels do not need instruction in conversational language. As student learn and acquire language skills in English, the need for specific instruction in conversation language will decrease.

English learners and many other students benefit from instruction in general academic vocabulary. General academic vocabulary is likely to appear in text in a variety of content areas. This type of language often represents more nuanced meanings of more common ideas.

Teachers at all grade levels and in every content area should include instruction in general academic vocabulary as it comes up in context and as a way to help students understand and articulate their understanding of the concepts they are studying.

Domain-specific vocabulary is also an important part of instruction. All students, including English learners, need to learn the language of the content areas in order to understand the concepts and new content being taught.

Some domain-specific language, however, is so specialized that it only comes up in particular circumstances. It may be helpful to think of these words on a continuum of word knowledge. Consider the length of time, as well as the level of familiarity, that students need to have with the particular words being taught.

Should students have a familiarity with the word during the unit or longer term? Should students be able to recognize, or produce, the word in a few months, a few years or the rest of their life? Does the word relate to the long-term, enduring understanding that you are trying to impart through the unit?

For example, most would agree the term "photosynthesis" is important for students to learn, and for educated adults to have an understanding of. The words xylem and phloem, however, may not be as important to remember long term, unless a person becomes a biologist or botanist.

As students are studying plants and plant parts, these terms can be introduced and reinforced. However, a teacher may choose to spend less time teaching and reinforcing these particular domain-specific words, if he/she feels students will not need to have more than a familiarity with the words.

Concepts for vocabulary instruction

Vocabulary instruction should begin with rich and varied instruction. Students should be immersed in language every day through reading robust text and being read to, by hearing high levels of vocabulary of the content area and general academic vocabulary from the teacher, and by producing the vocabulary and language structures in their speech and writing.

A variety of strategies should be utilized to build vocabulary knowledge as a strong vocabulary program.

Teachers should be mindful of integrating high levels of academic vocabulary through instruction. As the vocabulary is encountered in text, point it out to students or draw attention to specific words through questioning tactics or through close reading.

When possible, embed domain-specific vocabulary into speech during instruction to model for students how precise language and vocabulary can be utilized; this provides context to students. Vocabulary taught in isolation, as a list of words outside of the context of text or speech, will not be retained as long and the instruction will not be as effective.

The recent Institute for Education Sciences (IES) practice guide entitled "Teaching Academic Content to English Learners in Elementary and Middle School" recommends, among other things, "teaching a set of academic vocabulary words intensively across several days using a variety of instructional activities." The IES reviews scientifically-based research to determine what works in education. It is clear that repetition of vocabulary through rich and varied instruction only benefits English learners as they learn English and content.

Specific word instruction should certainly be a part of every teacher's practice. Teachers can employ a variety of instructional methods including utilizing graphic organizers, having students define vocabulary in their own words, and using nonlinguistic representation (sketching and gestures). All will assist English learners in learning new words. As mentioned earlier, carefully consider which words you will spend time teaching.

Students will also greatly benefit from instruction in word-learning strategies. It is impossible for teachers to teach students all of the words they need to know. We must help students to learn words on their own through word-learning strategies.

Teaching students about affixes and root words helps them look at and analyze words they come across in text or hear in speech, and determine the meaning of unknown words. Prefixes, suffixes and root words should not be taught in isolation, however. It is not recommended that teachers do isolated lessons on word parts, but rather should be taught in context as these words are encountered.

Students can and should be reminded to look at meaning-carrying prefixes and suffixes, as well as root words to help them determine what new words mean. Looking at the context of the word in text, and utilizing context clues and other reading strategies, are strategies that also help students to learn new words on their own.

English learners can also utilize their knowledge of their native language to help them learn new words through cognate analysis. Some words are the same or similar in more than one language. For example, the word "encontrar" in Spanish is similar to "encounter" in English. Teaching students to look for cognates can also benefit their analysis of words and build upon their word learning strategy repertoire.

Ultimately, it is helpful to continually focus students on words and phrases throughout the instructional day. By fostering word consciousness, students begin to look at words, phrases and ultimately sentences and consider how they are utilized in powerful and impactful ways.

We can encourage students to be playful with language and have fun with language. Some would encourage the classroom to be a linguistic playground, where students play with words and language and experiment in order to create impact or humor, for example.

Vocabulary impacts just about every aspect of student learning and success. Teachers need to carefully consider how they utilize the limited amount of time they have with students in order to teach the most important words, both general academic vocabulary and domain specific vocabulary.

Careful consideration of which words will be taught, when they will be taught, and how much emphasis will be given as well as the incorporation of specific word instruction, instruction in word learning strategies, and fostering word consciousness will help move students toward higher levels of academic success.