How to Teach Vocabulary to ELLs

How to Teach Vocabulary to ELLs

Teaching Vocabulary to ELLs

How to teach vocabulary to ELLs can be one of the biggest concerns for teachers that are new to working with English Language Learners. How do you teach a lesson when some of your students are unfamiliar with the words that you are using? Which words are the most important ones in a story? Which words are worth the time it will take to find visuals or preteach them? Here are some strategies to help you support your ELL’s vocabulary development.

Use Visuals

It is much easier to show a picture or use realia (a real object) when teaching new vocabulary. This helps students make connections and picture what you are trying to explain. When students are writing, it can be helpful to have visuals available to help them with spelling and vocabulary. Often, a quick search on Google images will bring up a picture to show students, or you can draw a quick sketch (or have students illustrate new vocabulary words).

For premade pictures, I have a set of illustrated vocabulary folders. Learn how I set up the Vocabulary Folders HERE.

Vocabulary Folders

Use a Student’s Home Language

If you know a student’s home language, use that to help them make connections with English. Point out cognates (words with similar meanings) and false cognates (words that sound similar but have different meanings). Encourage students who are literate in their home language to write the meaning of new vocabulary words in their home language. This is especially helpful for older ELLs in content area classes.

Teach Vocabulary Words in Context

There will be exceptions, but in general, students learn new words faster and retain them longer if they are taught in the context of a story or lesson. There are many words and concepts that are not easy to visualize. Teaching these ideas in the context of a story or the students own writing will help them understand how the words or phrases work.

Thinking back to some of my own foreign language lessons, I remember how difficult it was to learn the long lists of vocabulary words we were supposed to memorize. I didn’t have any real context to use the words and quickly forgot them. I lived in Jordan after college. During my daily activities, I had to navigate the city buses, purchase food, and talk with other women. Most of the words that I still remember in Arabic have to do with directions or cooking. I had a real reason to learn these words.

There are many strategies for teaching academic language. One way that I helped my students practice academic vocabulary words was to use the words in the context of sentences with everyday topics. This not only helps students focus on the new vocabulary words but also gives them the context of a sentence to help build meaning.

Academic vocab task cards
Academic vocabulary task cards

Teach About Context Clues

It is impossible to preteach all the new words an ELL will encounter as he/she is reading. Start teaching students how to use clues that are in sentences and books to help them learn new words. Simply making students aware that context clues exist, and then pointing them out as you are reading, is a powerful strategy to teach vocabulary to ELLs.

I also came up with sets of task cards with simple sentences for students to practice using context clues.

Context Clue task cards
Context clue task cards


Play Vocabulary Games

Sometimes, it is necessary to teach a list of vocabulary words. When this is the case, a vocabulary game is a great way to help students remember them. They are having fun as they play the game and do not always realize that they are practicing vocabulary at the same time. I have collected a list of games to use to help ELLs practice vocabulary and must-have games for ELLs.

home vocabulary file folder game
A basic home vocabulary file folder matching game.

Teach Morphology

Learning about how words fit together can help to expand a student’s vocabulary. Morphology is the study of how words are formed and how they connect to other words. Many English words come from Greek or Latin, which are root-based languages. If you have a student who speaks Arabic, Hebrew, or Chinese, they may find it helpful to have these roots pointed out since those are also root-based languages. Learning about morphology will help all students determine the meaning of new words.


Using Cognates to Develop Comprehension in English from

What Should Morphology Instruction Look Like from Reading Rockets

Illustrated Vocabulary Sheets

Academic Vocabulary Bundle 

Context Clue Task Cards

File Folder Vocabulary Games

Affixes Bundle 

Teaching Vocabulary to ELLs

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