Vocabulary Instruction & Academic Language

Oral language is one of the strongest predictors of reading success. In order for children to decode words and comprehend what they mean, they must first have the words in their mental lexicon. This is often frustrating for teachers because students who are English language learners or students who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds start school significantly behind their same-age peers in the number of vocabulary words they know and can use in their expressive language. There are three tiers of vocabulary that teachers should consider when planning vocabulary instruction:

  1. Tier 1 words – basic, everyday words that usually do not require instruction; ELL students will require instruction in Tier I words. (i.e. talk, chair, happy)
  2. Tier II words – More sophisticated words that are high-frequency and occur across subjects and in various contexts (compare, elegant, purpose, summary, educated)
  3. Tier III words – words that are often only found in technical texts or are domain-specific (hypotenuse, theorem, denominator)

Apple Vocab

Academic language tends to include vocabulary from all three tiers, but especially Tiers II and III, including elaborate discourse patterns that may be unfamiliar to ELL students. The following resources include very helpful information on how to teach academic language.

Components of Academic Language – What I Have Learned by Jessica

The Need for Explicit Vocabulary Instruction – Make, Take, Teach by Julie



Culturally Responsive Teaching

“When a class sees their teacher as an ally in their quest for an education, they perform better.”  

     -Monica Fuglei

I love this powerful quote by Monica Fuglei! If this doesn’t fire you up as an educator to reflect on your practice and make sure the students in your room know you are their ally then I don’t know what will! Students who are taught in a culturally responsive environment feel supported and are more successful academically than when their teachers do not take the time to foster culturally responsive teaching.

According to Fuglei, Culturally Responsive Teaching is “making students’ own skills, languages, and attitudes meaningful in the classroom.”

According to Ladson-Billings (1994), there are seven principles of Culturally Responsive Teaching. These include:

  1. Positive perspectives on parents and families
  2. Communication of high expectations
  3. Learning within the context of culture
  4. Student-centered instruction
  5. Culturally mediated instruction
  6. Reshaping the curriculum
  7. Teacher as facilitator

Here are some helpful resources I have compiled with more information and suggestions for CRT.

1. Culturally Responsive Teaching Brown University Although I’m pretty sure we all know what culturally responsive teaching is, I thought the short article on this website was helpful because it explicitly lists 7 traits of culturally responsive teaching.  https://www.brown.edu/academics/education-alliance/teaching-diverse-learners/strategies-0/culturally-responsive-teaching-0                                                            Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). The dreamkeepers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishing Co.

2. Culturally Responsive Teaching: Empowering Students Through Respect                by Monica Fuglei of Concordia University This article asks teachers to examine their own belief systems and reminds us of the importance of encouraging students to code-switch/use their own languages By giving students comprehensible input we are not lowering standards but having high standards that ALL students deserve and can learn at high levels. I also like that it reminds us that students will take ownership of their own learning when they feel validated!  http://education.cu-portland.edu/blog/news/culturally-responsive-teaching-empowering-students-through-respect

3. Culturally Responsive Teaching Matters! from the Equity Alliance has some really great reasoning for CRT. This is a short PDF that defines key terms, explains why CRT should be the norm in teaching, gives non-examples (I always love having non-examples! I’m just that kind of learner I guess. I like when things are explicit…) and then it has LOTS of great examples of how to be more culturally responsive.  http://www.equityallianceatasu.org/sites/default/files/Website_files/CulturallyResponsiveTeaching-Matters.pdf


4. Edutopia  This is basically a collection of articles all about culturally responsive teaching. So many great articles and ideas!  https://www.edutopia.org/blogs/tag/culturally-responsive-teaching

5. Kentucky Department of Education KDE has compiled some fantastic resources for CRT including diagnostic tools, lesson plans, lesson resources and articles about CRT. I wish I had found this sooner!  http://education.ky.gov/educational/diff/pages/culturallyresponsiveinstruction.aspx


Because research has shown that English Language Learners benefit from being in the classroom with their peers rather than being pulled from instruction, many schools have begun implementing coteaching models of instruction. There are many models of coteaching, but without deliberation and intentinality, teachers can accidentally be “pushing in” to classes rather than truly coteaching. This article at Education called Eight Tips for Making the Most of Coteaching has some great advice.

Language Objectives


Because my district has been rolling out SIOP this year, I have been inundated with hearing about the importance of language objectives. The unfortunate part of this is that there are numerous ways to create quality language objectives, and everyone seems to be a bit confused by them. As a new ELL teacher who has not yet been SIOP trained, I’ve found it to be a little overwhelming.

According to Language Objectives: The Key to Effective Content Area Instruction for English Learners at Colorin Colorado, “Language objectives are lesson objectives that specifically outline the type of language that students will need to learn and use in order to accomplish the goals of the lesson.” They focus on reading, writing, listening and speaking, but can include language functions (justify, explain, etc.), content vocabulary and/or language learning strategies that aid in comprehension. Follow the link to learn more about writing language objectives, aligning the objectives to the standards and provides specific examples of quality language objectives. Another website with wonderful resources regarding language objectives and SIOP is Granite Schools

language-objectives-for-elementary-ells-rigor-in-reading-and-writing-22-638         Courtesy of Language Objectives for Elementary ELLs: Rigor in Reading and Writing by Laura Lukens


Courtesy of instructionandassessment.Wordpress.com




Quality Instructional Materials for ELLs

Teaching seems like a never-ending battle of planning, creating, scrounging, begging/borrowing/stealing resources, collaborating, sharing, assessing, data collecting, reflecting and a million other tasks just to be prepared for the actual, you know, teaching that we do. It is inspiring, yet exhausting all at the same time. All students benefit from being exposed to a variety of instructional materials, but ELL students desperately need realia, props, concrete materials, photographs, etc. to help them understand new ideas and acquire new vocabulary. Teachers spends hundreds to thousands of their own dollars and hours annually to support their students. Browsing on websites like Teachers Pay Teachers, Pinterest and Donorschoose.org shows just how great the need for quality resources is. This article Where are Quality Instructional Materials for English Language Learners? shows how many teachers struggle to support their ELL students with quality materials.

Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners

English spelling can be difficult for many students. Because of the variations in orthographic systems and phonological sounds across languages, spelling is even more challenging for English language learners. This excerpt at Colorin Colorado – Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners can help mainstream teachers better understand how to analyze students’ spelling patterns and offers strategies for differentiating spelling assessments for ELLs. One helpful idea is to analyze a student’s writing sample and make a chart of words students are near proficient, learning and not learned yet.

Math for English Language Learners

Many people assume that math is a universal language because it is numeric rather than language based. However, as high-stakes testing and education reform change how math is taught and assessed, there are many challenges for English language learners. To read more about strategies for helping your ELL students with math read Math is about numbers, so it’s easier for English learners, right?



Sentence Frames

I shared one of my favorite strategies for helping ELLs increase their speaking opportunities this week at our faculty meeting: Sentence frames. Sentence frames, sentence starters and summary frames are all similar concepts that provide students with modeled language to scaffold their oral and written language. Although it is good to do this strategy for all students, ELLs benefit because it models correct syntax and provides a comfortable environment to practice speaking. Sentence frames also provide support to lead to increased academic discourse. There are many, many resources available online, but I chose to share two with my coworkers: this video Using Sentence Frames to Help ELLs and this amazing  Scaffolding Toolbox of Sentence Starters from Heinemann

My suggestions for procedures for using sentence starters are to model aloud how to use the sentence starter, provide opportunities for partner practice (especially through engaging Kagan structures!) and then have a few students share their ideas aloud. This is a perfect strategy to use to review concepts at the beginning or end of a lesson or right before an exit-slip to check for understanding. By providing students with opportunities to practice academic language in a safe environment, they will begin to internalize this language and begin to transfer it to their writing. I am including some examples of pictures of the sentence starters (I also shared these pictures and information on Sentence Starters in To Reach English Proficiency, ELL Students Must Have Opportunities to Speakand I will embed the video I mentioned above.

Examples of Sentence Frames from Pinterest

Inference Sentence StartersMath Sentence StartersSentence Frames

Using Sentence Frames to Help ELLs – YouTube Video

Strategies & Resources for Teaching ELLS

Being an ELL teacher can be so overwhelming, but I LOVE it!!!!!

I say it is overwhelming because we are acclimating little people to a new culture, while also making sure they feel safe and secure. We are trying to teach them the same content that their peers are learning, while facilitating the acquisition of an entire LANGUAGE! Some days it feels like there is too much to focus on with our students, but some days we see students making connections and we feel on top of the world.

In an effort to learn as much as I can about best practices for working with ELL students, I have found some amazing articles and resources from Edutopia (Apparently George Lucas has an Educational Foundation… Who knew?! It’s awesome too!) By browsing Edutopia, I stumbled upon four beneficial posts:

(1) In Do’s and Don’ts For Teaching English-Language Learners, Larry Ferlazzo emphasizes the importance of modeling, increasing wait time, using non-linguistic cues, providing written and verbal instructions, checking for understanding throughout the lesson and encouraging the development of L1. These are good practices for all students, but are especially important for our ELLs.

(2) Another insightful post is Strategies and Resources for Supporting English Language Learners by Todd Finley. This article discusses how critical vocabulary instruction is and how teaching grammar out of context (through drills) is ineffective (for ANY student). Like the Do’s and Don’ts article (see #1 above), it reinforces how banning students’ native language is actually a negative thing because it limits cognitive connections. Another important part of this article explains how because many ELLs are quiet and compliant (because of cultural differences and/or low language levels), this can cause them to be overlooked in class. Finley also includes links for ELL websites and other articles.

(3) Check out 50 Incredibly Useful Links for Learning and Teaching the English Language for tons of great resources (reference materials, professional organizations, articles, learning resources and teaching resources.)

(4) Because our district is training teachers in SIOP (Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol) and plans to roll out SIOP district-wide over the next three years, I wanted to learn more about it (I will be trained at some point, but not yet.) I knew that SIOP was a way to intentionally and systematically plan all of the best practices teachers know to do in their classrooms and that SIOP is extremely beneficial to ELLs. I discovered this AMAZING resource by Heidi Messbarger called Effective Strategies for Content Teachers of ELLS (Using SIOP)This virtual flyer is great because it not only provides an overview of the 8 components and 30 features of SIOP, but she includes resources and links within each section.