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



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?



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.



Frontloading Vocabulary & Concepts

Although ELL students can acquire basic communication skills in one to two years, it takes five or more years to acquire academic language, because it is more cognitively demanding, it is used less frequently and they are learning new concepts while simultaneously learning the language. There are things that teachers can do to support academic language acquisition:

  • Teach cognates
  • Teach Greek/Latin root words
  • Use comprehensible language
  • Build background knowledge and connections
  • Preview texts and use graphic organizers
  • Teach structural analysis of texts (text organizational patterns, purposes)
  • Frontloading information

Although general academic vocabulary (words like therefore, contrast, examples) is less technical than content-specific vocabulary (hypothesis, equation, amendment), general academic vocabulary is harder for students to learn. This is because the focus is usually on content-specific words, the new content usually is connected to content-specific words and these words are often bold/italicized in texts. Teachers must point out and teach general academic vocabulary.

Frontloading is an effective strategy for teaching new concepts and vocabulary to all students, especially ELLs. Frontloading involves learning about something, talking about it, wondering about it then reading/writing about it. This helps students see/hear/use vocabularly in context and in multiple ways and helps students make connections. I used to think it was cheating to provide students with support like pictures walks, gist statements about books and giving them all of the vocabulary up front, but this was foolish to think. I now realize how critical it is to give students this support to activate their prior knowledge and help them to make connections as they learn and as they read!

Here are three great resources that I want to share. The first is an article on frontloading and the other two resources are resources to share with classroom teachers for strategies for working with ELLs in general.

1. This article from We Are Teachers Frontloading Article offers additional information on the benefits of frontloading.

2. Another great resource that I want to point out is a brochure that Parkland School District in Pennsylvania made for their teachers as a collaboration tool. Here is the link to their website and brochure.

3. I found a wonderful blog my Ms. Houser, who has created a free printable to share with teachers with 8 main strategies to use for scaffolding instruction for ELLs. You can check out her blog at Ms. Houser’s Blog.

8 Strategies for Scaffolding Instruction, Ms. Houser, Retrieved Sept. 2016


Frontloading Vocabulary Lesson

Frontloading and preteaching key vocabulary are critical for ELL students! These strategies provide the prior knowledge and background information they need to be successful with all content. This post has an awesome video with examples of frontloading vocabulary.


I really enjoyed this code of frontloading for English Language Learners. This follows a preschool teacher who teaches many ELL students. She focused a lot on using props and visuals to teach vocabulary in the beginning of the lesson so that she can have students get a better grasp of the concept and vocabulary. It is definitely worth the watch!

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Math Academic Vocabulary

Math Symbols Pic

Although I love math and have always been a strong math student/teacher, the reality is that many people (teachers included!) struggle with or dislike math. The good news for ELL students is that math is a  universal language. Yes, there are cultural differences in the way math is taught, but numbers can transcend spoken and written language. The bad news is that the academic vocabulary involved in mathematics often holds people back, especially our English language learners.

This link has several articles about the importance of teaching math vocabulary and strategies for doing so.

Math Instruction for English Language Learners