On Teaching Vocabulary to ELLs

I though I’d write a blog post on teaching vocabulary to ELLs (English Language Learners).  Building vocabulary is one of the main tasks that EAL students have when developing language acquisition in English.  There are a number of ways that I’ve worked on vocabulary building with my students, as well as understanding vocabulary in context and reading comprehension (which I’ll talk about in a later post).  In this blog post, I’ll discuss a little bit of background on teaching vocabulary to ELLs that I’ve come across in the scholary world of English Language Acquisition and then move into explicit vocabulary teaching techniques I use in the classroom.


Vocabulary Research and English Language Learning

First and foremost, there are two types of Oral Language.  Many of you have already heard of BICS and CALP.  They are as follows.

BICS – Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills: Face-to-face conversational fluency, language used in everyday activities, and mastery of pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar (Cummins, 2008).

CALP – Cognitive/Academic Language Proficiency: Language proficiency associated with schooling, abstract language abilities required for academic work, and includes more complex, conceptual, linguistic ability (analysis, synthesis, evaluation…) (Cummins, 2008).

So, students learning English in school need to learn both BICS and CALP in order to be successful.  This brings me to the three tiers of vocabulary.  Below is an example of the different types of English vocabulary students need to learn.  The first tier includes BICS words, the second and third contain CALP words.  Beginner EAL students will be working in Tier 1 and moving into Tier 2 as intermediates, with Tier 3 being reserved for subject specific areas.


So, how do EAL students learn vocabulary?  Well, there are two ways: explicitly (where the teacher purposefully works on students learning specific vocabulary words) and implicitly (where students tend to pick up vocabulary without intentionally working on it just from being around the language).  In my experience, both are necessary, but it is important to work explicitly on vocabulary with beginner and intermediate students, whereas intermediate and advanced students can also really benefit from implicit learning once they have a decent grasp of the language.  I’ll give more ideas on tools for teaching vocabulary explicitly in the next section.

One method of learning vocabulary in English is to focus on the most commonly used words in English or high frequency words.  You can easily search online for lists of these. For interest’s sake:

  • 3000 high frequency and general academic words cover “a high percentage of the words on an average page” (Hunt & Beglar, 1998).
  • 3000 words = necessary for the university level (Laufer, 1992).
  • 5000 words = academic success (Laufer, 1992).


Finally, in readings I’ve done about vocabulary, here are some things I’ve learned.

  • 5 to 7 new vocabulary words is enough for students to learn in one lesson. It is difficult to keep more than that in one’s mind if they are brand new words.
  • Although we often teach vocabulary in themes (and I still do this), such as parts of the body or types of illnesses, I have read articles that research shows a person is more likely to remember a list of words if they aren’t related. The jury is still out on this one for me.  I like to mix it up!

Vocabulary Pre-Assessment

Something I’ve tried recently is giving my students a pre-assessment to see which words they already know, how well they know them and which words they still need to learn.  Recently, I chose academic words from the first two resources listed in the next section and created a Microsoft Forms survey.  This worked great and gave me quick and easy data.  Take a look at the pictures.

Teaching Vocabulary (Explicitly)

Next, here are some resources I recommend for teaching academic vocabulary:

vocabulary power

academic vocab for ells

academic vocab toolkit

The first two resources I have used extensively and really like.  The third one, I’ll admit, I haven’t had the opportunity to use as my school system only has a couple of copies and they are always signed out.  However, I did attend a Kate Kinsella (the Academic Vocabulary Toolkit author) webinar recently and learned a lot of great tips for teaching vocabulary and think the books would be excellent resources.

Another great resource for teaching vocabulary is ESL Library.  This site can only be accessed by paying for it, but it is well worth it.  There are so many great lessons at different levels.  There are many topics and each one picks out key vocabulary, shows the words used in a reading and allows for a lot of practice with the words.  I especially like particular lessons for building certain types of academic vocabulary such as debate language or persuasive language, as well as idioms.

More good vocabulary building sites:

Ways in which I teach vocabulary (many of which are pretty basic, but I’ll list them):

  • Cloze activities
  • Matching activities
  • Turn and talk with a partner using the word in a sentence
  • Write the word in a sentence, showing they understand it’s meaning
  • Recipe cards – pass out vocabulary words on recipe cards and students need to make a sentence using them and share it with the class.
  • Modelling – the teacher uses the word in a number of sentences, in a number of ways.
  • Multiple meanings – practicing and going over the multiple meanings of a words to fully understand them.
  • Repeating – hearing and saying the word (pronunciation)
  • Word walls and review
  • Labelling around the classroom
  • Explain what the word means to a partner
  • Synonym and antonym activities
  • Identifying words’ parts of speech
  • L1 (first language) translations and comparisons.  Be careful with this one though, especially if translating more than one word.
  • Word strips – cutting out words and then cutting the words in half and placing them in an envelope for students to assemble. This can be made into a fun competition.
  • Word sorts – getting students to sort words by parts of speech, tense, intensity, theme, whatever. It’s nice to write the words on recipe cards or bits of paper and get the students out of their desks and sticking them to the board with sticky tack in the correct category.
  • Games – one game I like to play involves a bit of preparation. Write vocabulary words on recipe cards with a basic definition of the word on the back of a different recipe card with a different word on the other side. One student begins by reading his/her word and the other students see if they have the matching definition.  The student who does, then flips his/her card over and reads the word on the back.  Who has the definition? Etc.
  • Skits – have students create skits using vocabulary words. They can read them to the class or memorize them for more practice.  They could also create a news broadcast or a talk show or podcast using the words.
  • Personal Dictionary – I encourage my students to keep a personal dictionary of new words that they learn each day. They should keep it simple though.  Too many words will be overwhelming.  3 to 5 words a day is enough.
  • Images – lots of pictures
  • Cognates – Are there any similar words in the students’ first language?
  • Collocations – How are the words used in different ways with particular words.

Using Technology to Assess and Practice Vocabulary Words.

  • Kahoot – create a Kahoot using the vocabulary words for some friendly competition and practice.  Students love this and if you don’t have one-to-one devices, they can use their phones.
  • Quizizz – create a Quizizz similar to a Kahoot or create a Quizizz that students do on their own and use it for formative assessment, matching words to definitions.
  • GoFormative – for practice or assessment. See my The EAL Connected Educator Blog post for more info. on this site.
  • Quizlet – this is an awesome site for learning and practicing vocabulary with either pictures or definitions. Students can study, practice with flashcards, practice spelling and writing words, matching and even play a live game in groups against others in the class.  My students love this!  In addition, you can get students to study and practice vocabulary words by creating their own quizlet with words they still need to learn.


Hopefully, some of this has been helpful.  In a future post, I’ll talk about how I teach unfamiliar vocabulary in context and support students with reading comprehension.  Please share any ways you teach vocabulary to your EAL students.  I’d love to learn some new activities/techniques!


Cummins, J. (2008). BICS and CALP: Empirical and Theoretical Status of the Distinction.

Hunt, A., Beglar, D. (1998). Current research and practice in teaching vocabulary. The Language Teacher 22, (1).

Laufer, B. (1992). How much lexis is needed for reading comprehension.  In H. Bejoint and P. Arnaud (Eds., Vocabulary and Applied Linguistics (pp.126-132). Macmillan.


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