English Learners

Strategies for Teaching Vocabulary to English Language Learners

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Imagine being a student enjoying a book and coming across a word you’ve never seen before. Or solving a math problem but not finding the words to express how proud you were. Vocabulary acquisition is a key component of comprehension, communication, and language learning for all students, especially English language learners. Having an extensive vocabulary not only helps in building connections, either between student to student or teacher to student, but it also facilitates in developing critical thinking skills in any subject area. Read on to learn why vocabulary building is important for ELL students, what factors influence vocabulary levels, the benefits of teaching vocabulary to ELLs, and practical strategies for effective vocabulary instruction.

A note on language: Students who are learning English come from a range of cultural, linguistic, and educational backgrounds. We use multilingual learner, English language learner, ELL students along with the acronym ELL, but we recognize that any label is imperfect.

Why Is Vocabulary Important for English Language Learners?

Developing a robust vocabulary helps ELL students understand and express ideas effectively. This, in turn, empowers them to participate in classroom discussion as well as social situations to build relationships. Having a strong vocabulary gives students the confidence to share their thoughts and ideas in both writing and speaking.

Acquiring a rich vocabulary is also closely tied to reading comprehension, as shown in one study. When students know more words, they can better understand text, either while reading a passage or listening to a lesson. Students can then learn to make connections and draw conclusions.

What Factors Influence ELL Students' Vocabulary Levels?

ELL students' vocabulary levels are shaped by several factors, including their general language ELL proficiency levels in the target language, age of acquisition, cultural immersion, and the quality of language support. Language proficiency, or the ability to use the language effectively in both written and spoken communication during real-life interactions, can vary among individual students. Additionally, research notes the brain's adaptability in acquiring different languages, contributing to differences in vocabulary acquisition. Additional factors such as length of exposure to the language, student’s motivation, and learning styles also come into play.

How to Teach Vocabulary to English Language Learners: ELL Vocabulary Strategies

Support language acquisition with these effective vocabulary development strategies for ELL students.

Tiered Vocabulary Instruction

Vocabulary words are not created equal. They can range from informal expressions to academic language. That’s why, when it comes to instruction, vocabulary words are categorized into three tiers based on their complexity: tier 1, tier 2, and tier 3. Tier 1 words are high-frequency words commonly used in everyday conversation, such as sight words, like “look,” and nouns, like “dog.” These words are often learned through oral communication with peers. 

To further expand ELL students’ vocabulary, explicit instruction of tier 2 and tier 3 vocabulary is needed. Tier 2 vocabulary, or academic vocabulary, refers to words that appear frequently across subject areas and topics. They typically are found in literature and informational text, but not often used in conversation. Examples of tier 2 words would be, “analyze” and “perform.” Tier 3 words are classified as low-frequency, content-specific words. For example, when studying atoms in science, words like “electron” and “neutron” would be tier 3 vocabulary words. Providing tier 2 and 3 vocabulary instruction helps multilingual learners grasp more complex concepts and achieve success.

Contextual Learning

Encourage English language learners to learn words within the context of sentences, stories, or real-life situations. By associating new words with their usage, learners gain a deeper understanding and retain vocabulary more effectively. For example, ask students to use a graphic organizer, like a word map, to write words or draw pictures related to the new vocabulary word.

Co-Constructing Ideas

Co-constructing is a collaborative process where students explore ideas together to deepen their understanding. This interactive learning approach goes beyond merely expressing ideas. When co-constructing, guide students in making informed decisions, prompt students to respond to their peers’ ideas, and probe students’ reasoning. Tools like response frames can help students engage in co-constructing, as they provide a scaffold to support verbal and written responses.

Peer Collaboration

Collaborative learning is an instructional strategy that allows students to gain insights from each other and can be particularly beneficial for ELL students. Whether through group work or partner activities, working with peers promotes natural language practice. Through this approach, students can exchange ideas, ask questions, and create a cohesive classroom community. Dr. Kate Kinsella, English language development (ELD) expert, practitioner, and author of HMH’s English 3D, created the 4 Ls of Productive Partnering to help with structuring group and partner interactions. The 4 Ls establish expectations during peer collaboration. They are:

  1. Look at your partner’s eyes.
  2. Lean toward your partner.
  3. Lower your voice.
  4. Listen attentively.

Download a poster on the 4 Ls of Productive Partnering to use in your classroom below.

What Are Some Ways to Assess ELL Students’ Vocabulary Progress?

Progress monitoring assessments offer valuable insights on how students are developing vocabulary as well as the effectiveness of instruction. This information helps tailor teaching to meet students’ specific needs.

Prior to assessing vocabulary progress, it is important to pinpoint students’ English language proficiency levels to know where students are when they first enter the classroom. WIDA—an organization that develops and provides tools and support to help multilingual learners—provides assessments for identifying, placing, monitoring progress, and evaluating achievement in English language acquisition. These assessments cover four language domains: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. One of the WIDA assessments gauges English language proficiency on a scale of 1 to 6 as described in the chart below. 


Learner Vocabulary Behaviors



Student uses visuals for content-area language, responds with language chunks to commands, but may make errors when following basic oral directions.



Student uses general content-related language, utilizes short phrases or sentences, and may produce phonological, syntactic, or semantic errors when responding to multi-step commands or questions.



Student uses general and specific content language, extends sentences into paragraphs, but may have errors in phonology, syntax, or semantics in oral or written narrative descriptions.



Student uses specific and technical content language, utilizes diverse sentence lengths with varying linguistic complexity in paragraphs, and demonstrates minimal phonological, syntactic, or semantic errors when speaking or writing.



Student uses specialized content language, varies sentence complexity in oral and written work, and performs at the level of English-proficient peers with grade-level material.



Student uses specialized content language, varies sentence complexity in extended oral and written discourse to meet grade-level requirements, and communicates in English on par with English-proficient peers.

Once proficiency levels are identified and vocabulary instruction is underway, the following assessments can be used to monitor ELL students' vocabulary progress.

Shadowing and Observational Data

Closely observe ELL students as they participate in classroom activities and engage with peers and other teachers through the research-based process called shadowing. Make note of their language, interactions, and understanding and participation during academic discussions. Identify strengths and needs. This observational data provides an understanding of the ELL students' language development. Use these insights to modify instruction.

Language Development Portfolios

A language development portfolio is a collaborative tool used by teachers and students to document language growth over an academic year. The portfolio evolves over time and becomes a reference point for analyzing student work and adjusting instruction. It can be shared with families and showcased in culminating events. This approach not only tracks but also celebrates language development throughout the academic year.

To build a student’s portfolio, collect evidence of language growth, such as written work, recordings, and assessments, to document students’ progress over the academic year. Ensure that the portfolio becomes more comprehensive as it covers various aspects of student work. Share the portfolio with families, providing them with insights into their children’s language development.

Vocabulary Quizzes

Give periodic vocabulary quizzes to evaluate students’ vocabulary knowledge. English 3D provides formative assessments like the Daily Do Now, which serves a quick quiz to check in on students’ understanding throughout the lessons. 

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ELL Vocabulary Strategies: A Path to Language Success

By implementing strategies tailored to individual needs, teachers can foster a deeper understanding of English vocabulary and its application in real-life contexts for English language learners. These strategies empower students to communicate, comprehend, and connect with confidence. ELL vocabulary strategies remain a cornerstone for nurturing multilingual learners’ linguistic proficiency, enabling them to thrive in both in and out of school.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


Address the range of English learners' needs with our English language development programs.

Download our free guide to using response frames with multilingual learners.

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