Vocabulary: The Building Blocks of ELL Understanding

American classrooms are going to look a lot different at the end of this decade (and that’s a good thing)

By Scott Sterling

By the end of this decade, it has been estimated that one quarter of the nation’s students will be, at some level, English language learners. Although these students represent an opportunity to create a large group of the multilingual workers that the 21st century economy desperately requires, we first need to meet their needs in the American system.

The White House understands this. Last month, part of the Obama administration’s budget called for $773 million to be spent on ELL education initiatives, an increase of $36 million over the last fiscal year. Much of the plan for this money focuses on outreach, making sure ELL education becomes a more holistic process that welcomes not only students but also their families.

On the classroom front, you can be assured that new strategies will be introduced. But they will still have limited success unless students have a thorough grasp on the building blocks of understanding: vocabulary skills.

We’ve all been in a situation in which the language being used goes way over our heads. It might have been in a foreign language class, watching a complicated TV show, or reading materials outside of our field of study. If you want some insight into how an ELL student might feel in your English-speaking classroom, read a medical journal sometime. You’ll then know what it means to understand only a fraction of words.

Vocabulary words are organized into tiers to make it easier to understand what a student already knows, should know, and what will require direct instruction to synthesize.

Tier 1 – Everyday speech

These are the words that we use every day. For native speakers, they tend to be sight words when reading. They are also the first words acquired by someone learning a new language. If an ELL student is in a mainstream classroom, they probably have a thorough understanding of these words already. They include easy nouns like book and food, as well as verbs such as walk, run, and read.

Tier 2 – Academic words

These are words that have an academic connotation but are probably used cross-curricularly, such as equation or analysis. They tend to be used more in reading than in speaking, so auditory ELL students are at a disadvantage.

Tier 3 – Domain-specific words

Remember the medical journal example? The words that would trip you up would be Tier 3, specific words in a specialized domain. In classrooms, that would include words like onomatopoeia and mitosis, and usually be found in informational text.. Although ELLs would naturally struggle here, direct instruction is only necessary when the words appear during work, otherwise it’s difficult for them to connect the word to the usage.

Keeping these tiers in mind, what should the mainstream classroom teacher focus on when an ELL student starts struggling in vocabulary?

  • Pictures always help. Although it might be a challenge to draw anything other than Tier 1 words (it’s hard to draw a picture of onomatopoeia), the process of figuring that out is very beneficial to any student, particularly an ELL.
  • Have realistic expectations. If you’re conducting direct instruction of vocabulary, don’t overload students with dozens of words per week, especially if they are Tier 3 words that won’t be used very much. Only give them enough to be able to move along with your lessons.
  • Don’t forget your best practices. You can still work through your pre-assessment strategies when it comes to vocab. In fact, it’s even more important for ELL students. You might be able to head off some frustration if you can directly instruct what they don’t know before they get stuck in a lesson.


A lot of this was adapted from a new Marzano Center course, “Vocabulary for Learning”, but it only scratched the surface of that work. There might never be a better time than now to beef up your vocabulary toolbox.

Want more tips and recommendations for using specific instructional strategies in a standards-based classroom? Visit the Learning Sciences bookstore. Most of the books in the award-winning Essentials for Achieving Rigor series are now available!

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