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SEVEN EFFECTIVE STRATEGIES for TEACHING VOCABULARY and other helpful vocabulary building activities

Janet E. Fichter K-6 ESL Teacher/Coach Jefferson County Public Schools

Seven strategies…

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IMPORTANT NOTE: These strategies all intertwine and work together… they are not mutually exclusive of each other.

Atmosphere Nebular Theory Elements Particles



WORD BANK grade space uhit)

Explosion Accumulation Rotation Accelerating Condensation Gaseous Undulating


“In the past, vocabulary instruction was often unplanned and incidental, primarily driven by student questions and ‘teachable moments’. When students encountered an unfamiliar word, they were directed to the glossary or a dictionary, or were given a quick oral definition. It’s not surprising that this limited, on-the-fly exposure did not result in long-term word learning. Students need

multiple exposures

to words in

multiple contexts

them. before they understand, remember and apply (Nage, 2005)

Why should we explicitly teach Vocabulary?

We can communicate by using words that are not placed in the proper order, words that are not pronounced perfectly, or words that don’t contain the proper grammatical morphemes, but communication often breaks down if we do not use the correct word.

What does it mean to know a word?

To…Grasp the general meaning in a familiar context?

To… Provide a definition?

To… Identify its etymology?

To… Use the word to complete a sentence or to create a new sentence?

To… Use the word metaphorically?

To…Understand a joke that uses homonyms?

Second language learners must learn to do all these things.


Visual scaffolding is an approach in which the language used in instruction is made more understandable by the display of drawings or photographs that allow students to hear English words and connect them to the visual images being displayed.

Internet images Teacher, student, parent-taken photographs Text illustrations Posters, Maps, Diagrams, Charts Videos Picture Dictionaries


Modeled Talk Use of Realia Gestures Acting out of concept / word

Modeled talk is the use of gestures, visuals and demonstrations as explanations are given. Modeled talk provides examples for learners to follow. It lowers their anxiety since they have seen the word or the directions modeled in a context.

The use of REALIA in the classroom supports ELL students by introducing real objects that can be seen, felt, and manipulated in a powerful way to connect vocabulary to real life.



Use with Movement words (verbs) …Such as prowled or stretched Use with tangible nouns …Such as objects, parts of a plant or body parts Use with descriptions (adjectives and adverbs) …Such as lackadaisically, frequently, slowly, quickly Use with concepts related to content …Such as transmission, transformation (3 rd grade electricity unit)


This strategy is similar to demonstration, but should be used when the concept requires a more lengthy demonstration, or when you are combining several related vocabulary terms.

Students are introduced to new vocabulary and given an opportunity to discuss and use the vocabulary in context through role-playing. Students can write and perform skits using several related words, or they can dramatize a concept in a newscast or something similar.

After pre-teaching a number of related words, model a short skit that incorporates them all. Then allow students the chance to do the same.


Vocabulary role-play provides the link between learning a new word and using the word in context or multiple contexts. Role-play enables the student to create experiences with which to link the new vocabulary.

Example: After hearing a read-aloud story about a cat students come up with their own story using the words Startled, Twitched, Prowled, Leaped and Crept.

Example: After learning some terms about the weather, students conduct a mock weather forecast with the requirement of utilizing those newly learned words.


Using a familiar person, explain the vocabulary term by referring to that person using the term many times.

Example: The word is “dictator”… You’ve already studied the Nazi Regime. You could say, “Adolph Hitler was a dictator because he controlled all parts of the Nazi government and anyone who challenged him was treated severely or killed.” Example: The word is “energetic”… you have several students in your class who are always full of energy. Describe them using the word. “Haley is very energetic because she is always out of her chair during class.” “Robert is energetic because he never stops running at recess.”


Use with adjectives that are more abstract and difficult to demonstrate.

Use when you have an opportunity to connect to content taught (or to characteristics naturally exhibited by people in your classroom/school.)


This strategy simply gives examples of terms and concepts you are teaching. It is most often used in conjunction with other strategies.

Example: You are teaching a biology unit on animal classification (Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Group, Species). As you explain the classification of VERTEBRATES and INVERTEBRATES, you can give tons of examples (using pictures, of course) of various animals that fit each category.

Example: For more abstract terms, such as “concentration.” You can bring in an example like, “A doctor really has to use a lot of CONCENTRATION” when performing surgery.


Use translation when you have the resources for native language translation, and you want to reinforce what you’ve already taught using one of the other strategies.

This strategy is also wonderful if your student is experiencing culture shock or difficulty acclimating to his/her new school environment.


Verbal definitions can be given to accompany the use of other strategies (for our students with verbal/linguistic intelligence). Listing Synonyms for a word is a complimentary strategy that really facilitates understanding. BUT WHAT ABOUT DICTIONARY USE?

7. DEFINITION – Talking Points

Dictionary and glossary definitions typically have been a primary vehicle for teaching words’ meaning. But they present some difficulties for ELL students. Multiple meaning words are particularly difficult.

The probability of a student remembering the meaning of a word from a single encounter with a dictionary is very low. Therefore, this strategy should always be the last resort. And the teacher should always explicitly model how to use a dictionary and how to choose the best definition of a word for the context. Unless your students have mastered dictionary use, the teacher should always give a verbal definition (in more easily understood language) in addition to the dictionary definition.

Only use this strategy when the word can’t be taught using the other 6 strategies. NOTE: most words are able to be taught using the other strategies.

Seven strategies + One…

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A Sample text

The Nebular Theory of universe formation explains that there was an accumulation of many gasses high in the atmosphere of the universe. When conditions were perfect, there was a powerful condensation of these gaseous materials which created an explosion. These particles began rotating at an accelerating rate; and the rotation sent undulating waves of dust and other elements in the universe throughout all of space. As the particles continued their rotation, they began to condense again, and the basic elements of each planet was formed.

Tools for Practicing Newly Learned Vocabulary

Strategies for practicing newly learned vocabulary


Picture Definition (in your own words) The elements of something are the parts that make up something bigger.

Example In the Michele Kwan story, one element of her skating program was that she had to do a jump.

Word: ELEMENTS Non-Example The way she styled her hair for her skating program wasn’t really an element of the skating program.

Tools for practicing newly learned vocabulary FRAYER MODELS: Allow students to visualize the word’s meaning… AS WELL AS to construct their own definition of a newly learned word… AND to give an example of the newly learned word. The NON-example shows that the student knows what the word does NOT mean.

Frayer Models take vocabulary learning one step further than simply using the word in a sentence.

Tools for practicing newly learned vocabulary


Example 1: I would connect the word GASEOUS with the word ATMOSPHERE because there are many gaseous materials in the atmosphere.

Example 2: I would connect the word ROTATION with the word UNDULATING because both words describe motions that occur in space.

*this strategy allows students to connect new words with words that are already in their known vocabulary. It can also be used when a series of related words are being taught in a learning unit.

Tools for practicing newly learned vocabulary


Example 1: Transmit is to Send as Transform is to Change (relationship = synonyms) Example 2: Gregarious is to Restrained as Outgoing is to Reserved (relationship = antonyms) *This strategy allows the student to explore word relationships. You will find similar questions on CSAP!

Natural Walk March Run Limp + -


Hurried + + Forward + + + + One Foot on Ground + + + An attribute chart allows students to compare vocabulary words. It can help them choose the most accurate word for what they want to describe. Semanticists use attribute charts as a general framework to analyze word meanings.

There are a million ways for students to practice newly learned vocabulary Word / Sentence Walls Word Sorts Vocabulary Self Collection Strategy with text Student created and maintained vocabulary dictionaries Cloze Sentences Vocabulary Games Talk Show / Skits Mnemonics Chants And many more!


-- Echevarria, Jana, Vogt, MaryEllen, and Short, Deborah J. Making Content Comprehensible for English Learners: The SIOP Model. Pearson Education, Inc., Boston, MA, 2004.

-- Herrell, Adrienne L. and Jordan, Michael. 50 Strategies for Teaching English Language Learners. Prentice Hall, Columbus, NJ, 2008.

-- Lightbown, Patsy and Spada, Nina. How Languages are Learned. Oxford University Press. New York, NY, 2006.

-- The Total Integrated Language Approach, by Dr. Abraham Gonzales.