Thursday, September 22, 2016

Enhancing Vocabulary in ESL Learners

Differentiating lessons is sometimes difficult to do with many types of learners and different student populations such as English Language Learners, Special Education, and Gifted and Talented students all within the same classroom walls.  Here are ten helpful tips to ensure that your English Language Learners (ELL/ESL) are understanding your lessons and truly soaking in the academic vocabulary from your class.

1. Interactive Notebooks.  Notebooks are a great way to teach your students organizational skills and promote more reading and writing within your classroom regardless of what content you teach.  My ESL students' notebooks were like their bibles because they were so rich with information which enabled these students to truly succeed in class.  Their notebooks were filled with highlighted notes, pictures, foldables, and other graphic organizers which helped students simplify their learning and served as a great tool for studying before a quiz or exam.

2. Making Models. ESL students always needs visuals to help solidify their learning of new academic vocabulary and what better way to do this than to have the students build or create a model of something they are learning about.  This is an engaging and fun way to make the vocabulary come alive! Check out the bacterial and viral models made by my ESL biology students.  We later used these at open house to infect all the parents! Making models with food or candy is also always fun and provides the students with an instant sweet treat afterwards such as the DNA candy models shown below with the "Picture This" strategy. I love using pictures for directions because the language barrier is taken out of the picture and students just have to "figure it out" based on the pictures. This encourages collaboration between students to ensure the end result is correct.

 3.Role Playing. Many students are kinesthetic learners and need to make or do something to reinforce their learning.  This strategy is a great way to get your students up and out of their seats during the learning process.  They now take on the role of a specific vocabulary term or process and become one with it.  This can easily be done with yarn necklaces using words or pictures. The sample pictures illustrate how my students took on the role of different parts of the protein synthesis process and worked together to make a polypeptide chain.  Popsicle sticks are also a cheap, quick, and easy way to turn any lesson into a role playing activity.  Just use tape or glue to attach the image or word on the stick and voila, you now you have a quick role playing tool.

4. Interactive Vocabulary. An inexpensive way to make quick and easy vocabulary lessons is by incorporating index cards.  I use the colored variety with my ESL students to stress the importance of prefixes and suffixes.  Students can easily see how the root word stays the same, but the definition changes slightly based on the prefix (i.e. autotroph vs heterotroph or multicellular vs. unicellular).  I always have my ESL students paste or tape these into their interactive notebooks and place simple one or two word definitions underneath the flaps.  If the word ever comes up again and they are stuck on what it means, I have them use their notebook to look it up.  This empowers these students to find the answers on their own using the tools that are available to them.

5. Index Card Activities.  As you can probably tell by now, index cards are one of my go-to teacher tools for great student-centered vocabulary lessons.  I love them because they are so versatile when it comes to stressing vocabulary in the classroom. During every unit we always had an index card vocabulary activity to reinforce the academic vocabulary.  Sometimes students would only have half a word and have to find their other half and provide me a definition or example as a pair.  This encouraged group collaboration and also promoted the speaking strand from the ELPS (English Language Proficiency Standards).  In a different unit they may have to find their twin and explain why it is important in the current unit we are studying and what vocabulary words are associated with the images provided.  These can also be used as a matching, sequencing, or grouping activity. These short and fun vocabulary lessons can be created on the fly and can be used for quick warm ups, reviews, or exit tickets.

6. "I Am" Poems.  Most students, especially ESL students, are not big fans of writing because they feel limited in how they can express themselves in an unfamiliar language.  Sentence stems are a great way to give students that extra push and help start off their writing (which is another strand of the ELPS).  I love "I Am" poems because now students use first person and become a vocabulary term.  They normally have to write out their function, justify why they are important, and explain how they compare to another vocabulary word.  This helps students make connections between words in a non-intimidating fashion.  This also ensures that students cannot cheat or copy off each other because each student is given a different word.  An example of an "I Am Poem" that one of my ESL students created is below.  The underlined portion is the sentence stem that was provided to the student.  In this particular poem each student in the class was given a different cell organelle to personify in their poem.
"I am a chloroplast.  
My function is to convert energy from sunlight to food.  
I am green because I have chlorophyll. 
I am found in a plant cell.  
I am similar to a mitochondria because I use energy. 
I am a chloroplast."

7. Student Made Dictionaries.  Many teachers with ESL students are given a class set of dictionaries for students to use throughout the school year.  Within my first few years as a secondary science teacher of ESL students, I rarely saw students using these dictionaries even when highly encouraged to do so.  So I decided we were going to make our own that were a little more user or student friendly and that only had the academic vocabulary that my students needed to learn.  I have organized these different ways throughout the years, sometimes grouped by unit or content; but, my favorite version so far has been the Dictiona-Ring which is illustrated above.  Each student had their own ring which took us part of a class period to set them up.  We used index cards (white and multi colored) and student hand held one-hole punchers.  Students then organized the cards in their rings alphabetically as we went through them in class.  This made the words easier to locate in the future and it also taught the students how real dictionaries actually work.  We always wrote the word in the front of the index card and drew a picture and a simplified definition was placed on the back with important key words highlighted.   When my students were assessed they were always allowed to use their personal dictionaries.  By the end of the year their dictionaries had grown tremendously and were worn out, but the students could reflect back on all of the words they learned throughout the year.  This is also a great strategy to use to review academic vocabulary before a major exam or state assessment which can be taken home by the students to be used as a study tool and separated out into individualized flash cards.

8. Play-Dough Creations. Play-dough always makes things more fun and engaging for students because students can let their creativity juices run free to create masterpieces that represent academic vocabulary.  The great part about play-dough vocabulary is there is never a wrong answer because all students think differently.  This creates a safe risk-free learning environment because if a student messes up, they just smash and roll up the dough and try again!  Working with play-dough is also a great stress reliever for both students and teachers!

9. Vocabulary Sticks or Strips. Popsicle sticks is probably my second favorite go-to teacher tool, because just like index cards, they are so versatile when it comes to their functional abilities within the classroom.  I use Popsicle sticks for student randomization, to vary questioning verbs, and for reviewing critical vocabulary.  Students randomly choose a Popsicle stick or strip (from sentence strip paper) and have to possibly create a flash card for the word wall, they might have to design a sculpture using play-dough, or act it out silently during a class vocabulary review game.  Great way to provide options for your students and promote student choice in your class.

10. Interactive Word Walls.  In my ESL Biology class we had an ongoing interactive word wall which I titled the Dissect-A-Word Wall. Using simple bulletin board paper, tape, and index cards my students and I added common prefixes and suffixes found in the biology academic vocabulary throughout the year.  Under each prefix and suffix was a simplified one or two word definition.  This word wall was interactive and stood in front of the class near the projector or board so when we ran into a prefix or suffix we had already learned I would have a student come up to the wall and remind the class what it meant. We would then try to figure out the new meaning of this new word together based on what we already knew.  My students were also allowed to use it during their assessments.  They could just stand up and silently use the wall to help them understand a specific question or answer on their assessment. It was a living bulletin board as we added new parts of words as they came up throughout the year.

I hope these tips will give you some ideas to use in your classroom to ensure that your ESL/ELL students are truly understanding the meaning of and applying the academic vocabulary from your content area into their permanent vocabulary bank.  Please feel free to share any other ideas or strategies that have worked well for you and your students.  Happy Teaching!


  1. Very informative and some great ideas!! sharing w some of my BIL teachers

    1. Thank you so much! Yes, please feel free to share!