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6 Questions to Support Multilingual Learners in Learning Content-Area Vocabulary

by Judie Haynes |

If teachers of multilingual learners (MLLs), whether they are in the general education classroom or in an ESL class, want to help MLLs to understand content-area texts, they need to use strategies that help students gain new academic vocabulary. Here are six questions that teachers should ask themselves.

1. How Should New Vocabulary Words be Taught?

MLLs generally have difficulty in learning new vocabulary implicitly. Implicit learning of new vocabulary usually requires independent reading of texts in English and frequent interactions with adults outside of the classroom. MLLs may not have access to either of these. In order to understand and use new content-area vocabulary, MLLs need direct, explicit instruction and multiple exposures to new words. They need to study cognates, prefixes, suffixes, and root words to enhance their ability to make sense of new words. They also need to learn how context clues can help them understand new words. In a textbook, for example, the definition can often be found after the key word and surrounded by commas.

2. How Should I Choose What Words to Teach?

I find that choosing five to seven vocabulary words that are absolutely essential to the concept that you are teaching works best with elementary age MLLs. Don’t overload students with new vocabulary. Introduce the vocabulary in a familiar and meaningful context and then again in a content-specific setting.

For example, in a unit on snowflakes, I took the students outside when it was snowing to show them how to catch a snowflake on their mittens. We discussed what it looked like and where students thought snowflakes came from. Then, I went to a website for young children, Study. Com. This website explains, using animated drawings, how snowflakes form. I introduced and pretaught vocabulary, such as snow crystalsdropletfreeze, and patterns. I provided experiences that help demonstrate the meaning of new vocabulary words: pictures, photographs, and YouTube videos were particularly helpful. For my youngest MLLs, I had students watch “Snowflakes,” by Caroll Burrell on YouTube.

3. Why Should I Use Visuals When Introducing New Words and Concepts?

Elementary-aged MLLs are usually visual or kinesthetic learners. When a teacher explains concepts and vocabulary without visual input, MLLS have very little understanding of the concepts being taught. It is helpful to use realia, pictures, photographs, graphic organizers, maps, and graphs. Add gestures to help students interpret meaning. Have students create their own visuals to aid their learning.

In the snowflake unit, for example, each student was assigned to draw a few content-specific vocabulary words. Their drawings were accompanied with labels, short phrases, or sentences to demonstrate comprehension of the new word, depending on their level of English language development.

4. How Can I Link New Vocabulary to What MLLs Already Know?

Teachers need to know what MLLs have already learned or experienced. They need to review relevant vocabulary that was already introduced, and highlight familiar words that have a new meaning. For example, in the snowflake lesson, “patterns” may have a different meaning that MLLS have already learned. Access the knowledge that students bring from their native cultures. Allow students to use Google to read information in their first language.

5. How Should I Group New Vocabulary?

Reading researchers Beck, McKeown, and Kucan divide vocabulary into three tiers:

  • Tier 1 includes basic one- to two-syllable words or phrases used in everyday conversation (e.g., whitecrayondesk). These are beginning vocabulary words that MLLs would have to learn first.
  • Tier 2 words are synonyms for Tier 1 words and transition words that mean andbut, and so. Other examples of transition words and phrases are ortoofurthermoreoverhowever, and in fact. A complete list of transition words can be found on Thought.Com. Transition words are particularly important to teach MLLs.
  • Tier 3 words are low-frequency multisyllabic words that MLLs would need to know when learning content-area information. In the snowflake unit, the words that I chose to introduce are Tier 3 words. They may not be found often outside of the classroom; it would be unlikely, for example, that students would use a word like crystal on the playground.

6. How do Word Walls Provide Ways for MLLs to Practice New Vocabulary?

Word walls are the keystone of vocabulary practice for MLLs. MLLs learn more effectively when they are given input into what words are on the word wall. There are a few general suggestions that I give teachers for word walls that make them more accessible to MLLs. First, they need to organize their words into categories and make walls that can be seen at a distance. I also like to have students make a portable word wall that they keep in their notebooks so that they have their vocabulary handy when they do homework. Teachers need to review unfamiliar vocabulary every day from the word wall. Students can work in pairs or groups to draw pictures to illustrate vocabulary words, make their own flashcards, or make their own dictionaries in their notebooks.

How do you support your students in learning content-area vocabulary? Please share in the comments, below.

About the author

Judie Haynes

Judie Haynes taught elementary ESL for 28 years and is the author and coauthor of eight books for teachers of ELs , the most recent being “Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence and Chronic Stress“ with Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz. She was a columnist for the TESOL publication "Essential Teacher" and is also cofounder and comoderator of the Twitter Chat for teachers of English learners #ELLCHAT.

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