Teaching Material | Teaching English Better

Vocabulary Strategies for English Language Learners

Vocabulary acquisition is a challenge English Language Learners (ELLs) face throughout their learning journey. To meet it, teachers must learn and use the most effective strategies. There are many different approaches and techniques teachers can use to teach vocabulary.

Previewing Unfamiliar Vocabulary

In preparatiing your lesson, scan the chapter you’ll be teaching to identify words that might slow down student comprehension of the text. Limit yourself to no more than five words per chapter since research has shown that students acquire new vocabulary faster if teachers focus on five to ten words a week instead of overwhelming students with lengthy lists. Before adding a word to your list, ask yourself how important the word is to the overall comprehension of the chapter and whether it will be difficult for the students to figure out the meaning of the word using context clues. Then, preview the new vocabulary words you’ve selected and discuss their meanings and uses.


Preview words that are essential for students to make meaning from the piece they’re reading. Add a visual element by posting important words on a word wall and extend student comprehension by creating an inference wall of images, artifacts, and evidence to help them make predictions based on prior knowledge and context.


Using Visuals

Remember the old saying, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’? Well, for English Language Learners this expression is especially true. Visual Cues in the classroom can be an important tool for language development. They help students comprehend and internalize new vocabulary.


Visuals help to clarify the meaning of new vocabulary if the written definition for the word is confusing or contains unfamiliar words. For example, consider the definition for the word “hand” — “a person who engages in manual labour.” Since some of your students might be unfamiliar with the term “manual labour,” includ a picture of a man working in a field to help explain the meaning.


So how do you find visuals to use in the classroom? The internet provides educators with access to dozens of free, searchable databases of images.


In addition to the visuals, ask students to draw their own picture to help them remember the meaning of new words. Since ELLs sometimes have difficulty expressing their thoughts in words, drawing a picture is an alternative that allows them to demonstrate their understanding and apply their knowledge of the new vocabulary. For a fun twist, students can even trade pictures with a classmate to see whether or not they can identify the vocabulary term they have drawn.


Providing Student-Friendly, Fill-in-the-Blank Definitions

Instead of asking students to look up vocabulary words in the dictionary, provide them with fill-in-the-blank definitions to ensure they all have accurate and comprehensible information for new terms. Very often students pick up the first definition they come across when looking up words in a dictionary. And since many words have multiple meanings, they would often write down the incorrect variation of the word. For example, if students were asked to look up the word “table” in the dictionary, they would find many different meanings for the word, including a piece of furniture, a type of chart, and to put off discussing something until a later time.


You can also use the fill-in-the-blank format rather than requiring your students to copy down the entire definition you provide them. This format is especially beneficial for a couple of reasons.


First, the fill-in-the-blank format allows your students to listen and think about the new vocabulary as you discuss it in class, without being sidetracked by trying to quickly copy down every word.


Second, it allows you to call attention to keywords in the definitions that will help them to remember the meanings. Intentionally leave a couple of the most important keywords as blanks so the students will pay careful attention to them as you’re discussing the definitions.


Vocabulary Term



A person who supervises others, especially workers



Highlighting Vocabulary Words in Context


It’s not only important to preview unfamiliar vocabulary before reading a text, but also to draw students’ attention to the vocabulary as the text is discussed in class. Whenever you come across a vocabulary word that’s being used in your textbook, pause, point out the word to students, and ask them to recall its meaning. If possible, encourage them to mark it with a highlighter. It’s critical for ELLs to see multiple examples of how new words are used in context  -rather than just studying them in isolation- to be able to commit the words to long-term memory and add them to their working vocabularies. The more repeated exposures students have to new words, the more likely they will be to define them, comprehend them, and remember them.


You can even turn finding words in context into a game by challenging your students to find examples of their vocabulary words on their own internet articles, advertisements, etc. You can reward students for every example they locate, turn it into a class competition, or even set a class goal.


Practicing With Graphic Organizers

In addition to having repeated exposures to new words, English learners must also be given the opportunity to organize information and ideas about the new vocabulary. Graphic organizers are a tool that allow students to visualize and make connections with new material.

Try the KIM strategy. KIM is an acronym that represents the three columns of the graphic organizer.

“K” stands for key idea or the vocabulary word the students are studying.

“I” stands for information or the student explanation of what the vocabulary words means.

“M” stands for memory clue or the drawing or example of the word that will help the student remember the meaning.


An example of the graphic organizer may look like this:

Key Word

Dictionary Definition

Your Definition
Write what it means in your own words.

Memory Clue

Draw a picture or write an example that will help you remember what this word means



A person in ______ and _________.





When it comes to vocabulary, don’t be afraid to try something new. You may discover an approach that’s just the right fit for the students in your classroom.