Sunday, March 4, 2012

Vocabulary Development for English Language Learners (Cárdenas-Hagan)

Dr. Elsa Cárdenas-Hagan is a Bilingual Speech Language Pathologist and a Certified Academic Language Therapist with a doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction. She is the Director of Valley Speech Language and Learning Center in Brownsville, Texas and works with the Texas Institute for Measurement Evaluation and Statistics at the University of Houston. Dr. Cárdenas-Hagan is the author of Esperanza (HOPE), a Spanish language program designed to assist students who struggle with learning to read. Her research interests include the development of early reading assessments for Spanish-speaking students in addition to the development of reading interventions for bilingual students. She is the Co-Founder of Brownsville READS!, a nonprofit organization to promote literacy. Elsa currently serves as a board member of the International Dyslexia Association.

Did you know that according to the United States Census Bureau (2010) there are over 11 million English as second language students in our schools? This student population represents more than 400 native languages spoken in the home. However, 80% of English language learners report Spanish as their first language. As educators, we must be prepared to meet the challenges of teaching this diverse population of students.

Fortunately, we now have some important research findings regarding effective literacy instruction for English language learners. One major resource is The National Literacy Panel Report on Language Minority Children and Youth (August and Shanahan, 2006). This report was funded by the US Department of Education and provides evidence on teaching reading and writing to language minority students. It also defines the gaps in the available research. This report explains that vocabulary is an area where English language learners lag behind their English-speaking peers. The report also describes the body of evidence for vocabulary knowledge as a predictor of reading comprehension. Therefore it is essential to implement evidence-based strategies for teaching vocabulary to English language learners.


Word Selection
Vocabulary words must be carefully selected. Beck, MeKeown and Kucan (2002) discuss three tiers of words. Tier 1 words are described as common, basic, every day words. Tier 2 words are academic words used in texts across multiple contexts. Tier 3 words are academic words that are discipline specific and very narrow in their usage. Examples of tiered words may be as follows:
Tier 1 Tier 2 Tier 3
boy chatter photosynthesis
table marvelous phoneme
chair precious cerebellum

Polysemous Words with Multiple Meanings
Tier 1 words are basic, common words. We might think our students know them, but these words often have multiple meanings. English language learners may need to consider the varied meanings of common words. For example, think of the word run. How many meanings can you generate for this word? Listed below are eight definitions of the word run, used as a verb.

Definition Example
To go or to move. I can run an errand.
To take part in a race. Jim will run in this weekend's marathon.
To be a candidate. Mario will run for president of the club.
To flow. The Rio Grande River runs through his property.
To extend or continue. Run the add through the weekend.
To operate. Patricia will run the governor's campaign.
To total. You can run the tab.
To recur persistently. He runs on end about his new car.

Further examples of basic words with multiple meanings include bat, sport, and light. Instructors can discuss these words with their students. Students might explore the multiple ways these words are used.

Explicit Instruction: Six Steps
We can teach English language learners word learning strategies. These strategies can become routines that not only increase vocabulary knowledge but also help to develop metalinguistic awareness. English language learners benefit from studying academic Tier 2 words, which occur across many contexts. These words must be explicitly taught. Steps for explicit vocabulary instruction as described by August and Shanahan (2006) include the following:
  1. Say and write the word.
  2. Provide a definition with familiar terms.
  3. Discuss what is known about the word.
  4. Provide examples and non-examples.
  5. Create sentences with the word.
  6. Engage in extended discussions with the word. 
With these steps, we can build a routine for our English language learners. Here are  examples that utilize the six steps, for teaching the academic word chatter.

1. Say and write the word:
One new word from our textbook today is the word chatter.
Let me write the word for you: chatter
Say the word after me: chatter.
Remember the word is chatter. It is not the word shatter.
Do you hear and see the differences between these two words?
2. Provide a definition with familiar terms:
One definition of the word chatter is to talk very quickly or rapidly (but usually not with an angry tone).
3. Discuss what is known about the word:
(click to expand, right-click to download)
Have you ever heard someone chatter? Give me an example of this. We know that people can chatter or speak rapidly, but did you know that chatter can also mean to click your teeth repeatedly? Your teeth can chatter. Let’s make our teeth chatter.
4. Provide examples and non-examples:
People can chatter with one another. Our teeth can chatter when we are cold. A glass light bulb cannot chatter, but it can break, or shatter. A table cannot chatter, but people can sit around the table and chatter.  Let’s discuss some pictures of this.
5. Create a sentence with the word chatter (or a form of the word):
  • The girls were chattering, so the teacher asked them to please quiet down.
  • My teeth were chattering when we were standing outside in the cold weather.

6. Engage in extended discussions with the word:
  • Can a dog chatter? Why or why not?
  • Can a teenager chatter? Why or why not?
  • Can a table chatter? Why or why not?

Bilingual Glossaries
(click to expand, right-click to download)
The use of bilingual glossaries can help English language learners reinforce their word learning. One example adapted from August and Carlo (2005) is below. Students complete the glossary with the teacher's help, and refer to it when speaking, listening, reading, and writing.

Morphological Awareness
Another word learning strategy for English language learners includes introducing the similarities among native language and English word parts. Students will not only build thousands of new English words, they can also make the connections for meaning across languages. Examples are listed below.

Spanish MeaningEnglishMeaning



before, in front of
re- otra vezre-back, backward, again
in- noin-not (also means 'in')
gram pesogramto write or draw; a unit of weight
vis vervisto see
kilo milokilothousand
-osis enfermedad-osisdisease, condition
-itis inflamación-itisinflammation
-or alguien que-orone who

Lastly, the use of cognates can be helpful for English language learners to expand their vocabulary knowledge. However, instructors must be aware that many false cognates exist. That is, some words are spelled and written in the same manner but have different meanings across languages. Some examples are listed below.

True Cognates

taxi taxi
hospital hospital
profesor professor
inteligente intelligent
explorar explore
False Cognates (meaning)
pie (foot) pie (a dessert)
largo (long) large (big)
arena (sand) arena (stadium)
carpeta (folder) carpet (floor covering)
idioma (language) idiom (figurative expression)

Colorín Colorado ( provides a list of Spanish and English cognates which can be helpful for instructors of English language learners.

In summary, English language learners benefit from explicit vocabulary instruction. It is necessary to provide them with multiple opportunities to use their recently acquired English vocabulary words. The use of word learning strategies which develop into routines can help English language learners to develop metalinguistic awareness for building word knowledge.

August, D.L. & Carlo, M. (2005). Success through academic interventions in language and literacy project. University of Houston TIMES. Houston, Texas.

August, D.L., & Shanahan, T. (2006). Introduction and methodology. In D.L. August & T. Shanahan (Eds.), Developing literacy in a second language: Report of the National Literacy Panel. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Beck, I., McKeown, M., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life. New York: The Guilford Press.

U.S. Census Bureau, retrieved January 2012. Fact Sheet for a Race, Ethnic, or Ancestry Group. Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau; available online at http://facfinder.