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Vocabulary: the key to teaching English language learners to read.

The greatest challenge inhibiting the ability of English-language learners (ELLs) to read at the appropriate grade level is perhaps a lack of sufficient vocabulary development. While extensive reading is beneficial, these students must acquire the necessary vocabulary in order to read extensively. Both vocabulary breadth and vocabulary depth are of equal importance to reading performance. The use of cognates, teaching the meaning of basic words, and review and reinforcement are important steps in developing the vocabulary of ELLs. Direct instruction in vocabulary, combined with word-learning strategies, was also found to be effective. Ultimately, vocabulary knowledge is a critical component of reading comprehension.


What is the greatest challenge affecting those who are teaching students English as a second language? While initially the focus may be to teach them to speak English, it quickly becomes an extensive endeavor to teach them to become proficient readers. Although many of these students possess a fluent oral vocabulary, many English-language learners (ELLs) struggle with achieving the reading level necessary to function at the appropriate grade level. As a result, this leaves both the teacher and the students striving for a level of achievement that may not be quickly or easily attained. A review of the literature on effective practices for teaching vocabulary to ELLs revealed the learning predicament faced by these students, the need for continued attention toward vocabulary development, the importance of vocabulary breadth and depth, strategies for teaching vocabulary, and the important link between vocabulary and reading comprehension.

The Learning Predicament

When considering teaching vocabulary, perhaps one of the first dilemmas faced by teachers of ELLs is what to teach. Should the focus be on developing vocabulary or participating in extensive reading? In reality, ELLs need sufficient vocabulary in order to read effectively, while at the same time, extensive reading is a necessary component for acquiring a sufficient vocabulary. Although extensive reading has been found to help develop sight vocabulary, general vocabulary, and the knowledge of the target language (Renandya & Jacobs, 1997 as cited in Tran, 2006), explicit instruction can also help develop English language skills, especially with vocabulary (Coady, 1997 as cited in Tran, 2006). Furthermore, the minimum number of words needed for extensive reading to occur is believed to be somewhere around 3,000 to 5,000 words. Without the necessary vocabulary, teachers should not plan authentic text reading (Tran, 2006).

Needed Vocabulary Development

Considering the fact that students must acquire sufficient vocabulary in order to read extensively, there is a need for continued attention toward vocabulary development. While students learning to read in their first language have already acquired from 5,000 to 7,000 words before they begin formal reading in school, this word count is not commonly found among ELLs. For example, although there are no dependable estimates of the number of vocabulary words for Spanish-speaking ELLs beginning school or of the size of their vocabulary growth attained during a school year, the growth rate of Spanish-speaking ELLs are well below the level needed to even come close to their English only (EO) peers. Therefore, a "large and persistent" gap remains between the reading performance of ELL and EO students (August, Carlo, Dressler, & Snow, 2005).

Vocabulary Breadth and Depth

This disparity exists both in the number of words known (breadth) and the meaning of words (depth) of critical vocabulary knowledge. While breadth refers to the amount of words known, depth of word knowledge includes "all word characteristics such as phonemic, graphemic, morphemic, syntactic, semantic, collocational and phraseological properties" (Quian, 2002, p. 516). Not only do ELLs know fewer words than EO students, but that they know less about the meaning of these words. Perhaps of greatest significance, the dimension of vocabulary depth has been shown to be as important as vocabulary breadth in predicting the performance of ELLs on academic reading (Quian, 2002; August, Carlo, Dreseler, & Snow, 2005).

Vocabulary Strategies

Considering the importance of both breadth and depth of vocabulary, the question then becomes, what is the best method for providing quality instruction for the purpose of improving the vocabulary of ELL students? The following review of the literature is not intended to be prescriptive but may serve as a guide for possible effective strategies for improving vocabulary instruction. Several areas of importance in the research include the use of cognates, teaching the meaning of basic words, and the importance of review and reinforcement. We will also examine an English vocabulary enrichment intervention intended to teach useful words and word-learning strategies.

According to the research (August, Carlo, Dressler, & Snow, 2005), taking advantage of a student's first language has proven to be effective if the first language shares cognates with English. Cognates are defined as vocabulary items in two different languages that are similar both "orthographically and semantically" (August et al., 2005, p. 52). Considering the large number of cognate pairs between Spanish and English, there is a high possibility for transfer to occur for a large number of words. English-language learners may even be able to draw connections between cognate pairs on the basis of sound alone, benefiting not only students literate in Spanish but those who are limited only to oral proficiency. Therefore, cognate knowledge can be a powerful tool, due to the fact that many English words that share cognates with Spanish are also high-frequency words in Spanish.

Another important instructional practice is to make sure ELLs know the meaning of basic words. It is important that ELLs learn the labels for many words that English only students already know. These are the Tier 1 words which rarely if at all require instruction for English only students. For example, I may tell a student to pick up their pencil, a Tier 1 one word for EO students that requires no explanation but may be unknown to an ELL student. Therefore, it is important for ELL students to be given pictures or visual illustrations of these words as much as possible.

A lack of Tier 1 word knowledge will inevitably impede comprehension.

It is also important to provide ELL students with necessary review and reinforcement in their second language. One means of providing this is through read-alouds, followed by teacher-directed language development activities. These can be used to build oral language proficiency as well as to review and reinforce the meanings for words that were instructed throughout the read-aloud. Furthermore, due to the large gap between ELLs and English only students and the limited time available for teacher-directed instruction, student-directed reinforcement activities serve as an important part of the intervention efforts (August, Carlo, Dressler, & Snow, 2005).

Our question may then become, how can I put the research guidelines into practice in a mainstream classroom? An example is found in a study conducted by Carlo, August, McLaughlin, Snow, Dressler, Lippman, Lively, and White (2004). While the major goal of their research was to assess the impact of an English vocabulary enrichment intervention that combined direct word instruction with instruction in word-learning strategies on outcomes for ELLs, the researchers also wanted to test the impact of the same curriculum on EOs in the same classrooms. They found that a challenging curriculum which focused on teaching academic words, awareness of polysemy, strategies for inferring word meaning from context, and tools for analyzing morphological and cross-linguistic aspects of word meaning did improve the performance of both ELL and EO students equally. Therefore, the study confirmed the effectiveness of vocabulary intervention in mixed-language groups in mainstream classrooms.

A second goal of the study was to see whether improved vocabulary and word analysis skills would be associated with improved reading comprehension outcomes. The findings indicated that the intervention was effective in improving reading comprehension for both ELL and EO students, although the effects of reading comprehension were less dramatic than for word knowledge. However, the researchers noted that any improvement in reading comprehension that was measurable after a relatively brief curricular intervention which did not focus specifically on teaching comprehension to be significant.

Based on the results of the intervention, the researchers were able to develop a couple of important conclusions. First, they concluded that direct vocabulary instruction is effective with both ELL and EO learners if it incorporates various principles from previous research on monolingual English speakers and ELLs. Secondly, the researchers concluded that teaching children strategies for inferring the meaning of unknown words is effective with both ELL and EO learners if it builds on well-verified procedures, such as teaching explicitly how to use context clues, teaching morphological analysis, and teaching about cognates. Overall, the intervention was considered successful in its specific aim of enhancing reading skills and word knowledge.

Vocabulary and Comprehension

Just as the research on monolingual students indicated the importance of vocabulary knowledge on comprehension, it is also of critical importance to ELLs learning to read in English. According to Stahl and Fairbanks (1986), vocabulary knowledge has been identified as the most important indicator of oral language proficiency, which is particularly important for comprehension of both spoken and written language (as cited in Proctor, Carlo, August, & Snow, 2005). Some research has also indicated that the failure to recognize even 2% of the words in a specific text will limit comprehension (Carver, 1994; Hirsh & Nation, 1992 as cited in Proctor et al., 2005), making general vocabulary knowledge the single best predictor of reading comprehension (Freebody and Anderson, 1983 as cited in Proctor et al., 2005).

Therefore, vocabulary knowledge inevitably serves a "predictive role in the reading comprehension process among ELLs" (Proctor, Carlo, August, & Snow, 2005, p. 254).

The results of a research study by Proctor, Carlo, August, and Snow (2005) is indicative of the critical nature of vocabulary knowledge in relationship to reading comprehension for Spanish-speaking ELLs.

The goal of the study was to develop a research-based model of second language reading which was then applied to bilingual students who spoke Spanish as a first language.

The results indicated an important connection between vocabulary knowledge, listening comprehension, and reading comprehension, indicating "strong and significant relationships for all three pairs of variables" (p. 252). Not only did vocabulary knowledge directly affect reading comprehension, but had an indirect effect through its strong relationship with listening comprehension. In summary, vocabulary knowledge is a crucial component for improving English reading comprehension outcomes for Spanish-speaking ELLs.

Furthermore, a study by Quian (2002) intended to determine the contribution of vocabulary breadth and vocabulary depth (synonymy, polysemy, and collocation) upon basic reading comprehension. The results indicated that the depth of vocabulary knowledge and vocabulary breadth is positively and closely associated with the performance on reading tasks for basic comprehension. It was concluded that depth of vocabulary knowledge and vocabulary size were reliable predictors of basic comprehension, making vocabulary an important factor in reading assessment. Overall, the depth and breadth of vocabulary knowledge measures explained a considerable portion of the variance in reading comprehension scores, both of which are powerful predictors of reading performance.


In summary, I feel that the key to teaching English-language learners to become proficient readers may very well be achieved through quality instruction focusing on extensive vocabulary development. It is not enough to teach ELLs to speak English, but they should be given the opportunity to explore both the breadth and depth of their second language. While oral vocabulary and reading fluency are vital components for learning to read in English, depth of vocabulary knowledge is in great need of cultivation in order for ELLs to develop the necessary comprehension abilities that will perhaps elevate them to the level of their English only peers. Although there is no single program or prescriptive formula for achieving this goal, a teacher is not without a quality research base for starting.


August, D., Carlo, M., Dressler, C., & Snow, C. (2005). The critical role of vocabulary development for English language learners. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 20(1), 50-57.

Carlo, M., August, D., McLaughlin, B., Snow, C., Dressler, C., Lippman, D., Lively, T., & White, C. (2004). Closing the gap: addressing the vocabulary needs of English-language learners in bilingual and mainstream classrooms. Reading Research Quarterly, 39(2), 188-215.

Proctor, C., Carlo, M., August, D., & Snow, C. (2005). Native Spanish-speaking children reading in English: toward a model of comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97(2), 246-256.

Quian, D. (2002). Investigating the relationship between vocabulary knowledge and academic reading performance: an assessment perspective. Language Learning, 52(3), 513-536.

Tran, A. (2006). An approach to basic-vocabulary development for English-language learners. Reacting Improvement, 43(3), 157-162.


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Author:Wallace, Christopher
Publication:Reading Improvement
Date:Dec 22, 2007
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