What’s in a word? Vocabulary, Vocabulary, Vocabulary

KidsA native English speaking child enters kindergarten with a vocabulary of approximately 5,000 words.  Imagine a child entering kindergarten who has a working English vocabulary of 1,000, or 200, or maybe even 0 words in which to use to communicate.  Now imagine that it takes a student 10 to 16 times to learn a new word (busyteacher.org).  How can a teacher teach/help support their ELL students vocabulary learning?

First of all, what is the English language? Should you include slang?  Words with two meanings as a noun and a verb?  Idioms?  How about words from other languages:  French language words such as bar-be-que, espionage, saboteur, or Spanish language words such as tortilla?  Martial arts words?   British English such as mash-up?  Or, Australian English such as a walk-about?  Should we include words like blogging?  Googling? And, a new word is added every 98 minutes. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/8013859.stm)

The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words.  What about the average speaker?  We know up to about 36,000 words and the average English speaker uses between 5 and 10,000 words.  (For other fun facts, this website also addresses questions like, “Why is “w” pronounced “double u” and not “double v”? And, “Is there a name for the dot about “j” and “I”?”  Look for these excellent topics in another blog.)

How does a teacher decide which words to teach ELL students? 

Teachers often tell us that their ELL students speak English very well, yet have trouble on exams, and with reading and writing.  How can this be?  Jim Cummings, a leading expert in language learning and bilingual education, describes this phenomenon as BICS and CALP.  BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) is usually the first immerge for ESL students as it is used and reinforced on a daily basis.  CALP (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency) requires a more mindful, pragmatic approach, which has multiple opportunities for a student to use the words in a meaningful way to retain their vocabulary gains.

  • BICS – conversational fluency, person to person, conversational everyday language including pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar.  Use in everyday activities.  Generally develops first. (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills)
  • CALP-academic language, used in a school setting and the abstract language abilities required for academic work. A more complex, conceptual, linguistic ability that includes analysis, synthesis and evaluation. (Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency)

Okay.  So this makes sense.  Let’s talk more about the function of the words themselves.

You may have heard about Tier I, Tier II, and Tier III words (Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2002)). These Tiers categorize words based on how frequently a word is used, which words students know as they begin school, which words are generally academic, and which words are used in academic contexts.   Tier I words are the everyday words, while Tier II are generally academic, and Tier III are usually content specific.

Why is this important when thinking about our ELL students?  Remember our ELL students might not have any Tier I words or BICs, and will need to be taught the vocabulary to order lunch in school or find their bus.  Yet, ELL students also need Tier II or CALP words to access the class curriculum to learn concepts and apply critical thinking skills.  Where to begin?

What do you know about your ELL?

  • Where are they from? (Does the culture have both an oral and a written language?)
  • What is their native language? (What type of alphabet do they use?  Does it have cognates (similar words in English?))
  • What is their literacy in their native language? (Will they be able to transfer their reading and literacy skills to a new language? Language 1 to Language 2 transfer?)

How do students learn vocabulary?  Once you understand the ELL student’s language and literacy background think about how we learn language.

Four Ingredients for Learning a Language

  1. Exposure to the Language
  2. Opportunities for imitation
  3. Practice in a nonthreatening environment
  4. Reinforcement

(Center for Applied Linguistics (2007))

There is a lot to consider.  Think about the ELL student’s background, what vocabulary they need to know, and also think about the stages of acquiring new vocabulary.  According to busyteacher.org.

For a student to “effectively acquire new vocabulary, students must go through four essential stages”

  1. First, they notice a new word with help;
  2. Secondly, they recognize the word at first with help;
  3. Then later on they recognize it on their own;
  4. And lastly, they are able to both recognize and produce the word.



What can a teacher do now?  Here are just a few ideas:  develop and use visuals, word walls (bilingual word walls –even better!), opportunities to speak using the new vocabulary, play word games such as Bingo, develop personal picture dictionaries, create mind maps, word banks, and use fill in the blank and cloze reading activities.

Lisa Pye

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