For my research I chose to focus on the vocabulary aspect of language acquisition. As I contemplated my current students and what I feel I most need to be able to do for them is to help them build vocabulary. The everyday language known as "Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills" (BICS) (according to Jim Cummins) develops sooner and more easily than "Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency " (CALP), the academic language. This tells me that my students will pick up the structures of language and patterns of conversing incidentally (and at three years of age they are very receptive to it), but even most of my native English speakers have limited vocabularies due to their age and experiences. So it is my job to bolster their knowledge of the world and to give them the words to discuss it. Different speakers in online videos suggested strategies for building language and vocabulary. However, I wanted to focus more intensely on this as I prepare for the beginning of a new school year with all-new students.
This paper addresses strategies that have proven successful in building vocabulary in English language learners, from read-aloud's focusing on new vocabulary to activating prior knowledge and selecting leveled text. Vocabulary instruction can be explicit, or after a certain level is reached, it occurs incidentally as students read. There are many strategies to assist EESL
Vocabulary is without a doubt a fundamental building block if a student is to be successful in the area of literacy. Yet this area is a major struggle for students who are new to the country or who have yet to master English. Teachers can teach strategies for decoding and can teach children to read, but without a strong vocabulary the spoken words will have little meaning to the student. "Although many of these students possess a fluent oral vocabulary, many English as a second language (ESLs) struggle with achieving the reading level necessary to function at the appropriate grade level," (Wallace, 2007). Before students are able to read and comprehend text, they must have a large repertoire of words that they can read and understand. "The minimum number of words needed for extensive reading to occur is believed to be somewhere around 3,000 to 5,000 words" (Wallace, 2007). Contrastively, students learning to read in their primary language already know 5,000 to 7,000 words (Wallace, 2007). This very obviously leaves a large gap between the words known by ESL students and EO students, making reading a much more difficult task for the former group. ESL students need both breadth and depth of words, as vocabulary knowledge is a strong predictor of reading comprehension. It also impacts listening comprehension (Wallace, 2007).
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In one study the Text Talk approach was used in a kindergarten classroom. Prior to the intervention there was a significant difference in the vocabulary knowledge of the English-only (EO) students as opposed to the English language learners. Using the Text Talk approach along with English as a Second Language (ESL) techniques such as visual illustrations and acting the words out, the English language learners were able to close the gap. Additional research has shown that specific vocabulary strategies have yielded similar gains for EO and ESL students (Manyak, 2009). Not only were significant gains made in vocabulary, smaller gains were made by both groups in the area of reading comprehension.
Some might downplay the need for specific instruction in vocabulary, but studies show that students benefit from specific vocabulary instruction. For example, teachers should point out and help students become aware of cognates. Cognates are "vocabulary items in two different languages that are similar both 'orthographically and semantically'"(Wallace, 2007). To educators, it might seem quite obvious that words that look similar in another language could in fact have the same meaning, but studies have shown that emergent bilingual students noticed less than half the cognates in material they were presented (Manyak, 2009). Languages such as Spanish share many cognates with English, allowing for a large amount of transfer for students who know to look for them. Students would benefit from explicit instruction of even basic vocabulary using materials from Increasing Fluency with High Frequency Word Phrases. This includes using child-friendly definitions and giving examples of word usage. These Tier I words usually do not need to be taught to EO students, but ESL students may not know the words. Wallace suggests using pictures or other visual aids to support ESL students with these basic words (Wallace, 2007). Pictures are particularly suited to using with new nouns. Teachers can show pictures of both examples and non-examples (Swanson, 2007). Tran (2006) points out that "Coady (1997) believed a group of 2,000 to 3,000 high-frequency words should be studied until they become sight words." This starts with the 220 Dolch words that cover very basic words.
In addition to basic words, instruction should also cover some higher-level words, particularly those that are subject-matter specific and related to the content being covered (Cummins' CALP). After Dolch words are master there is a General Service List of English Words (GSL) that can be used. It contains 2,000 high-frequency words which cover 87% of general text (Tran, 2006). GSL also gives information about the words' relative frequency and the meaning of each entry. Since students must learn many more words than can be explicitly taught, it is also important that teachers give students strategies for inferring the meaning of words. Strategies for inferring include noticing cognates, explicit instruction in using context clues, and morphological analysis (Wallace, 2007).
As with anything taught to ESL students, basic strategies can enhance presentation, such as slowing speech, using realia, simplifying speech, and using tools such as graphic organizers (Manyak, 2009). As with any classroom, it is important that the environment be a safe place for students to express ideas and speech (Swanson, 2007). Students should feel comfortable sharing without the fear of ridicule or criticism, which will keep the affective filter for students low. There are also vocabulary-specific programs such as Vocabulary Visits that Manyak suggests (Manyak, 2009). This approach is particularly effective for teaching younger students vocabulary. Making sure to review and reinforce new words is something that most teachers know to do, but might be need to be reminded to implement, especially when it comes to even more basic words that ESL students will need assistance in learning. Read-alouds should be followed with teacher-directed activities in language development. Due to limited time, student-directed activities are also importance (Wallace, 2007).
Simplified reading materials are particularly beneficial to ESL students because they allow for repetition of high frequency words while limiting difficult vocabulary words (Tran, 2006). Because there are usually many different levels of text, it is easier to differentiate based on student's abilities, with the best fit being a text that is slightly difficult; the text should be comprehensible to the student but just difficult enough that the student will have to put forth effort and can pick up some new vocabulary from it. The number of new words should be limited so students will not be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of them and can focus on making meaning of the new vocabulary presented. It is important that students see a new word repeatedly and have opportunities to read it, write it, and say it to increase the likelihood of the student remembering the word and being able to add it to their repertoire (Swanson, 2007).
Research also supports the value of extensive reading, defined as both a large quantity of reading materials and also a focus on meaning as opposed to language. This can benefit students in the areas of developing "sight vocabulary, general vocabulary and the knowledge of the target language" (Tran, 2006). One technique for increasing word knowledge is the use of a word map (Swanson, 2007). A word map provides a definition of the new word, a synonym, an antonym, and either a picture or a sentence using the word. This allows the student to think about the new word in a variety of ways and to see how it can be used in a different context. As for the quantity of materials, Krashen considered students reading on their own superior to direct instruction, and other researchers found it to benefit spelling, grammar, and writing in addition to vocabulary. However, other researchers warn against expecting students to learn vocabulary incidentally until they have a base of about 3000-5000 words in their vocabulary. For that reason, Tran suggests that to best develop vocabulary students be given graded text or materials specifically written for ESL students. Shorter passages may be read in one sitting, or divided into shorter segments to be read over a number of sessions. As students' reading comprehension improves, they can be given increasingly longer passages to read (Tran, 2006).
Some research has shown intentional teaching of vocabulary strategies is more effective with older students, and is also more beneficial when it is interactive. Some ways to explicitly teach vocabulary involve word notebooks and dictionaries. Students can keep word notebooks or word cards. A word card consists of a new word along with notes on how to use that particular word. Notebooks can also be used for students to keep track of new words, like in a personal dictionary. Bilingualized dictionaries can also be very useful, providing a L1 translation, an L2 definition, and an example sentence in the L2. Students tend to remember words better when they are explained in their L1 as opposed to the L2 (Tran, 2006). However, teachers should steer clear of having students copy definitions out of the dictionary (Swanson, 2007). The teacher should also inform students that the dictionary is a tool for learning a word's meaning, but not necessarily a valuable tool for students to regurgitate in writing.
When vocabulary activities are teacher-centered, teachers can teach words pertaining to the passage being read and give strategies for developing vocabulary and reading comprehension. When the activity is more learner-centered, the student should identify vocabulary needed the reading in question and try to learn the new words to gain understanding of the text (Tran, 2006). Related literacy activities such as listening to a song or a recording of the text, or watching a movie clip with subtitles and also aid in new vocabulary retention. Students can also be asked to summarize what they read, either orally or in writing.
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Teachers should also provide students with opportunities to read and write new words. Younger students would benefit from choral reading to give them a good model of the proper pronunciation. Older students may want to read the text multiple times. Teachers may want to explicitly point out differences between writing in the L1 and L2 (Swanson, 2007). These might be particularly beneficial to students when the writing system is close but not identical. For example, in Spanish the /h/ sound is written with a g or a j, but not with an h as in English. Keeping this in mind, when presenting text for ESL students to read, teachers should select text where there is the same letter-sound correlation as much as possible so it will be easier for reading. For example, in Spanish, most of the consonants have the same sounds, so students whose L1 is Spanish can easily decode many words in English. Teachers themselves need a strong understanding of language and how it works so they can make it accessible to their students. Having a working linguistic knowledge of English will help teachers in pinpointing areas where ESL students might need specific instruction.
New words can also be kept track of on a word wall, along with a definition of the word. Prior to reading a new text, teacher can also provide context by giving students a preview of the reading. The teacher can select material that will capture the students' interest, and then ask a question to prompt discussion. Finally, the teacher can give an overview before the class begins the new reading material (Swanson, 2007).
Students should also be taught to monitor their reading and keep track of what it is they do not know (Swanson, 2007). Swanson surmises that even young students know what it is they do not know, and teachers can assist beginning English speakers by asking them what words they would like to know. Teachers should keep in mind that idioms do not translate well across languages, and idiomatic speech must be explained to students or they will likely take the phrases literally and they will appear nonsensical.
Drawing on students' background knowledge as it relates to the literacy presented also helps students retain new vocabulary (Hickman, 2004). The vocabulary should be taught in the context of the literature and subject matter in which it will be used instead of as a separate vocabulary list. New vocabulary should be related to the content area being studied, and students benefit from semantic mapping and word family associations. Teachers might find themselves steering away from vocabulary that is more abstract and harder to visualize, but students need to be taught these words as well. Students' understanding of vocabulary grows from in-depth discussion of new terms guided by the teacher. Text should be culturally relevant and easy for students to relate to so that new vocabulary can be incorporated in students' minds (Hickman, 2004).
Read-aloud's can also be extremely constructive, especially if teachers make a conscious effort to highlight vocabulary and adhere to certain guidelines for instruction. Materials for read-aloud's should be one to two grade-levels above what students can currently read. Reading books that are related thematically allow repeat exposure to new vocabulary and provide a basis from which students can generalize about words and gain a deeper understanding of the content being studied (Hickman, 2004). Based on studies of first-grade students, Hickman suggests a book be broken into three to five segments of 200-250 words each being read on successive days, with the entire selection being read the day after the final passage is completed. A smaller passage allows for the introduction of fewer new vocabulary words and allows the teacher time to delve into the meaning of the new words and to explore how they are used in the text. On the final day the teacher should review four or five challenging new vocabulary words to help solidify them in students' brains. Word choice is vital, with research suggesting that Tier 2 words that can be used across content areas are good choices. These are the types of words that can often be seen in academic text and on assessments. Suggested questions to consider when selecting vocabulary are as follows: "Will learning this word enable students to better discuss their own experiences because the word can be used with words the student already knows?" "Will this word lend itself to a deeper understanding of the content?" (Hickman, 2004).
The teacher can select three to four words from the reading selection and then write definitions from them in child-friendly terms. Before reads the text, the text, the teacher previews the material and gives the students the vocabulary words that are the focus, one at a time. The students repeat the word and the teacher gives a definition that is in line with the students' knowledge of English and uses simple and familiar words. Then the teacher presents the word in its written form displayed on an index cards, and then moves on to the next new word. The teacher then instructs the students to listen for the key vocabulary words before reading the text straight through. After the read-aloud, students are encouraged to retell the text using the key vocabulary words. Students who are listening to verify the accuracy of information other students give with a simple thumbs-up / thumbs-down. First the teacher asks for an account of the text, and then asks an open-ended question, and then an inferential one.
After closing the discussion, the teacher rereads the text, asking students to listen for the featured vocabulary words and showing a thumbs-up when they hear one of them. If the students don't catch the new vocabulary word when the teacher reads it, the teacher should stop, point out that the key vocabulary was just read, and reread the text so students have a chance to notice it. When the students find a new words they are asked to repeat the word and explain its meaning. Then students can make their own sentences using the new vocabulary words. From there the teacher can extend what students know about those words and how they are used in the read-aloud. ESL students need an opportunity to discuss the story and related events in their own life. After finishing with the vocabulary instruction, the text should be summarized and the key take-away points relating to the content should be reiterated (Hickman, 2004). On the final day the entire text is reread and then students do follow-up activities such as acting out new vocabulary words or matching these words with their synonyms.
For vocabulary instruction, there are many ways classroom teachers can assist ESL students. Teachers can use strategies such as speaking slower, using simpler words, and using pictures as aids. Focusing on cognates and deeper word meanings are also helpful. Everyday practices like read-aloud's are also highly beneficial for ESL students. Research supports these and many other ways of helping our English language learners improve in the area of vocabulary.
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