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New Teachers Online: How-To Articles:
Adjust Your Teaching Styles for English Language Learners (ELL) in ESL/Bilingual Classrooms

Building Your ELL/ESL Student's Vocabulary
Tobey Cho Bassoff

How do you build the vocabularies of new ESL students in a middle school setting? This question was recently posed to me by an ESL teacher in Kentucky. Her question is at the root of a bigger issue that she is trying to address: How do I get my ESL students reading in English? She reasons that if she can build their vocabularies, then she will directly impact their ability to read more text. My simple answer comes in the form of daily Word Wall work, what I affectionately call “Wild Words.”

Sylvia Ashton-Warner published a book called Teacher (Simon & Schuster 1963) in which she talks about her experiences as a teacher of English to children of a native tribe in New Zealand. She reflects on the power of allowing children to choose words that had meaning to them. Her students’ vocabularies grew as they began to see these words, their words, as vehicles for communication about what they cared. In my fifth grade classroom, my goal is to have students develop that same sense of ownership and power about words and communication.

Here’s how I do it:

Everyday, students in my class are given a “Wild Word” that is printed on a strip paper. As they pull out their dictionaries, they are preparing themselves to record the word, part of speech, and definition in their “Wild Word” notebook. Once that is complete, they draw a picture reminding them of what the word means. For my ESL students, especially if they are new to the country, I may have an artist draw a visual interpretation of the word on the chalkboard. Then, the artist writes a basic sentence on the board that helps the student see the word in context. All “Wild Words” are placed on the Word Wall, a designated bulletin board, with a sticker in the upper left-hand corner. (The sticker identifies it as a “Wild Word.”) In the event that a student is absent, he or she will be able to distinguish a Wild Word from the other wondrous words that are added to the Word Wall. In a few weeks, students will begin to see their Word Wall grow with words that hold meaning for them.

In addition to providing them with words, I also give them opportunities to use the words and practice remembering their meanings. Each day, during our Writer’s Workshop Word Study block, I allow five to ten minutes to play games that involve the Word Wall. For example, we love to play “Guess My Word?” It is a game where students are given clues to a word and they have to identify the secret word. This game develops vocabulary like “synonyms” and “antonyms.” For example, I might have the words “livid,” “furious,” and “incensed” on my Word Wall. So, if I say that my word is a synonym for angry, hands shoot up in the air because they have three possible choices. Students can also provide the clues to hidden words. This empowers them to learn the words, and it gives them a reason to be well-behaved since only active participants in Word Wall can lead a game. The idea for “Wild Words” and the set-up for my Word Wall came from Scholastic Publications - 15 Minutes a Day to a Colossal Vocabulary by Kathleen Bahr. (ISBN: 0-439-20576-X)

As you can see, I applied Ms. Warner’s theory to my original Word Wall--which had been peppered with sight words, blends, and patterned words—and the outcome was a vocabulary Word Wall.

The results have been astounding. Students are using words like “melancholy,” and “ecstatic” correctly in their everyday writing. They are recognizing these words in shared reading texts, which is typically at a fifth grade level, and in newspapers and on television. Our reader in Kentucky is finding similar results in her science and social studies classes. She notes that when previously foreign words come up, her students feel connected to the concept being taught.

Try it and let me know what you find.

Good Luck and Happy Word Searching! If you have any questions, please email me.


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