Vocabulary Strategies for EL Students

English Learners sometimes have difficulty understanding new vocabulary words, especially academic vocabulary that they may not know and understand in their native language. Listed below are three strategies I’ve used successfully with my students to help them internalize new vocabulary words.

Realia or Visual Aids

When introducing new words to EL students, including a photograph, clip art or even an example of the real item, is helpful. Teachers in early elementary may want to consider creating a word wall to display for the entire class that has accompanying pictures for each word since young students are all soaking up new vocabulary words at a rapid rate and most are emergent readers who need to picture cues to understand the text. Upper elementary and secondary teachers could provide individual students with personal words walls or picture dictionaries to keep for reference in a folder. These resources should include the specific academic vocabulary words students will need to be successful in the current unit for each content area. Collaboration and communication between teachers of each content area is important to assist EL students with building a strong foundation of vocabulary.

For more information on displaying a word wall with pictures for the entire class, check out this post from Pre-K Pages: https://www.pre-kpages.com/wordwall/


Most teachers are familiar with the Think/Pair/Share strategy for cooperative learning in which students turn and talk to a partner, then some of them share what they discussed with the class. It’s important for EL students to be provided many opportunities for structured conversations, so this strategy is especially helpful to them. During a whole group lesson, pair each EL student with a native English speaker. Then provide students with a sentence stem such as, “I think the word ___________ means ______________.” Teachers can have students discuss specific content vocabulary words prior to beginning the lesson or stop periodically during the lesson as the new words are encountered and allow students to Think individually for a set time frame (such as 20-30 seconds), then turn and talk to their partner using the sentence stems, and finally call the group back together asking a few pairs to share out their ideas. Be sure to write the words and the sentence stem on the board or chart paper for student reference while they’re talking to their partners.

Creating Gestures or Motions

Let’s face it! Children of all ages love to move and they need to move! One strategy I have found that helps students remember a new vocabulary word is to use a gesture or motion for the word. If the word is a verb, sometimes the action aligns specifically with the word such as stomping for the word “stomp” or clapping for the word “clap”. However, some of the academic vocabulary words introduced and taught to students don’t naturally have a particular gesture to accompany them. Teachers can create a gesture that’s appropriate and introduce it to the entire class with the word or, to increase student buy-in and ownership, ask the students to create a motion they think fits the word and will help them remember it. Sometimes they come up with very funny and creative ideas, but the funnier they are makes them even easier to remember!

For more vocabulary strategies for EL students, see the sites listed below:



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