Vocabulary Strategies for ELLs

By: Kimberley Gomez & Christina Madda

Article Overview

This article followed Darlene Wakefield's second-period science classroom. She was teaching 8th grade life science class of students that were predominately Latino ELLs. The overall lesson required the students to classify several genetic characteristics of hair.

Struggles of the Mainstream Teacher

  1. Often feeling overwhelmed when teaching ELLs vocabulary due to the lack of pedagogy knowledge and end up "winging" the lesson or delivery methods
  2. Inability to access the science content due to the students' problems with the vocabulary
  3. Inability to deliver the content and vocabulary in an effective manner to the students

Struggles of the ELL Student

  1. Students struggle with use of the term and its basic definition and its relevance in a science classroom
  2. Vocabulary impedes the students from navigating their way through the day's science activity
  3. Lack of basic fluency and comprehension skills lead to vocabulary becoming a common obstacle

Recommendations for Effective Teaching

Since vocabulary and the use of vocabulary in the science classroom is a common obstacle for most ELL students.

The article offers a variety of recommendations for teaching vocabulary to the needs of the ELL student. The article recommends that the mainstream teacher only select 7 or fewer words to be delivered to the students at a time. In addition, vocabulary needs to meet the following criteria:

  • Convey key concepts
  • Have high utility
  • Be relevant to the bulk of the content being delivered

In the article, Darlene mentioned that she would simplify the phrases that she would use when discussing complex concepts. e.g. dominant traits are represented by the capital letters rather than the type of alleles. She also mentioned that she found herself reviewing often the complex terms until the students were familiar, comfortable and exhibited a level of confidence when working with the vocabulary.

It is also highly recommended for the mainstream teacher to incorporate the use of images, gestures, props,graphic organizers,word banks, word walls, videos and role playing to when teaching new vocabulary.


Gomez, K., & Madda, C. Vocabulary Instruction for ELL Latino Students in the Middle School Science Classroom. Voices from the Middle, 13, 42-47. Retrieved July 9, 2014, from http://ampersand.gseis.ucla.edu/assets/VM0131Vocabulary-KimGomez.pdf

About ME-Matthew Rice

I am currently teaching 8th Grade Physical Science and I am the designated teacher for the ELL students in my grade level.