The Critical Role of Vocabulary Development for English Language Learners

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English language learners (ELLs) who experience slow vocabulary development are less able to comprehend text at grade level than their English-only peers. Such students are likely to perform poorly on assessments in these areas and are at risk of being diagnosed as learning disabled. In this article, we review the research on methods to develop the vocabulary knowledge of ELLs and present lessons learned from the research concerning effective instructional practices for ELLs. The review suggests that several strategies are especially valuable for ELLs, including taking advantage of students' first language if the language shares cognates with English; ensuring that ELLs know the meaning of basic words, and providing sufficient review and reinforcement. Finally, we discuss challenges in designing effective vocabulary instruction for ELLs. Important issues are determining which words to teach, taking into account the large deficits in second-language vocabulary of ELLs, and working with the limited time that is typically available for direct instruction in vocabulary.

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