Simplifying Language for ELs without Dumbing Down Content

Teaching vocabulary is widely regarded as one of the most important aspects of English Language instruction. The question becomes, how do we teach high level content vocabulary in a linguistically simple way. Fortunately, there are some simple ways to keep content and vocabulary rich while simplifying the language ELs need to use it. Here are my best tips:

  1. Make it visual: Students as young as kindergarten can learn to use sophisticated vocabulary words like genre, character traits, and conclusion. They just need a lot more exposure to internalize the new vocabulary. Keep your graphic organizers visual and the components the same until they’ve grasped the new vocabulary you’re trying to teach.
Visual Graphic Organizers in Kindergarten

I love this one for kindergarten. As the year progresses we add more

information like time and character change, but I always start off using the correct terminology. Students love the challenge and by mid-year they have completely internalized the new words.

2. Use color coding: Color coding helps students understand what they are looking at and how different things relate to each other. Try color coding your next Venn Diagram with with sentence starters and watch your ELs vocabulary blossom.

Compare and Contrast Writing

(Pro-tip: Use post-it notes to save time and re-use post-its for each small group… just remember to model writing for students every day.)

1st Grade Non-Fiction Writing

3. Same but different is always good: ELs learn from best from repeated exposure. Give students a similar topic i.e. large mammals, but the same graphic organizer. Keep your posters hanging so they can see that academic vocabulary transfers across topics and groups.

4. Use technology to your advantage: ELs love the opportunity to use their new vocabulary. Create opportunities where they can see and hear their own language in action and best of all correct their mistakes. You can upload a PDF of a book into apps like Explain Everything and have students record themselves as they read their digital copies. You’ll have a record to refer back to when analyzing their reading and they’ll be motivated to self-correct when they can hear themselves read. Re-reading is less of a chore when students can see and hear its purpose.

5. Repeat, repeat, repeat: All students, but ELs specifically, benefit from repeated vocabulary exposure. Find ways to celebrate vocabulary across content areas and in different disciplines. This is a great way to integrate fine arts into EL instruction too. If you’re teaching a unit on poetry enlist your music teacher to help teach beat, rhythm, and verse. They’ll love being included and you’ll be stretching modalities and enhancing learning.

6. Give students the opportunity to demonstrate new learning: They’ve worked so hard, so give students the opportunity to show off their new learning. This is not only a more authentic way to check for student understanding than a traditional quiz, it’s more fun too!

Teaching the vocabulary that ELs need to be successful academically doesn’t have to be hard work. Consistency, high expectations, and repeated exposure will usually do the trick. Be sure to check in often to correct misconceptions and celebrate when your students use new vocabulary in a different context. Keep your sentence length short, but your words complex and use visual support wherever you can.

A single golf clap? Or a long standing ovation?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.