Selecting Vocabulary Words to Teach English Language Learners

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This article offers guidance for selecting vocabulary words when teaching ELLs and explains the difference between Tier 1, 2, and 3 words.

A student's maximum level of reading comprehension is determined by his or her knowledge of words. This word knowledge allows students to comprehend text. As the teacher, you can explicitly teach word meanings to improve comprehension. However, to know a word means knowing it in all of the following dimensions:

  • The ability to define a word
  • The ability to recognize when to use that word
  • Knowledge of its multiple meanings
  • The ability to decode and spell that word

Therefore, it is vitally important to teach key words that children will need to comprehend texts, learn the content in those texts, and pass tests. Words are taught through direct instruction of word meanings as well as through discussions about words (including prefixes, suffixes, and roots) – all combined with a lot of reading.

For English language learners (ELLs), vocabulary development is especially critical for their ability to read and comprehend texts. The selection of vocabulary words to teach ELLs can be grouped into three tiers.

Tier 1 words

Tier 1 words are words that ELLs typically know the concept of in their primary language, but not the label in English. For example, a Tier 1 word might be butterfly. This is a word that English language learners may not know, but it can be easily taught by pointing to a picture of a butterfly during text discussion.

Another Tier 1 word might be march (move like a soldier). A word like march can be easily instructed during text discussion by marching in place. But because this word has multiple meanings, it also merits further instruction. This can be accomplished through oral language activities that follow the text discussion.

Teaching Tier 1 words

We take it for granted that native English-speakers know most Tier 1 words, but this is not the case for ELLs. Many Tier 1 words may be unknown to ELLs and key to the comprehension of a passage. Different types of Tier 1 words require different teaching strategies:

  • Some Tier 1 words cannot be demonstrated and do not have multiple meanings, but students will need to know them. An example of this is the word uncle. A simple explanation of the word's meaning during the story reading will suffice. Or, if the teacher and students are bilingual, a quick translation is sufficient.
  • Idioms and everyday expressions (like "make up your mind," "let's hit the books," and "once upon a time") are also in the Tier 1 category. Teachers will need to explain the meanings of these phrases to students.
  • Some Tier 1 words are simple cognates (like family/familia or preparation/preparación). The cognates in this category consist of words that are high-frequency words in Spanish and English. They may not require substantial instruction because students may know the word meanings in Spanish. The teacher can merely state the English cognate and have students provide the Spanish cognate. Or, the teacher can provide the English cognate and students can say both the English word and Spanish cognate.
  • It is also important to point out false cognates and give the correct translation. Examples of false cognates are: rope/ropa (clothing) and embarrassed/embarazada (pregnant). There are also some false cognates that have multiple meanings in one language, and one or some of those meanings do not coincide with the meaning of the other language.

Here is a list of helpful Spanish-English cognates.

Tier 2 words

Tier 2 words are more complex than Tier 1 words. They may also be more abstract. These include:

  1. Words that are important and useful to understanding the text, such as: character, setting, plot, even numbers, and country.
  2. Words that have connections to other words and concepts, such as: between, among, by, combine, and estimate.
  3. Words for which students understand the general concept, but need greater precision and specificity in describing a concept or a person, such as: sets, tables (for math or science, or for a table of contents), shy, ashamed, and stubborn.

Teaching Tier 2 words

Tier 2 words appear in grade-level texts. They can be worked with in a variety of ways so that ELLs build rich representations of them and connect them to other words and concepts. Different types of Tier 2 words require different teaching strategies:

  • Some Tier 2 words will not require elaborate discussion, because they can be demonstrated. These include words with multiple meanings, such as trunk, which can be taught by using gestures to show that it is part of an elephant, part of a tree, part of our body, and the back of a car.
  • In addition, many Tier 2 words are cognates. In this tier, they are high frequency words in Spanish and low frequency words in English. This means that Spanish-speaking ELLs will have a head start with these words (such as coincidence/coincidencia, industrious/industrioso, and fortunate/afortunado) because they will know both the concept and an approximation of the label in English.
  • The Tier 2 words that should be targeted for pre-teaching include words that cannot be demonstrated and are not cognates.

ELLs should be expected to master Tier 2 words in order to do well on comprehension and on tests.

Tier 3 words

These are low-frequency words that are found mostly in content books in the upper grades. Examples include witticism, isotope, procrastinate, amoeba, or words that are not demonstrable or cognates. These words are rarely encountered in the early grades, but if they do appear, you can translate them or briefly explain them in either English or in the ELLs' first language.

Note: It is advisable at all grade levels to have bilingual dictionaries available in the classroom. If you do not know the translation for a vocabulary word into students' native language, it is an easy reference and clarification tool. Also, when reading texts on their own, students can look up unknown words and ensure their own comprehension.


Beck, I., McKeown, M. & Kucan, L (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: The Gilford Press.

Calderón, M., August, D., Durán, D., Madden, N., R. Slavin & M. Gil (2003 and in press). Spanish to English Transitional Reading: Teacher's Manual. Baltimore, MD: The Success for All Foundation.

Calderón, M. & L. Minaya-Rowe (2004). Expediting Comprehension to English Language Learners (ExC-ELL) Teachers Manual. Center for Data-Driven Reform in Education, Johns Hopkins University.

Calderón, M. & L. Minaya-Rowe (in press). Teaching Reading, Oral Language and Content to English Language Learners - How ELLs Keep Pace With Mainstream Students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.


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yo creo que tienen que poner mucho mas informacion de como poder ayudar mas a los studiantes a aprender mas rapido ablas english

Very good article. Well explained.

This is a great article. I have been teaching this way now for about 10 years and it works well.

For anyone who does not read Spanish the commenter Eugenia wrote
"I believe we must include a lot more information such as how to help students learn how to speak English quicker."

At least for Spanish speakers there are many cognates. I am currently working with children who speak a language that has no cognates with English. Additionally my private school requires the students to learn 3 new languages simultaneously. It is too many languages at once and the results are poor.

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