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When To Teach Vocabulary


Jason Renshaw has posted an interesting three minute screencast sharing why he thinks it’s best to teach vocabulary words after English Language Learners have read a text. It’s definitely worth a visit (in fact, all his posts are worth reading!).

When I’m teaching Beginning ELL’s, I tend to teach vocabulary prior to reading. With any class above that level, including native English speakers, I use a technique I learned from Kelly Young of Pebble Creek Labs, who has designed the extraordinary curriculum we use in our mainstream classes.

It’s called a Word Splash.

Prior to beginning a unit, I’ll write about twenty words on large sheet of paper that’s in front of the class. I’ll put it there a few days prior to starting that unit so students have been exposed to the words for awhile. Then, I have students copy the words down and write what they think it means — guesses are fine. Students then go into small groups and share their definitions. Next, we have a class discussion.

In that discussion, I don’t tell students if they’re correct or not.

The point is to help students become aware of the key words they’ll need to know to understand important parts of the unit. During subsequent lessons, I’ll ask students to highlight words from the Word Splash that they see in various texts. At some point I might ask them to revisit their definitions, or have each student take a word and draw and define it in a poster.

This process certainly helps students see how much they have learned from the beginning of the a unit to a later time.

Please share your throughts — either here or at Jason’s blog — about how and when you think vocabulary is best taught.

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. I like that Word Splash idea, Larry – and also support your point about the usefulness of pre-teaching vocabulary for beginner levels.

    This is just an observation – I read your blog pretty much daily and always enjoy all the resources you post about, but your best gems emerge when you talk about what YOU do in the classroom. You explain the activities very succinctly, and they make for nice diamonds amongst the other scattering of jewels in the resource sites you post about!

    Keep up the great work!

    ~ Jason

  2. That is an interesting approach. I have personally found that it is very important to integrate the word into the child’s vocabulary as soon as possible. I would follow up your approach with active encouragement in using the word as frequently as possible. If a child incorporates even a single word per week, that will be a huge boost to his vocabulary.

  3. I don’t see the point of teaching vocabulary to ELLs after the reading. Lessons need to be made comprehensible for these students and they can’t understand the text if they don’t know the words. Research is showing that ELLs need to be explicitly taught new vocabulary. They don’t “pick up” words on their own and can’t really made good guesses at what a word means. Imagine that ELLs are reading a science text on photosynethesis and they have to guess at the large number of new vocabulary in the text. See the work of Margarita Calderone.

  4. I think the before and after discussion is interesting. I believe that they serve different complementary purposes. Also, it could differ based on the words and the class.

    Some words can be guessed at because of the context in which they are used or perhaps the word roots. Stumbling across these words with no prep is fine.

    Previewing words helps students notice them, builds some curiosity, and if they have a few theories about what the word might mean, the context might help them determine. If they learn before the lesson what the word means, they might do better in comprehending the text

    Working with the words afterwards is more about reinforcement so the vocabulary settles in.

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