The Importance of Vocabulary Instruction in the Core Subject Areas for ELs at the Secondary Level

by Giuliana Jahnsen Lewis

Giuliana Jahnsen Lewis immigrated from Lima, Perú when she was fourteen years old. Breaking the language barrier and other challenges of being a newly arrived immigrant, she became an advocate for equitable instruction for ELs. She has served in multiple positions for Loudoun County Public Schools including EL Teacher, EL Curriculum Writer and Coordinator, EL Professional Developer, and currently serves as a Middle School Dean at Sterling Middle School. 

“Vocabulary – because of its direct association with meaning, the sheer weight of its numbers, and the natural disposition of the learner to break into a language through its words – may be the most important single factor in learning a second language” (Lado, 1988).

Acquiring new vocabulary is the key to success for any student. However, for English Learners (ELs, also called ELLs or English Language Learners) at the secondary level, acquiring new vocabulary is the most valuable path to comprehension and assimilation of a new language. “In secondary schools, ELLs have double the work in learning because they have to master both content and the language of that content” (Calderón & Soto, 2017). In addition to their academic challenges, students also face the hardships related to being an immigrant in a new culture and fulfilling other duties given to them to support their families. Considering these factors, educators should note that vocabulary instruction is not only crucial for comprehension but also that it entails processes that must be incorporated into the instructional experience of the student.


Arriving in the United States as a fourteen-year-old EL student in the ninth grade was challenging in many aspects. I had to work harder than my non-EL peers to learn English and exit the EL program so that I could take higher level courses and be able to graduate high school on time. Meanwhile, I faced additional obstacles as a result of my status as an EL student including racism and teachers telling me I was not going to succeed. Attending a university in the United States was one of my dreams, not only for myself, but also to show gratitude to my parents for their hard work and many sacrifices.

As a newcomer EL at the secondary level, you are racing against the clock. However, when EL students are presented with quality instruction that embodies an “asset-based” (Calderón et al., 2020) environment, the following takes place: (1) students’ identities and strengths are recognized (including their personal, cultural, socio-emotional, and world experiences); (2) students’ home languages and literacy experiences are viewed as assets, not deficits; and (3) all teachers recognize the assets their ELs bring to the table and also view themselves as “teachers of ELs” (Calderón et al., 2020). I was fortunate to be placed in some classrooms where these practices were present. Because of magnificent educators (teachers and counselors), I was able to overcome various challenges and feel empowered to continue learning the language and content. As Dr. Calderón and Minaya-Rowe (2011) state, “the most important factor in attaining EL success is quality instruction.”


During instruction, ELs tend to transfer the structure of the native language onto the second one. During the second quarter as a newcomer student, my brain started translating word by word as I read texts, handouts, posters, and other items in the classroom or provided by my teachers. I would read a word in English and my brain would automatically translate it into Spanish. At first, I thought I was getting my brain confused, but as I learned more academic language in English, the transfer from one language to the other started disappearing.

It is important to note that ELs are immersed into a process when learning a new word. Once the word is learned, including its functionalities, they are able to apply it in various forms through the four domains of language. EL students are then equipped to utilize the word in other linguistic contexts as well as connect it to language and behavior within specific situations (Nsar, 2010).


A powerful instructional experience must be intentionally planned by teachers in order to elicit student participation and develop an environment of ongoing learning. Vocabulary instruction should be “robust” which is characterized by being vigorous, strong, and powerful. “A robust approach to vocabulary involves directly explaining the meaning of words along with thought-provoking, playful, and interactive follow-up (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2013). It needs to be understood that a powerful vocabulary instruction will lend itself to strong reading comprehension across the content areas of study.

Vocabulary instruction is dependent upon the purpose of the text and author, audience, and the content area being studied by the student. In order to build a solid repertoire of words, teachers must identify vocabulary words and corresponding features that are necessary for comprehension of the text (Calderón & Soto, 2017). Additionally, once instruction takes place, these words must appear in the students’ oracy, reading, and writing practice to ensure dominance in the four language modalities, constant practice and retention, and meaningful utilization of the words.


Three tiers of words have been identified to better direct the focus in instruction. Tier One words are identified as those being learned by constant oral interaction through conversations at most part. These words can also be acquired by looking at the word and its visual representation. Some of these words include happy, cold, cat, baby, and many more. Tier Three words are higher level concepts specifically related to the subject area or discipline being studied. Some of these words include legislative, photosynthesis, chemical, and more. While Tier One and Tier Three words are important for students to know, Tier Two words are the critical group. Tier Two words are known to influence students’ comprehension of text across all content areas. Tier Two words are encountered more often by students in written forms than orally (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2013). However, as educators, we must ensure that students are able to master the usage of these words across all four domains of language.

When selecting new words for our students, it is imperative to consider the levels of students in the class. While it is stated that Tier One words are acquired through conversations, we still need to provide instruction of these words to our ELs. This includes words that are challenging to spell (e.g., rough, tooth) and pronounce (e.g., sheep, ship, chip, cheap, this/that, tenth) (Calderon & Soto, 2017).

When preparing for instruction, it should never be assumed that students already know the word necessary for comprehension of the material. As educators, our role is to constantly assess our students to be able to provide personalized and enriching instruction. Therefore, we must teach vocabulary words that will support our students’ reading comprehension and learning experience.


It is critical that students are involved in a robust and meaningful learning experience when learning new words. Therefore, vocabulary instruction must involve all key components: vocabulary instruction, oral

practice, reading, writing, and context – the purpose of learning the word. By incorporating all of the key components, we provide our students with opportunities to apply and practice with their new words, while working collaboratively with other students in class and utilizing their words in reading and writing activities (Calderón & Minaya-Rowe, 2011).

Vocabulary instruction should be the foundation of every lesson. As students master new words, acquisition of skills and comprehension of text become much easier. It is important to remember that teaching vocabulary “is not an end in itself. It is only a precursor into reading, writing, and conducting rich discussions in every content area” (Calderón & Soto, 2017).

Lado, R. (1988). Teaching English Across Cultures. Mexico, D.F.: McGraw-Hill.

Calderón, M. E., & Rowe, L. M. (2011). Preventing Long-Term ELs: Transforming Schools to Meet Core Standards. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Calderón, M. E., Fenner, D. S., Honigsfeld, A., Slakk, S., Zacarian, D., Dove, M. G., Gottlieb, M., Singer, T. W., & Soto, I. (2020). Breaking Down the Wall: Essential Shifts for English Learners’ Success. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Calderón, M. E., & Soto, I. (2017). Academic Language Mastery: Vocabulary in Context. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Beck, I., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2013). Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Nsar, R. (2010). Language Pragmatics in the ESL/EFL Classroom. Unpublished data.