How to Teach Vocabulary to ESL Students

Instructor: Marquis Grant

Marquis has a Doctor of Education degree.

This lesson will provide strategies and ideas for teaching vocabulary to English as a Second Language (ESL) students. A short quiz will follow that will test your knowledge.


With more English as a Second Language (ESL) students entering the classroom, it is increasingly important to implement special instructional practices so that they can be successful.

Vocabulary is probably the most important component of instruction that will benefit ESL students. Vocabulary is essential to understanding the material taught across subject matter and is used in all forms of communication: listening, reading, speaking, and writing. Increasing ESL students' vocabulary will aid them in improving academically across the chart.

A word wall that incorporates visual aids is a good technique for teaching vocabulary
Word wall

Foundational Concepts

There are a few basic concepts that ESL teachers should keep in mind when teaching vocabulary, including sheltered instruction, building background knowledge, and scaffolding.

Sheltered Instruction

The term sheltered instruction means that general curriculum-based material, including math, science, social science and language arts, is taught in a way that all students, including ESL students and students with diverse learning styles, can understand. For example, teachers may utilize visual aids to introduce vocabulary. Sheltered instruction also encompasses the techniques of building background knowledge and scaffolding.

Building Background Knowledge

Students are more successful when they are able to make connections between what they already know and what they are expected to learn. Activating students' schema or background knowledge (sometimes referred to as prior knowledge) helps them to better understand vocabulary words and concepts that they are learning in the classroom. Many ESL students come to the classroom with little or no exposure to the English language and may struggle with learning. That is why it is important for teachers to present instruction in a way that allows students to fill those gaps in learning that prevent them from being successful in the classroom.

A simple idea is to choose topics that are relevant to your students' native cultures when selecting passages to read.


Scaffolding means that the material being taught is broken down in smaller chunks of information, preventing ESL students and their peers from being overwhelmed by a lot of information at one time. For example, the teacher may spend a few days introducing words on vocabulary cards. She may then ask students to find synonyms and antonyms for the words. ESL students can be partnered with more proficient students to complete this task. Then, students may read a text that uses those vocabulary words.

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