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Creative Ways to Pre-Teach Vocabulary for Language Learners

Creative Ways to Pre-Teach Vocabulary. Teacher holding a photocopy cut out from a text, "We are extremely very good recyclers" by Lauren Child - one of the strategies for engaging language learners during a read aloud.

You know when you're reading a story to your class, or teaching something that really needs good listening and then... there's little so and so, watching the clouds out the window or finding the texture of the carpet so interesting. WHAT?!?!

If you have ever experienced life as a language learner, immersed in a society where you don't understand anything around you, you may be able to empathize.

But even empathy isn't enough to get your language learners on board with being attentive, engaged and learning in their foreign language classroom. First things first, they need to know the words!

To guide you in pre-teaching vocabulary for language learners, this blog is all about what it means to be a language learner and fun tips for teaching the vocabulary. I say language learners because it's not only the foreign language speakers in your classroom that can benefit from the pre-teaching of vocabulary. It is true that native speakers generally have an advantage in the vocab department, but just because they are exposed to a wider range of words, doesn't mean they always understand these words or know how to use them correctly.

How can I differentiate for my EAL students? learning objectives, two more choices for practice, preteach vocabulary, wait with thinking time, paraphrase and restate, check in often, model language use, label objects, assign learning parters, use word walls..

And a few minutes on specific vocabulary instruction to ensure that all learners in your classroom can access the content you are delivering... that won't hurt nobody.

I don't know where you teach or what your classroom dynamics are but here's a break down of my class this last year (similar to most of my classes as an international teacher):

classroom dynamics, English native speaker, advanced english fluency, intermediate fluency, new to English, beginner, EAL, ESL

  • 1 native speaker

  • 2 advanced English learners

  • 10 varying levels of intermediate English

  • 2 beginners, new to the English language

I am aware of all this because I work in a school that regularly assesses students' English levels throughout the year, as well as during admissions. But I hadn't always been so tuned into these phases or what they look like across reading, writing, speaking, listening and social engagement. Even in my first international school position, getting to know the phases of language acquisition, didn't immediately connect with what these students were needing in the homeroom class.

My first mistake with pre-teaching vocabulary was not understanding the who, what, when, why or how. Teaching vocabulary was a secondary thought, done only because it was something I knew I was supposed to do.

Who - delivered by me for my students with varying levels of English language acquisition. Sometimes I have the privilege of having an EAL (English as an Additional Language) teacher with me. But ultimately, it is my responsibility with my students.

What - specifically identified vocabulary that may be new or unfamiliar to some/all of my students.

When - usually at the beginning of the lesson (all lessons actually, it can be in literacy, math, social studies, history, art, etc) and for just a few minutes. Some of these pre-teaching routines can be incorporated into lessons.

Why - if you've ever been a language learner immersed in a new language and had to live and function understanding so little, then you know.

How ... I didn't really know!

One thing that I was certain about though, was what pre teaching vocabulary wasn't. I knew that pre and post assessments, checklists, dictionaries or sentence writing was a traditional and common practice... but there's no way I'll be having my students do any of that! If it's going to be a part of my classroom, it must be engaging, challenging and play-based!

It wasn't until I worked in a school with a heavy philosophy on collaborative planning that I began to see different and creative ways that explicit vocabulary instruction can be incorporated into learning and playing.

Interestingly enough, my greatest inspiration and best teachers were my colleagues. Through collaborative planning and lesson sharing, I learned so much! All of it much better than I found on Pinterest or read in any textbook.


Creative Routines for Teaching Vocabulary for English Learners

Here are a collection of some of my favorite vocabulary routines that I continue to use years later. You can get your FREE copy of these digital resources (and more) here.

Find your Character/Sentence
Find your sentence or picture, EAL vocabulary game, ESL listening game

Best used for: read alouds - great for both fiction and nonfiction texts. Reading texts on a topic before teaching it activates prior knowledge in addition to vocabulary exposure.

Prep: make printouts of sentences from a text or photocopies of characters. I love using photocopies from the book and cutting them out. Especially for new to English learners, it gives visual clues to support their listening and comprehension.

Routine: give one sentence strip or photocopied picture to each child (or partnership) in class. As you read aloud, have children pop up, raise their hands or bring you their character/sentence.

Word/Picture Matching Games
ESL, EAL vocabulary word mat, vocabulary matching game
Word / Picture Matching

Best used for: all subjects

Prep: identify vocabulary, simple matching cards, image (Unsplash is a great resource for free images)

Routine: in pairs or small groups, give your learners time to match vocabulary words with pictures. You can move around the room and give attention to students who you know will need more support. This strategy for previewing vocabulary works really well for morning work or soft start activities where children can engage freely and without pressure in a playful way.

Other resources that I've made using the watercolor illustrations shown in this example can be found in my Woodland Forest Collection.

Word Wall Additions

Best used for: all subjects

Prep: identified vocabulary, blank cards for your word wall

Routine: as you teach vocabulary in context, have students create the word card by writing the word (with our without picture reference) and add it to your classroom word wall.

Word Wall, english vocabulary, preteaching vocabulary, picture alphabet cards, sight words

Word Mats
Weather chart, weather word mat

Best used for: any subject, for support during independent practice or as a visual reference during whole group instruction

Prep: identified vocabulary and digital images (you can also find

many pre-made word mats online) or try the free template to add your own pictures and words in this blog's resources.

Routine: put the word mats on student tables/desks for their reference during independent practice, even if you think the learner may not need it. You'll be surprised how many students reach for them (or at least take a sideways glance).

Word Matching in Slides

Best used for: any subject, but especially math and when you teach using slides or a presentation

Prep: identified vocabulary (no more than four or five words), a designated slide

Routine: early in your slides for the lesson, have your vocabulary words on one side of the screen and images, examples or equations on the other side. Use lines with transitions or animations to connect each word to its example, giving students time to think of answers and share thinking before revealing.

word matching in slides. math words: smaller than, fewer than, take away. preteaching vocabulary
Word Matching in Slides - a simple routine to support vocabulary learning

Memory / Concentration Game

Best used for: any subject

Prep: identified vocabulary (seven to ten words), one word card and one picture card for each identified vocabulary word. This is quite similar to the word/picture matching and you can even use the same cards to reinforce understanding of the vocabulary.

Routine: let the lesson start with a game (play based learning isn't only for small children, it's great for learners of all ages). After the first time of teaching this, your students will know what to do and immediately engage. I have class start with the game and students play in pairs with learning partners. I designate 5-7 minutes for this and then review the words before moving on. This is also another strategy that fits really nicely into morning work or soft start activity choices.

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Regardless of which routine I apply in any given lesson, I keep the number of words limited but practice it as often as possible. It's not realistic to do every one of these in every lesson, nor would I advise it - but vary your approach and see what resonates with your students. Always, always keep word mats or labeled posters around for reference though.

Early in my teaching career, I found teaching a class of multilingual learners with varying levels of English fluency a huge challenge. But year by year, I picked up on different practices that have helped both me and my learners navigate this with a little more ease. I hope that you've found some inspiration and comfort here as well.

Happy teaching and learning!

💛 Sativa

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