Wednesday / May 22

Preteaching Vocabulary to ELs: Keystone to Comprehension, Precursor to Reading  

How many of us have listened to a speaker or read a book and marveled at the descriptive power and richness of the words used? We have our favorite speakers, reporters, or authors who move us through how they write. Nations, peoples, political change… all have been based on words–specific and explicit; descriptive and heart wrenching; or infuriating and derisive. Words connote status and prestige or confirm an opinion.

Take for example a simple phrase that has evolved in our professional development sessions: Struggling Readers. Now, we call these students “Striving Readers.” Think about the nuances between the two. Struggle is a good thing–a necessary thing. But once you connect it to the term “reader,” the meaning has negative connotations. Striving has the nuance of making it, succeeding, going all out.

As educators of all children, we must maximize our efforts to provide our students the rich wealth of vocabulary they will need to succeed in whatever they want to do. As both Graves (2006) and Nagy (2005) suggest, it’s the responsibility of teachers to ensure our students have the correct words if they’re to comprehend and demonstrate what they understand. If we want our students to prove that they understand something, we must frontload the tools–that is, the words—they need. Think about it. Math has explicit language to convey equations and solutions. Science too has specific vocabulary tied to how to report on a lab experiment, hypothesize a theory.

Pop Quiz

How many words can you think of that mean this symbol in math “+”? Besides “add”, how about more, plus, got, include, attach, connect… and many more. Think what happens when you add the simple word “up.”  The meaning is the same. But to an EL, the word “up” most likely means ascend. Contrariwise, how about when we say something doesn’t add up? Even virtually the same sentence means something different based upon the content. Here’s a sentence frame to think about. “Add ____ to _____ and the solution is ______.” In Math: “Add one to three and the solution is four.” But in Science, “Add one substance to another substance and the solution is a homogeneous mixture.” You get the point.

Subcategories of Vocabulary to Ponder

In this blog, we’ll talk about four subcategories of Tier 2 words that should be explicitly selected for preteaching BEFORE a student reads in any subject, then sees them again when reading and uses them during summarizing, and finally uses them to prove that they understand the content.

A quick word about vocabulary Tiers. As Calderón (2016) points out all three tiers are required for comprehension:

  • Tier 3 words are those content words like proton, DNA, or protagonist—they have diagrams, footnotes, glossary entries or are explained intra-text such as “ichthyologists – scientists who study fish”.
  • Tier 1 words are everyday words based upon grade and age, however, be careful, your Newcomers might not know them.
  • Tier 2 words are those polysemous words, those transition or connector words, those great words of specificity that we all hope to see in any writing. They include idiomatic expressions, phrasal clusters, compound words, colocations and cognates.


If a student is writing something, great! I love it. But I, like you, am tired of the following words: nice, big, small, pretty, said, and all of their non-specific friends. These are a start, but are too quickly over used. Most likely at the end of the year, as a friend is fond of mimicking, will not be encountered on those terrible, horrible, no good really bad tests. Instead, the character may pontificate, announce, sigh, exclaim or even declare. In place of pretty, do this simple activity and fill in the blank: “Selma’s dress is __(pretty)__.” What changes when you replace pretty with lovely? Gorgeous? Elegant? The sentences move from being nice, to engaging. Try it with your students to help them understand the nuance, shade, distinction and tone of specificity.

Cognates (and false cognates)

Linguistically speaking, cognates are relatives. Cognatus is Latin for related or having a common ancestor. These are those words that speakers of a Romance Language (Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, French and Romanian), depending upon their primary language literacy level, may already have a concept of. It just sounds different or has a tweaked spelling in English.  In science, social studies, and math, there are upwards of 30-40,000 cognates. In language arts, not as many. You may know some, or you may not. However, you recognize presidente, nación, familia, conclusion, and académico, don’t you? In that case, if these words are already part of an EL’s repertoire, that’s a huge reference bank. Use it!

But beware, there are also false cognates. They may look and sound similar, but they’re not.  Guys might be embarrassed but they will never be embarazada and you might be disappointed if you needed to clean up and ordered some sopa (soup).

One last thought on cognates. IF you don’t know them, DON’T worry about them.

Phrasal Clusters

Phrasal clusters, be they noun or verbal, are those bundles of words that should be taught together. They are a combination of Tier 1 and Tier 2 words. This is a large field of items to choose from. It ranges from transitional phrases (on the other hand), verbal clusters (i.e., add up) and on into collocations and idioms. By way of explanation, the phrasal cluster “on the other hand” is made up of four individual Tier 1 words. But when you put them together as a cluster, they have a different meaning. Therefore, teach them as a cluster.

Verbal clusters should be looked at very carefully. There is a great deal of difference between “due” and “due to” – The paper was given a lower grade due to being turned in two days after it was due. A quick web search will show you the approximately 20 different clusters of the word “get” – to have or to hold. (get on, get up, get off, get by, get in, get out, get out of, get along, get along with, okay, ok, you get it!)


These are some of the most crucial Tier 2 words to focus on. For you Latin and Greek scholars, you will recognize poly many and sēmous sign or having multiple meanings. Polysemous words are powerful words. The cross the Tiers and curricula. To demonstrate this power, let’s use the word power. What does power mean in Math? (exponents or multiply, multiply multiply…).  What does it mean in Science? (the transfer of energy). What does it mean in history or social studies? (money, laws, control, the military). And in ELA classes? (We’re back to the specificity and visualization or feelings words can provide.) Outside of the classroom, you have the power company, Power Rangers, a power suit or tie, the powers that be verses power to the people.

Take a minute, and think about the multiplicity of meanings for just a few of these words: leg, table, bank, right, left, hand, trunk or state. Now think about the ways a student will encounter these words each day in the classroom. I’ll wait. Don’t forget the clusters and idiomatic expressions that go with these words. The power of preteaching vocabulary before reading for ELs is that it removes some of the obstacles they may run across as they are trying to learn your content.

Now what?

The above subcategories are just a starter set. What does this mean for our instruction and for our students? At times, vocabulary can be difficult. On the other hand, it can be clear as a bell.  It is eloquent, luxurious or noxious. Regardless of the level of our students, it means for us as educators, we need to be specific, intentional and explicit in our instruction. We need to think about the words and how our learners need to interact with them. And, yes, it may mean a little extra work for us. We need to comb through the texts our students are about to read, give them help beforehand on some of the meanings and then expect them use those same words later when they prove to us they understand what they are expected to understand.

 Final Words

It is imperative that the teaching of vocabulary comes directly from the text the students are immediately about to read. Additionally, they must see the words in the context of the definition you the teacher provide for that lesson. Subsequently, practicing the words in context in complete sentence is a requisite. Ultimately our ELs need to understand that they will produce the vocabulary to show comprehension later.

For further reading or more examples see: Calderón, M. E. & Soto, I. (2016). Academic Language Mastery: Vocabulary in Context. Thousand Oaks, CA: CORWIN press and

Calderón, M. E. (2007). Teaching reading to English language learners, Grades 6-12: A framework for improving achievement in the content areas. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Written by

Shawn Slakk is the VP of Operations and a Senior Consultant with Margarita Calderón and Associates, where he and his colleagues work with general education teachers and administrators in how to consolidate language, literacy and content while learning English.  As a former Certified WIDA Trainer and, Shawn brings an understanding of WIDA and how it relates to ELs, language acquisition and lesson delivery. He is the former Rethinking Equity and Teaching for English Language Learners (RETELL) Coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.  The RETELL endorsement is now required in Massachusetts to obtain or retain an educator license.  Throughout his career, Shawn has taught ESL across all grade levels and curricula including community college and adult basic education, Spanish and Japanese plus served as an elementary and middle school administrator. Besides two bachelor’s degrees, English Education K-12 and Spanish Education K-12, a master’s degree in English: TESoL and a Master’s in School Administration; he is completing his dissertation in professional development from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

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