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Vocabulary Strategies to Support English and Multilingual Learners

The best vocabulary development strategies do much more than present new words to students and require that they somehow learn their meaning. What English and bilingual learners need are opportunities to understand and use new words and phrases in context, with their peers. Once new vocabulary is part of their oral language, it can more easily be used in written communication.

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There are many wonderful vocabulary-building strategies available that have been designed for language learners, like the Picture Word Induction Model (PWIM); the Determine, Observe, Talk, and Summarize Strategy (DOTS); and Marzano’s six-step process for building academic vocabulary. Determining which strategy to use can be guided by two important understandings: the notions of Tier 1, 2, and 3 words (Beck, McKeown, and Kucan 2002) and of bricks and mortar words (Dutro and Moran 2003).


Tier 1, 2, and 3 Words

Beck, McKeown, and Kucan differentiate between three tiers of vocabulary. They identify Tier 1 words as basic vocabulary that commonly appears in spoken language. These words, like clock, baby, happy, and walk, are so frequently heard in various contexts they are rarely explicitly taught. Tier 2 words are high-frequency words typically used by mature language users across content areas. Because of their lack of redundancy in oral language, they present a challenge to language learners and those who first meet them in print. Examples of Tier 2 words are complex, establish, and verify. Tier 3 words are used primarily in specific content areas and are central to building knowledge and conceptual understanding within academic domains. These words are integral to content instruction. Examples of Tier 3 words are judicial, nucleus, radius, and plot.


Teachers across grade levels and content areas typically focus their instruction on Tier 2 words when there exist multiple meanings that are dependent on context. For example, the word plot means something different in a math class and in a language arts class. But Tier 3 words are also integral to content instruction. It is generally assumed that all Tier 1 and some Tier 2 words are already part of students’ oral language. That may not be the case for many language learners, which speaks to the importance of a strong oral language component to all vocabulary instruction.


When teaching Tier 2 and Tier 3 words, consider the following: Do the students already have some conceptual understanding or experience with the topic of study? Do they control topic vocabulary in their own language? Have they had a chance to interact orally with peers as they investigate and experience the topic? The best strategies incorporate opportunities to negotiate meaning through hands-on, project-based activities.


Bricks and Mortar Words and Phrases

Dutro and Moran divide vocabulary into bricks and mortar words and phrases. Brick words are specific to content and the concepts being taught. These words, like Tier 3 vocabulary, are generally integral to content instruction. Mortar words and phrases are basic and general utility vocabulary required for constructing sentences. These words and phrases determine the relationship between and among words and are essential for comprehension. Mortar words help connect (but, sometimes), include prepositions (on, behind, at [noon]), regular and irregular verbs (ring/rang, sing/sang, bring/…?), and general academic vocabulary.


Mortar words and phrases are more critical to language learners because, without them, the vocabulary they learn exists as individual words, in a vacuum. This means that some time must be given to pointing out this vocabulary and clarifying its meaning. This may mean presenting an excerpt from content text and deconstructing its words and phrases using color coding and arrows to connect words and concepts. It may also mean guiding students through word work (studying roots, understanding prefixes and suffixes, and investigating word families) at all instructional levels.


Vocabulary instruction is essential for English and multilingual learners. The best strategies build on students’ prior knowledge and experience, teach meaning in context, and allow multiple opportunities for students to negotiate meaning and usage with their peers.


To learn more about vocabulary strategies to support English and multilingual learners, take a look at our co sponsored webinar series with CAL or contact your Vista Language and Literacy Specialist.


By Ruth Kriteman

Also read: Today’s Reading Challenge for English Learners in Middle and High School



Beck, I., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life. The Gilford Press, New York, NY.

Dutro, S., & Moran, C. (2003). Rethinking English language instruction: An architectural approach. English learners: Reaching the highest level of English literacy, International Reading Association, 227, 258.


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