Reading Strategies: Learning Vocabulary

Written by tutor Beatriz G.

The vocabulary dilemma for ESL learners is a big one. A person who has just arrived in the U.S. needs to gain a working vocabulary to be able to function at the most basic levels: go to the doctor, the store, find the right school for the children, get a driver’s license, and the list goes on.

Researchers have varied views on the best approach to learn a new language, particularly those interested in learning English and who have mastered their native language at all four levels: reading, writing, speaking and listening. The fact still remains that to truly learn English here in the states, a student must experience all learning levels, otherwise, there are gaps that can negatively affect long-term comprehension and language skill retention. Initially, an individual might learn how to communicate at a social level with others. This type of language is called Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills or BICS1. Learners use a lot of context clues and body language to talk and interact with others at a very basic level. Speaking skills, while seemingly there, are not fluent. Listening and writing skills are not well developed, so it’s easy to assume that because a person sounds fluent in English, they understand everything that is said and can reciprocally, write at the same level. The skill needed for writing, for example, a descriptive paragraph detailing the events of a traffic accident are not the same as those needed for writing a letter of explanation for a work report or other formal type of document. BICS usually appears in the first six months up to two years of arrival in the U.S. Later, usually three to seven years, individuals begin to acquire a deeper understanding of English – it no longer sounds “weird” to the ear – sounds of words become more recognizable and the speed at which English is spoken is less of a challenge. This signals the time for Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency or CALP. At this stage, individuals are able to communicate using a level of language that is cognitive, in other words, automatic in thought and can perform tasks that requires more skill: analyzing, comparing, synthetizing, evaluating. These are the skills that the person could automatically do in their own language but due to language challenges, could not be done in the new language. When an individual no longer “translates” in their head but “think” in the new language, they have started to truly “learn” English.

Any language program that is used to learn English, then, must address the basic skills necessary for an individual to learn the language from the ground up: alphabetization, phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary and comprehension strategies. Skipping through the first three, this short excerpt focus on vocabulary and some strategies that can be used to help a new language learner decode unfamiliar words and retain comprehension of its meaning. These strategies are by no means all-inclusive. The idea is that just as young ones learn to read and write, so must speakers of other languages: one step at a time, from the bottom up.

Strategy 1: Advanced Organizers

Visual aids that help students visually “map” out a word can help commit the word to memory while identifying key components such as root, endings, prefixes and suffixes, contextual and literal meanings, idiomatic uses of the word, sample sentences, and history of the word, just to name a few.

For example: a student is learning the word “station”. Using a graphic organizer2, the student will identify major characteristics of the word, using these traits to build on prior knowledge. Here’s what the graphic organizer would look like:

Graphic organizer for learning an English word

Strategy 2: Word Morphology

Word roots, prefixes and suffixes that help student identify meaningful chunks when reading unfamiliar words.

For example:

Thank + ful + ness = Thankfulness
Meaning: the state of being full of thanks

Strategy 3: Idioms and Phrases

Direct instruction of literal and figurative meanings go a long way in helping an ESL student learn how to manipulative known vocabulary to communicate more effectively.

For example: “all ears

Jake finally finished his phone conversation and turned to me and said, “Sorry about that, go ahead with your story, I’m all ears.”

Does the expression mean that the person is full of ears? Or does it mean that the person is now full of attention and is ready to listen to what has to be said?

Strategy 4: Synonyms and Antonyms

Using a word that is similar and a word that is opposite help students construct categories and attaches chunks of meaning to a specific word that is common to a group of words.

Example: Synonyms: thoughtful / insightful
Antonyms: vacuous / wise

Strategy 5: Cognates

This is one of the most used strategies and one that learners find the easiest to use at the beginning of language acquisition. Students find similarities in spelling and pronunciation of words in both languages. The connection for meaning is already established for student and it is a matter of recognizing pronunciation and differences.

For example:

English Spanish
Restaurant Restaurante
Camera Camara

These are just a few strategies that tutors and students can practice while learning a new language. Not all languages are as relatable as English-Spanish but the approach should be the same: to build from the bottom up, helping learners hear the sounds of phonemes or word parts, identifying meaningful chunks and later, using these same strategies to decode unfamiliar words found in text using context clues.


1Dr. Jim Cummins conducted research regarding second-language learning and literacy development and in 1979, he coined the acronym BICS and CALP as a strategy teachers could use to qualify a student’s language ability. He is a professor of language development at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto.

2This graphic organizer is part of the Frayer model made popular by J.R. Marzano, an education researcher who developed a system to help teachers use vocabulary strategies for effective learning of content matter in the science and math areas.

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