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Using Word Banks as a Simple Tool to Support ELL Vocabulary Understanding

by Model Teaching | October 13, 2021.

When you know that you need to support your ELL students, but feel overwhelmed with how to provide the right differentiated strategies to your students, start focusing on one strategy at a time. This excerpt from our Model Teaching Quick Course: Simple ELL Vocabulary Strategies highlights one simple strategy from the course-how to implement word banks for Tier 2 words in your content area.

ELL Vocabulary Strategies

Because there is a correlation between vocabulary development and academic success, the bottom line is that the more academic vocabulary a student understands, the more successful he or she will be in school. Understanding the meaning of individual words is critical for reading comprehension, spoken and written communication, and learning in the classroom. Therefore, teachers need to provide the right tools to help their students whose primary language is not English.

Tier 1-3 Words

In an educational context, words are typically categorized into three tiers of difficulty and frequency. Tier 1 words are used in everyday language and are often quickly picked up through social settings and conversations. Tier 1 words typically don’t require any direct instruction, and rarely do they have multiple meanings. Examples of Tier 1 words include blue, boy, teacher, walk, six, and sun.

On the other hand, Tier 2 words are high-frequency words seen and heard in various settings. These words also include multiple meanings depending on the content or context in which they are used. They are inherently more complex than Tier 1 words and often require direct instruction for ELLs. Some examples of Tier 2 words include contrast, estimate, measure, predict and arrange. Tier 2 words have meanings across multiple content areas, such as “compare and contrast the life cycles of two animals” and “explain the color contrast in this piece of art.” Because these words can have multiple meanings, they can be taught to students explicitly through intentional, direct instruction. Considering which tier 2 words exist in your content lesson, and planning for ways to support students in learning them authentically and in context, can serve as one of many ways in which you can begin support to your ELL students to ensure their academic success.

Tier 3 words are low-frequency words that are typically content-specific. Students can usually learn them as they are exposed to them through reading, instruction, or other means. Some examples of Tier 3 words include economics, revolution, molecule, and photosynthesis. Teachers can usually teach Tier 3 words implicitly in a more authentic context without separate instruction. While this article will not discuss specific strategies for tier 3 words, you might consider how you can utilize the word bank strategy to support tier 3 words on occasion as part of your classroom lesson as well.

Because tier 2 words are high- frequency words that students will encounter often, and because these words can have multiple meanings across content areas, it is critical for your English Language Learners to interact with these words in a variety of ways across content areas. Students need exposure to a word many times before it becomes a part of their vocabulary. Therefore, students must keep using these new Tier 2 words in other contexts such as conversation and writing. You can support students in this practice by posting new words on a word wall to serve as visual reminders and references. Hold students responsible for keeping a vocabulary journal where they record their new words, perhaps by requiring students to update the journal as they see the word used in other contexts. This journal could be a simple list of words and definitions or a more organized place to keep all definitions, like a graphic organizer.

ELL Conversations Students should also be encouraged to use these new words in their conversations. While this may not come up naturally, you can look for opportunities to encourage academic talk in which the words will inevitably arise. For example, you could pose a guiding question as a warm-up and have students turn and talk to a partner about the question, requiring them to use the academic vocabulary in their response. During transitions, you could give students a word and ask them to use it in a sentence and share that sentence with a partner.

It is also essential for students to use these words in their writing as well. To encourage this, you could provide a word bank when having students respond to a prompt and explain they must use all the words in the word bank accurately in context as they respond. See Figure 1 for an example of this next. You can provide a prompt for students to answer, but require students to select vocabulary from a provided work bank to help them reinforce their understanding of each word they previously learned in class. In this example in figure 1, students are participating in a science class, and the teacher has prepared a simple prompt using vocabulary words related to their astronomy lesson. Notice the words chosen for this activity- these words, like revolution, could have multiple meanings depending on the classroom in which the child is learning. These tier 2 words selected help reinforce student’s understanding of the English Language while simultaneously helping them review important academic content they learned in class.


For students that might require even more support, you can instead turn the writing assignment into a “cloze activity” by providing them with a paragraph with blanks and a word bank to choose from to fill in the blanks. Cloze activities assist students in still practicing their understanding of the vocabulary words, but provides even more support to students that may struggle with writing complete sentences on their own. See figure 2 for an example of this. Note here that the teacher has constructed a scaffolded response to a prompt, where students are still able to practice their understanding of the vocabulary words, but can do so within a fill-in- the blank activity. This type of activity is best used for students with significant deficits in writing, to be used as a support method to help more easily practice understanding of tier 2 words.

Word banks are a simple and easy-to-implement strategy to quickly differentiate instruction and support English Language Learners in mastering tier 2 vocabulary. Combining this strategy with other support methods can help accelerate student achievement and vocabulary master across content areas. To learn more simple ideas for Vocabulary Support, explore our cost-effective quick course:  Simple ELL Vocabulary Strategies

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Word Bank Vocabulary Templates

Use these templates and graphic organizers for students who may need additional support. Feel free to download and modify the editable version, including the Frayer model template and word bank template.


Think about an upcoming lesson in your content area and consider what vocabulary students may need to know in order to be successful in understanding the lesson content. Consider what words your English Language Learners may especially find difficult to understand, and how they might have different meanings across content areas. Then, use our provided template to build a word bank or a cloze activity to help students practice their new vocabulary after they have learned the lesson content.

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