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Adapting the Textbook to Teach Vocabulary to ELLs

written by: Doritsas • edited by: Benjamin Sell • updated: 1/4/2012

Strategies and tips for teaching vocabulary to English language learners of mixed abilities that keeps the stronger students engaged, while helping slower learners strengthen their skills.

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    The Challenge of Teaching Students of Varying Levels

    English language learners in mainstream classrooms represent one example of mixed ability classes. Differences among our students are apparent to us all – differences in style, personality, motivation, culture and background knowledge, and in life experience.

    Teaching vocabulary is an important component of building strong reading comprehension skills. One of the standard ways to teach is, of course, to utilize the textbook. Many textbooks, however, do not have enough opportunities for ELLs to progress on varying levels. In many cases, it is up to the teacher to prepare individualized vocabulary lessons that encourage students to progress incrementally. Of course, the textbook is a helpful place to start.

    The problems the teacher faces when teaching a diversified class include how to plan lessons that can meet the needs of all the students, while preventing the stronger students from getting bored and the lower performing students from getting lost. How can this be done without the teacher having to prepare materials for each level? How is it possible to adapt the textbook that is being used so that each student can choose a task that is at his or her levels?

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    Adapting Textbook Activities for Practicing Vocabulary

    Vocabulary practice is an important part of the stages of vocabulary instruction. One exercise that is found frequently at the end of a unit is one that provides the students with a list of words that were presented in the unit studied.

    One option for diversifying vocabulary practice involves looking up the meaning of the words. Some students could be “experts” and help other students who are trying to do the exercise as it is, but perhaps are struggling with learning the meaning of all the words.

    Another option is to have the students choose four to five words they know well. For each word, they can be asked to make a word rose; to list all the words that relate to the given word. For example, if one of the words on the list is ‘thief’, students could list any words they can think of that relate to this word e.g. bank, motorcycle, police, etc. Although the students working on an exercise like this may not know all the words given in the original activity, they will be actively using their knowledge of English and developing their vocabulary.

    These are just a couple techniques teachers can use to diversify instruction in order to enable students to respond at different levels. In general, I suggest going for the open-ended type of textbook activities where there are more chances of varying responses. This ensures that all students have a chance of working at the level he or she feels comfortable with.

    Effective vocabulary instruction is one that is also diversified. ELLs need a variety of activities that will allow them to pick and choose as they advance in their vocabulary learning.