Vocabulary Development Strategies for English Language Learners

Vocabulary development in science is essential and challenging for both teachers and their students. At the high school level, science textbooks often approximate foreign language texts in the quantity of new terms. When teachers work to build vocabulary in elementary and middle school, students are more prepared to read, write, think, and do science. But when faced with English language learners – the fastest growing school population – teachers face additional challenges.

Science provides an opportunity for students to encounter words in context and build relational knowledge of words. Using a science notebook as a permanent record of learning allows students to engage with the new vocabulary and continually build on their understanding.


Prior to beginning investigations and activities, teachers can introduce students to unit vocabulary by conducting a science kit inventory, often by using the list of materials provided in each kit. In an inventory, a teacher introduces each object by name and provides opportunities for students to connect to prior knowledge and make predictions about how each object might be used in the unit to come. Students may also draw the object or record definitions for each word. A kit inventory can be combined with the use of a word wall to promote permanent learning.

Taking Inventory
This article from the National Science Teachers Association’s journal Science and Children details how a kit inventory can support vocabulary development.


Word walls display new vocabulary in alphabetical lists. Used widely in the primary grades, word walls aid in word recognition, spelling, and vocabulary development. Teachers should devote a separate area for a science word wall, and update the word wall each time a new topic is introduced. Pictures or illustrations can add context to a simple word wall. If students are working with a kit, objects in labeled baggies can be added as well. If used in conjunction with the kit inventory, the word wall provides reinforcement and continual review of the material. Students then refer to the word wall while completing inquiry investigations and other vocabulary-building activities.

Teachers Say Word Walls Work
This professional development article from Education World provides basic information about word walls across the curriculum and includes links for more information.


Word charts are similar to word walls, except that the words are categorized into clusters. In this particular context, think about dividing vocabulary into three categories: science process vocabulary, content vocabulary, and additional vocabulary, such as connecting words (and, into, through) and descriptive words. A word chart assists students in making connections between the three clusters of words and writing sentences using words from each cluster.


Once students have developed an understanding of vocabulary definitions, classifying and word sorts can be used to create relational knowledge. These activities entail students grouping words based on criteria determined by the students. There are typically many correct ways to sort a single list of words, and as long as students can explain their criteria and how each word fits into a particular group, this type of divergent thinking should be encouraged. Examples of science-content word sorts include “conductors and nonconductors,” “sink or float,” or “rock and mineral.” Students can also use Venn diagrams to classify or sort words.

Making Meaning with Word Sorts
This article describes how word sorts can be conducted in any content area or grade level.


Cloze is an activity in which content area words are deleted from a paragraph or passage. With the help of a vocabulary list or word wall, students choose the correct words to complete the passage. Cloze techniques have been demonstrated to be effective in reinforcing vocabulary and supporting English language learners in reading and writing expository text.

This reference article describes cloze activities and several uses in the classroom.

Cloze Activities: A Helpful Addition to a Reading or Language Arts Classroom
A teacher-submitted article that includes an example of a cloze activity.


Sentence stems, such as “I think…” or “Today I learned…,” support students as they write expository text and use content-area vocabulary from the word wall or word chart. These stems provide support without dictating student writing and allow for the development of student voice in science writing, which promotes ownership of the material.


As students add diagrams and illustrations to their science notebooks, they should be encouraged to label each one with correct scientific vocabulary, using the word wall or word chart as a reference. Doing so provides another opportunity to build relational and contextual knowledge of the words, and creates nonlinguistic representations – a research-based strategy.

When these strategies are incorporated into a hands-on, inquiry-based science unit, they will promote rich, contextual vocabulary development – not just among English language learners but among all students.

This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Kimberly Lightle, Principal Investigator, with any questions about the content of this site.

Copyright June 2008 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

2 thoughts on “Vocabulary Development Strategies for English Language Learners

  1. Hi Pamela, I’m certainly happy to help! Do you have any particular focus in mind in terms of what students will be writing? Otherwise, there are so many possibilities that it’s hard to get started!

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