Supporting EL Students’ Vocabulary Development While Schools Are Closed

By Katharine Davies Samway, author and Professor Emerita at San José State University in California

Having an extensive vocabulary is very helpful in order to understand, enjoy, and appreciate oral and written language, as well as to succeed in school and the outside world.  Vocabulary is often taught in isolation in a rather boring, uninspiring way for many students—being given ten words to define is one example.  However, vocabulary development can be a very engaging and exciting experience. Word Consciousness is one such approach—it focuses on language in context and an awareness of and love for language (e.g., Graves & Watts-Taffe, 2008; Samway & Taylor, 2009; Scott & Nagy, 2004).

The following word consciousness/vocabulary development activities are very helpful for English learners (ELs), as well as for non-ELs.  Importantly, students who do not have access to a computer and/or the Internet can complete these activities.  I mention this because there has been a lot of talk about the importance of online teaching while students are likely to be out of school for weeks, if not months, during the coronavirus epidemic.  However, many students who are immigrants and/or come from low-income homes do not have access to the Internet or computers that are necessary for online learning to occur. 

Strategy: Vocabulary Journal


  • To build an awareness of language through observation and inquiry
  • To build an extensive receptive vocabulary (and, often, expressive vocabulary)


  • Students collect words that they see and/or hear and aren’t sure about their meanings.
  • The number of words can vary according to the age and language level of students (e.g., 2-3 words each day for students in the primary grades and/or students who are very new to English; up to 10 words/terms each day for older students and students who are more fluent in English). 
  • In order to support home language development, which can enhance English learning, students can also keep a record of words they see and/or hear in their home language.
  • Students write down each word, along with its context, and what they think the word or term means.  A chart can be used, if teachers are able to get the chart to students.  A student’s example follows:
Word/TermContext of the Word/TermI Think It Means
Hazid (hazardous)On TV say road is snow and it hazidIt snow so danger
Messed upIn book.  The kids messed up.Kids mix up balls after PE

Students can also use sketches in the I Think It Means column.  Do not be surprised if students have a hard time defining words, as that is often very hard to do.

  • Students share their entries on a regular basis (e.g., 1-2 time a week) with the teacher and/or a group of peers through phone calls (or texts or email, if students have access to these options).  A conversation about the terms can be initiated in this way.

Strategy: Borrowed Words from Other Languages


  • To build an awareness of how different languages influence each other
  • To enhance comprehension
  • To build a respect for and interest in languages


  • Students interview family members and others about words in English that come from their home languages (or other languages).  For example, English borrows the following words from Spanish: taco, chorizo, burrito, fiesta, plaza, chocolate.  These words are spelled the same, but often pronounced differently in the two languages.  Other words that come from Spanish but originally came from indigenous languages include coyote (from Nahautl) and hurricane/huracán (from Taino).
  • Individually or in small groups, students generate borrowed words, using the phone to keep ongoing records—they can also use text messaging or email, if they have access to these options. 
  • Students can also share their words with the teacher, who keeps a list of words/terms borrowed by English, organized by language.
  • In addition, students can interview family members and others about words used in their home language(s) that come from English, which they share with other students and the teacher as described earlier.

Strategy: Word Families

Purpose: To build an awareness of how words often share the same root, which can help with comprehension


  • Select some key words/terms from content area studies that students have studied (or are studying) that are members of a word family.  For example, mountain comes from the Latin and words/terms in this family include mountainous, mountaineer, mountaineering, and mount.   
  • Have students search for new words/terms that share this root in their reading, TV viewing, and what they hear. 
  • Students keep a record of the selected words/terms, related words, and what they think the words mean.  Do not be surprised if students have a hard time defining words, as that is often very hard to do. A sketch can also help students remember the difference in meanings. A student’s example follows:
WordOther Word in This FamilyI Think It Means
Mountainmountinus (mountainous)Lot of mountin
 mountaneer (mountaineer)Person who clim mountin
 mountin bike (mountain bike)Bike to ride in montin

Strategy: Shades of Meaning


  • To build an awareness of how words that are often called synonyms actually have slightly different meanings
  • To help students write more powerfully
  • To enhance comprehension


  • Give students a word that is used often (e.g., said).
  • Ask students to do some research on alternative words by paying attention in their reading, listening, and viewing and keeping a record of what and where the word appeared and what they think it means. 
  • Be prepared to explain what you mean by “alternative words.” 
  • A student’s example follows:
WordAlternative WordWhere UsedWhat I Think It Means
SaidaskedThe Stories Julian TellsHe ask a qweschon
 beggedThe Stories Julian TellsHe ask hevy like
 esplane (explain)TVTell and give exampl


  • Do not be concerned about spelling in any of these activities as the purpose is to build an interest in and love of language.  However, it can be a very good idea to make note of spelling strategies that students might benefit from learning about at some point (e.g., taking time to copy words accurately from written texts; teaching students who need it how to spell the qwuh sound in English (qu, as in question, quiz, quota)
  • If school reopens before the end of the school year, the words/terms that students generate can then be used for in-school word games (e.g., jeopardy).

What About Students Who Do Not Have Access to Computers and/or the Internet?

If we have a computer and access to the Internet, we may forget or not know if our students have the same access to remote learning possibilities.  Many students are not so fortunate, particularly those who are new immigrants and/or live in low-income homes.  Older family members may have cell phones, but younger children often do not and the families may not have access to the Internet because of the cost or where they live.

Check to see if local Internet companies are providing free Internet access during the coronavirus epidemic.  Make sure to let families know that, once the epidemic is over, the Internet provider will be asking for payment for continuing service and that they need to make sure they know when this will happen.  Also, the free service is unlikely to include cable service, although some companies offer one month of free access—the same thing holds true for paid service once any free service has expired.  Information about some of these offers can be found on the March 16, 2020 USA Today website at **

  • Comcast is offering free access to its Xfinity WiFi hot spots until about mid-May.
  • AT&T is providing free access to its public WiFi hot spots.
  • Charter Communications is providing free Spectrum broadband and Wi-Fi Internet access through mid-May to households with K-12 students or college students who don’t already have a subscription. It is also offering Wi-Fi hot spots for free to the public.

**This link also describes how other organizations (e.g., some gas and electric companies), are handling the inability to pay for service due to loss of jobs or reduced hours because of the coronavirus pandemic.


Graves, M. F., & Watts-Taffe, S.  (2008).  For the Love of Words: Fostering Word Consciousness in Young Readers.  The Reading Teacher, 62(3), 185-193.

Samway, K. Davies, & Taylor, D.  (October 2009).  Worldly Possessions: Developing Word Consciousness in English Learners.  Language Magazine.

Scott, J., & Nagy, W.E.  (2004).  Developing Word Consciousness.  In J. Baumann & E. Kame’enui (Eds.), Vocabulary Instruction: Research to Practice (pp. 201-217).  New York: Guilford Publications.

Katharine Davies Samway is Professor Emerita at San José State University in California.  She has spent almost all of her professional life working with and on behalf of English learners. Her most recent book, Supporting Newcomer Students: Effective Advocacy and Instruction for English Learners (written with Lucinda Pease-Alvarez and Laura Alvarez) will be available in April 2020 from Norton.

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