Discovering a World of Words

    During the course of a session last week, an ELL student asked me what strategies I recommended for improving vocabulary. She wanted to be able to understand and use more words, but didn’t know how to go about it. While I have certainly seen the results of ramshackle vocabularies, I had never been asked that particular question before, so I didn’t have a ready, thoughtful answer for her. I told the student what I personally have done to help my vocabulary (look up unfamiliar words that I encounter and keep a list with their definitions), but was left wondering what other or better strategies are available, what principles should be kept in mind, and how I can help students use more meaningful words.
    In Larry Bate’s “Responsible Vocabulary Word Selection: Turning the Tide of 50-cent Words,”  he begins by discussing the type of vocabulary words that are actually useful to students. In general, high-frequency words of a middling difficulty are much more worthwhile than words that are impressive but obscure. Not only that, but “…research indicates that word knowledge is sequential,” so it is important to fully comprehend very basic words before even attempting to build a versatile vocabulary. (70) Nonetheless, these principles are not usually reflected in standardized vocabulary lists, which Bate’s says appear to have been selected “using a blindfold and a dartboard.” (69) So for the student who is looking to improve their writing and comprehension, a more organic method will likely prove helpful.
    The primary principle to keep in mind is that a word will be easier to learn and implement if there is at least one familiar element to it. At its simplest, this applies to words that have a root, prefix, or other component that the student understands already. But it also applies to words that the student has read or seen frequently, words that can be thematically associated with other words, and for ELL students, words that are akin to words in their native tongue.
    Because of the aid that familiarity gives to learning, the best place to find new vocabulary is not the dictionary, but in students’ individual contexts. What words are their teachers using? What about their peers? What vocabulary is in the books they are reading? If you and they know where to look for helpful acquisitions, the first step is taken care of. The second step is to make those discoveries usable. In “Vocabulary in Action: Strategies for Turning Students Into Wordsmiths,” Amy Hardwick-Ivey suggests a number of strategies for learning and remembering words by building associations. Two of them particularly struck my fancy. First, drawing a picture or illustration of a word can help make that word memorable by giving a non-verbal aid, and can even help someone process what it means. Similarly, creating a short rhyme or poem that uses the word can both help to solidify an understanding of the word and make it easier to recall.
    I may never have a chance to use this information in a session. For that matter, I may never have someone ask me about vocabulary again. Nonetheless, I think that vocabulary is a critical component of writing, and that pointing students towards the world of words that is at their fingertips and helping them know how to understand it better can ultimately foster greater comprehension, better writing, and increased confidence.

Amy R. Hardwick-Ivey. “Vocabulary in Action: Strategies for Turning Students Into Wordsmiths.” The English Journal , Vol. 97, No. 4 (Mar., 2008), pp. 56-61 Published by: National Council of Teachers of English Article. Web. 6 March 2013.

Larry Bates. “Responsible Vocabulary Word Selection: Turning the Tide of 50-cent Words.” The English Journal , Vol. 97, No. 4 (Mar., 2008), pp. 68-76 Published by: National Council of Teachers of English. Web. 6 March 2013.


  1. Keturah,

    Vocabulary is certainly a relevant topic to WC work, considering how often we encounter writing issues such as misused words, words with unwanted connotations or meanings, or loaded language. (You can see some examples & explanations of these issues at

    Your vocabulary-building principles might work well (for both ELLs and native-speaking students) in conjunction with other strategies we use: using vivid verbs and precise nouns, or cutting down on wordiness by using one word to replace several, for example.

    Your first principle, building vocabulary organically, can also be a great way to help our students realize the connection between reading & writing. If students are interested in building their vocabulary, encourage them to read challenging material (in English) and pay attention to the words they're reading. Good readers & writers are usually attentive readers & writers--people who pay attention to their own writing & that of others. Instilling this awareness in our student-writers is one of the important pro-literacy tasks of the Writing Lab!

  2. Keturah, I found your post extremely interesting and relevant. I especially appreciated the strategies that you provided for learning and remembering new vocabulary. New vocabulary acquisition is something that I have thought about just recently. Within the past few weeks, as I have heard educated professors use words that I am unfamiliar with, I have felt to urge to expand my knowledge and vocabulary. I think that one of the best ways to expand one's vocabulary is through reading. I have found that the more I read, the broader my vocabulary becomes. The more one reads, the more they are exposed to a wide variety of terms. They are then able to learn word meanings primarily through context. Any words that I come across that I do not understand through context, I look up in a dictionary. Usually, I can then apply this quick research to future interactions with a new vocabulary term. In researching this topic, I found an article on middle school age children who were able to learn word meanings through context while reading. I do not see how this would be any different for college level students or ELL students.

    Nagy, William E., Richard C. Anderson and Patricia A. Herman. "Learning Word Meanings from Context during Normal Reading."
    American Educational Research Journal 24:2 (Summer, 1987). 237-270. Web. 10 April 2013.

  3. Keturah,
    I this is an interesting topic. I'm not sure that I would have known what to say in that situation either. In my TESOL classes, we are always taught to teach words and subjects with actual pictures. It helps people to remember them because they are given concrete visuals to relate the word to. Perhaps, in addition to keeping a list of words and definitions, she could find some sort of visual for each word.

    Ariza, Eileen N. Not for ESOL Teachers: What Every Classroom Teacher Needs to Know about the Linguistically, Culturally, and Ethnically Diverse Student. Boston, MA: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, 2006. Print.


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