Students in kindergarten and first grade possess reading skills that may be limited, undeveloped, or nonexistent. ELLs (English Language Learners) at this age are attempting to acquire a new language at the same time: learning to read while learning another language’s rules and lexicon.

As these students are working to acquire basic foundational concepts, teaching them new vocabulary presents educators with unique challenges. What are some of the best ways to support the needs of these young learners and provide them with the tools for reading success? Read on to discover tips for teaching vocabulary to young ELLs that can be implemented in any classroom.

How Can Educators Support ELL Students in Grades K-1?

Young students, whether non-readers, early readers, or ELLs, must all learn vocabulary orally and visually, since they haven’t yet learned how to read. ELLs are simultaneously learning a language they don’t speak at home or didn’t grow up speaking.

Because learning a new language in an immersive environment creates disorientation and anxiety, visuals are extremely important for ELL students. Visuals increase comprehension, reduce anxiety, help with decoding, and more. Dr. Cheryl Dressler suggests that instructors combine teacher read-alouds with visuals like in-book illustrations, picture-based activities, picture cards, and concept cards. Pairing instruction with guided practice allows younger ELL students to grasp important concepts more effectively.

Why Do ELLs Need More Help Learning to Read?

Readers can only decode content composed of words they know. If they don’t understand the vocabulary used in the texts they read or hear, they can’t comprehend the material. So even texts for beginning readers can be harder for ELLs, who are learning English as a second (or third, etc.) language.

Metalinguistic knowledge that comes more naturally to native speakers, like polysemous terms (words with multiple meanings) or idioms (a phrase or expression whose meaning can’t be gleaned from its words) can be especially challenging for ELLs and can affect reading comprehension.

What Are Some Examples of Using Visuals for ELLs?

Because they’re so important for educators to utilize with ELLs, it’s helpful to make visuals a regular part of daily practice so these students get the support they need. Here are just a few of the countless ways you can use visuals to support vocabulary instruction:

  • Give students a copy of the text you’re reading aloud so students can follow along visually.
  • When you discuss letters or words, show them visually as well.
  • Accompany each key vocabulary word with a photo or image of what it means.
  • Start each morning with a simple, clear agenda for the day written on a whiteboard with symbols or illustrations.
  • For topics in nature or science, display corresponding labeled photos or images.
  • Make sure complex events or scenarios in stories or lessons are illustrated and captioned or create a drawing on the board to illuminate events for students.
  • Display real objects when possible and point to them or their parts to connect with words or ideas.
  • For important concepts, provide images, illustrations, drawings, or diagrams that help to convey or support the concept.
  • Try role playing, gestures, pantomiming, or other forms of physical movement to visually demonstrate concepts.
  • For complex or challenging concepts, show a film on the subject, or use computers, television, or other visual aids.
  • Encourage students to draw images, comics, or other artwork to demonstrate their comprehension.

Participating in school can create many types of anxiety even for native speakers; in addition to normal stressors, ELL students are unfamiliar with the culture and language surrounding them, and they may also fear being ridiculed by peers or teachers for misunderstanding or mispronouncing words. Learning and remembering new words in a completely foreign language is difficult for adults, so it’s crucial for teachers to practice empathy with ELL students and give them helpful tools like visuals, which can help reduce potential anxiety and other normal responses to stress.

Stay sensitive to ELLs when they speak in class, as they may be afraid to make mistakes. Ask interactive, meaningful questions to encourage ELLs to express themselves. Then, instead of correcting their pronunciation or grammar, model correct usage by reaffirming the student’s idea and then saying words correctly.

Support ELL students through direct oral language instruction. Download flyer.

Are There Any Programs Created to Support K-1 ELLs?

ELL students need a solid foundation for important vocabulary skills, like the Wordly Wise 3000 program, which builds a strong connection between visuals and words. ELL students may require extra scaffolding, but Wordly Wise 3000 is an excellent place for instructors to start. Here’s how Wordly Wise 3000 supports early, non-reader, and ELL students:

  • Clear, attractive visuals communicate the meanings of words.
  • Multiple word meanings are highlighted and clarified wherever appropriate.
  • The consistent cast of K-1 story characters keeps readers interested in what happens next.
  • Characters experience authentic real-life situations for kindergarteners and first graders.
  • Repeated exposures in a variety of engaging, hands-on activities work to reinforce vocabulary acquisition.
  • Story content includes elements that help children grasp grade-level-appropriate concepts.
  • Students retell important story events with a picture sequencing activity, developing oral language proficiency.
  • Repetitive lesson structure offers variations within individual lessons.
  • Implementation is easy, with daily step-by-step instructions for teachers.

Give ELL Students in Grades K-1 a Great Start

ELL students who build vocabulary and foundational skills can become successful English language readers. For instructors of K-1 ELL students, that means meeting them where they are, giving them the vocabulary resources and foundational support they need, and helping them grow and learn.

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