Teacher Decisions in Selecting Vocabulary for Instruction to English Language Learners

  • Mark D. Johnson East Carolina University
Keywords high school, ELL, ESL, second language acquisition, vocabulary instruction, English language learners, vocabulary, achievement gap, instructional practices, language comprehension/development
Keywords high school, ELL, ESL, second language acquisition, vocabulary instruction, English language learners, vocabulary, achievement gap, instructional practices, language comprehension/development


In response to the paucity of literature on vocabulary instruction among high school-aged English language learners (ELLs), this study used concurrent think-aloud methodology to examine the decisions of high school teachers with little to no experience working with ELLs. Participating teachers were asked to read a sample text, selecting vocabulary they might focus on when working with ELLs in their classes. The results indicated that teacher experience was a key factor in vocabulary selection. Junior teachers in the subject areas focused almost exclusively on local-level comprehension as a rationale for vocabulary selection, whereas senior teachers in the content areas focused on relative word frequency and word formation as criteria for vocabulary selection. Pedagogical implications of the study recommend a focus on productive vocabulary knowledge in addition to receptive vocabulary knowledge, as well as vocabulary instruction integrated across subject areas through collaboration among ESL teachers and their colleagues in the content areas.

Author Biography

Mark D. Johnson, East Carolina University

Mark D. Johnson, Ph.D., is assistant professor of TESOL and Applied Linguistics at East Carolina University, where he teaches second language acquisition, research methods, and language assessment courses for teachers of English as a second language.


Abedi, J., & Lord, C. (2001). The language factor in mathematics tests. Applied Measurement in Education, 14, 219-234. doi: 10.1207/S15324818AME1403_2

Austermuehle, D., Kautz, T., & Sprenzel, J. (2007). Improving the knowledge and application of vocabulary within content areas. Unpublished manuscript, Saint Xavier University, Chicago, IL.

Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bring words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guilford Press.

Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2005). Choosing words to teach. In E. Hiebert & M. Kamil (Eds.), Teaching and learning vocabulary: Bringing research to practice (pp. 207- 222). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum

Bernardo, A. (2002). Language and mathematical problem solving among bilinguals. The Journal of Psychology, 136, 283-297. http://doi.org/10.1080/00223980209604156

Blachowicz, C., Fisher, P., Ogle, D., & Watts-Taffe, S. (2006). Vocabulary: Questions from the classroom. Reading Research Quarterly, 41, 524-539. http://doi.org/10.1598/rrq.41.4.5

Boulware-Gooden, R., Carreker, S., Thornhill, A., & Joshi, R. M. (2007). Instruction of metacognitive strategies enhances reading comprehension and vocabulary achievement of third-grade students. The Reading Teacher, 61(1), 70-77. http://doi.org/10.1598/rt.61.1.7

Calderón, M., August, D., Slavin, R., Duran, D., Madden, N., & Cheung, A. (2005). Bringing words to life in classroom with English-language learners. In E. Hiebert & M. Kamil (Eds.), Teaching and learning vocabulary: Bring research to practice (pp. 115-136). New York: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Coxhead, A. (2000). A new academic word list. TESOL Quarterly, 34, 213–238. doi: 10.2307/3587951

Cunningham, A., & Stanovich, K. (1991). Tracking the unique effects of print exposure in children: Associations with vocabulary, general knowledge, and spelling. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83, 264-274. http://doi.org/10.1037//0022-0663.83.2.264

Davies, M. (2008). Corpus of Contemporary American English. Available at: http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/

Firmender, J., Gavin, K., & McCoach, B. (2014). Examining the relationship between teachers' instructional practices and students' mathematics achievement. Journal of Advanced Academics, 25, 214-236. http://doi.org/10.1177/1932202x14538032

Gardner, D., & Davies, M. (2014). A new academic vocabulary list. Applied Linguistics, 35, 305-327. http://doi.org/10.1093/applin/amt015

Grabe, W. (2009). Reading in a second language: Moving from theory to practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Heatley, A., Nation, I.S.P., & Coxhead, A. (2002). Range [Computer software]. Wellington, New Zealand: Victoria University of Wellington.

Hedrick, W., Harmon, J., Linerode, P. (2004). Teachers' beliefs and practices of vocabulary instruction with social studies textbooks in grades 4-8. Reading Horizons, 45, 103-125.

Johnson, M. D., Acevedo, A., & Mercado, L. (2013). What Vocabulary should we teach? Lexical frequency profiles and lexical diversity in second language writing. Writing and Pedagogy, 5(1), 83-103. http://doi.org/10.1558/wap.v5i1.83

Johnson, M. D., Acevedo, A., & Mercado, L. (2016). Vocabulary knowledge and vocabulary use in L2 writing. TESOL Journal, 7(3), 700-715. http://doi.org/10.1002/tesj.238

Konopak, B.C., & Williams, N.L. (1994). Elementary teachers’ beliefs and decisions about vocabulary learning and instruction. Yearbook of the National Reading Conference, 43, 485-495.

Laufer, B. (2003). Vocabulary acquisition in a second language: Do learners really acquire most vocabulary by reading? Some empirical evidence. The Canadian Modern Language Review, 59, 567-587. http://doi.org/10.3138/cmlr.59.4.567

Laufer, B. & Ravenhorst-Kalovski, G. C. (2010). Lexical threshold revisited: Lexical text coverage, learners’ vocabulary size and reading comprehension. Reading in a Foreign Language, 22(1), 15–30.

Nation, I. S. P. (1983). Testing and teaching vocabulary. Guidelines, 5, 12-25.

Nation, I. S. P. (2001). Learning vocabulary in another language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nation, I. S. P. (2006). How large a vocabulary is need for reading and listening? The Canadian Modern Language Review, 63, 59-82. http://doi.org/10.3138/cmlr.63.1.59

National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). (2014). Retrieved from: http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/naepdata/

Shaw, J., Lyon, E., Stoddart, T., Mosqueda, E., & Menon, P. (2014). Improving science and literacy learning for English language learners: Evidence from a pre-service teacher preparation intervention. The Journal of Science Teacher Education, 25, 621-643. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10972-013-9376-6

Weinburgh, M., Silva, C., Horak, K., Smith, J., & Nettles, J. (2014). The intersection of inquire-based science and language: Preparing teachers for ELL classrooms. The Journal of Science Teacher Education, 25, 519-541. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10972-014-9389-9

West, M. (1953), A general service list of English words, with semantic frequencies and a supplementary word-list for the writing of popular science and technology. London: Longman.