Evidence Based Vocabulary Instruction

I am presenting a session at the National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum (NALDIC) on 17th November entitled ‘EAL: Approaches and Strategies to Teaching Vocabulary’ and I thought I would share a summary of what I have researched  when looking specifically at vocabulary instruction.

Vocabulary learning cannot just be left to chance.  EAL students need systematic and comprehensive vocabulary instruction.  Keyword list should be a part of all schemes of learning or planning.  The types of words that are part of those keyword lists should be the ways that are specific to a particular subject or content area.  Beck, Mckeown and Kucan (2002) show a 3 tier model for learning vocabulary which is:

  • Tier 1 – basic familiar, everyday words, words that name objects or function words.  These words rarely require the teacher to give any instruction on them.
  • Tier 2 – general curriculum words that are used across different subject disciplines and words that that may have several different meanings.  EAL students need to understand these words and be taught that they will encounter these words in a wide range of their subject areas.
  • Tier 3 words – subject specific / content words that are specific to a subject.  Beck et al argue that these are the words that should be the focus of your planning when you are looking at teaching students vocabulary.

These 3 tiers of vocabulary are well worth bearing in mind when you are planning to teach vocabulary.  Beck et al argue that tier 1 words especially will be picked up by students because of the sheer amount of times that they are used.  Tier 2 words are important but because they are used across a range of subject areas EAL students need to be explicitly taught that this is the case.  Tier 3 words are the words or phrases to focus on.

Hunt and Feng (2016) quite rightly found that direct vocabulary instruction helped to increase word knowledge and also reading comprehension.  In addition, they found that EAL students that received direct instruction performed well and in some cases better than their English only peers.

Silverman and Hines (2009) conducted research in EAL children from kindergarten through to grade 2 and found that the use of multimedia was highly beneficial to learning and retaining new vocabulary.  I would say that using resources such as: Quizlet, Get Kahoot etc are good places to start.

For EAL students reading stories, Johnson and Yeates (2011) found that giving explanations of new vocabulary whilst reading was a highly effective way to develop students understanding of vocabulary.  This stands to reason as students are hearing the new vocabulary in a real context that of a story or text being read to them or with them.

In conclusion, many studies talk about correlation between vocabulary learning and understanding of a text.  This goes to show how important vocabulary instruction is.  It is something that cannot be left to chance and is something that should be an integral part of a teachers planning.


Beck, I. L., Mckeown, M.G., & Kucan, L. (2002) Bringing Words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guilford Press.

Hunt, M. & Feng, J. (2016) Improving Vocabulary of English Language Learners through direct vocabulary instruction.  Available online at: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED565637.pdf

 Silverman, R. & Hines, S. (2009) The effects of multimedia enhanced instruction on the vocabulary of English Language learners and non English language learners in Pre Kindergarten through second grade. Journal of educational psychology.  Vol 101, No.2 305 – 314.

Wilkins, D.(1972). Linguistics in language teaching. London: Edward Arnold. Wong, W. &VanPatten, B. (2003). The evidence is in: drills are out. Foreign Language Annals. 36, 403-424.

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