How I develop word consciousness with my ELLs

It’s daunting. While non ELLs are acquiring new vocabulary each week, ELLs have to play catch up. In addition to the Basic Intercommunication Skills vocabulary of every day conversation, they need to learn the specialized words of different subject areas. And this specialized vocabulary needs to be taught directly.

Now of all the things to be taught directly perhaps only grammar can induce a greater degree of loathing. What teacher became a teacher just so that they could teach new words. The contrast between this highly drab and boring approach is exemplified in the Robin Williams film Dead Poet’s Society, where (spoiler alert) the emotionally engaging methods of the teacher Mr. Keating are ultimately rejected. One of the closing scenes of the movie shows the old school method prevailing with a teacher followed by a group of boys repeating his Latin conjugations.

Vocabulary instruction is important, and it won’t be easily learned passively. But nor does it require getting students to look up and write down dictionary definitions.

Our aim for our students should be developing word consciousness. Word consciousness is the degree to which students understand the various meanings, functions, and relations of a word to other words, sentences, domains, and even languages. Puns are only funny to people who have a strong familiarity with a language, in other words, those who have developed word consciousness.

The importance of reading

For students who grew up speaking English as a home language, very little of their time would have been devoted to actively building vocabulary. This is true of many other languages. Think about yours. If it’s an alphabetic language, you learned your new words mostly through reading. ELLs can also benefit immensely from reading regularly and from a wide variety of text types. This is a much more efficient long term strategy for retaining new words. And the reason is, the more personal a connection that a student makes between a word and their own conception of the world, the more likely they’ll remember that word. That being said, in order to catch up, ELLs benefit from strategic vocabulary instruction.

The importance of phonetic awareness

English is not a purely phonetic language. We all know this. But the strongest readers and spellers are the ones that see and “hear” the sound-written word connections. All students benefit from making clear the sounds found in English words, even students with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, where a part of the student’s brain has a physical limitation in its ability to make these connections.

I’ve had students who have memorized their way through hundreds of sight words only to stall in their reading when encountering unfamiliar words. If they are hard working and committed to a lot of repetitive practice at home, they can can maintain this approach. But it’s unnatural and unnecessary.

I’ve had other students who just needed a little direction and some practice in making those connections. Below I will describe a method that I use with my students to help them develop word consciousness and that is beneficial to all types of student.

The method

In my class, I often spend about 30 minutes a week doing the following activity using words students are studying in different subject areas. For example, if students are studying a unit on matter, words would include, property, density, liquid, solid, mass, atoms, space, vibration. 

First, I’ll write the word in the center of the white board, and then I’ll provide a student friendly definition. If the word has multiple meanings, I’ll focus on the meaning they’re likely to encounter in their homeroom classroom, but I may add that word. Let’s look at an example with a definition.

property: what an object is like. eg. wet, hard, soft

Next, and this is important, I’ll ask what they notice about the word, what parts of other words they see in it.

One student might say, “I see the word proper.”

I’ll then write out that word and underline the parts of the word that correspond. eg. proper

Another student might say, “Oh, I see party.”

This serves as a valuable teaching moment. I might say something like this.

“Well, it looks like the word ‘party’, but the sound and letters are a bit different. Let me read it like this. ‘propArty’. Does that sound right? No. The word ‘property’ has the ‘per’ sound in it. Can we think of a word that has the ‘per’ sound in it?”


“Yes, that’s right. Let’s add that one.”

And I’ll write the word percent, underlining per.

The goal is to make a few sound/letter connections that would be useful to the student. Over time, the student will get better at making connections.

“Any others?”

“Oh, I see the word rope.”

Another student interjects, “No, rope is like ‘ohhh’. Property is like ‘aaaahhh’.”

This leads to another teachable moment. “It is true the word ‘rope’ is in the word “property”. But is it the same sound. ‘pROPErty’ just isn’t right. So we have to be careful. But what about me. What’s my job? ‘Teacher’. Do you hear the ‘er’ at the end of that. That’s a useful sound because it shows up everywhere. ‘propERty’ ‘teachER’ ‘drivER’.”

For some students, this is like rocket fuel, and they’ll be able to quickly form phonetic connections on their own. For others, it will take more time.

After working on word connections, I might get students to highlight parts of the word that might be tricky to spell to remember correctly.

“Yeah, remember the last part is ‘ty’ not ‘tee'” Because y, with the i: sound is so common, many students pick up on this quickly. “happY” “sunnY”


Being able to identify the syllables in a word can further deepen word consciousness. A syllable is a unit of pronunciation containing at least one vowel sound with or without consonant sounds.

Pro-per-ty has three syllables, and the last ‘ty’ is a syllable because the “y” is acting as a vowel here.

Beginner ELLs and poor spellers, have great difficulty breaking words down. This impedes there ability to spell, which is important for writing, as well as read unfamiliar words. It’s a great pleasure for a student to sound out a word in a text and then realize they’ve heard that word before in the classroom.

Word types and substitution 

I think it’s important for students to have a knowledge of word types because it gives a common vocabulary for teachers to discuss with students problems in writing. It’s also helpful for students when they’re decoding words’ meanings in sentences. Strong readers are good decoders.

After I’ve defined the word for the students, I’ll ask what kind of word it is. We’ll try to use clues from the word itself or the definition to guess. For example, if the definition uses “a” or “the” in it, we can generally infer the word is a noun. The suffix can often help us too. Words ending in “ion” are nouns. Many words ending in “ly” are adverbs. We can also do a substitution trick. “Water has several properties. It is clear, wet, and a liquid.”

Beforehand, the students have already practiced and remembered some basic word types and examples: noun, apple; verb, walk; adjective, big; adverb, slowly. The students know to substitute the simple word type they know with the word they’re trying to figure out.

“Does this make sense? ‘Water has several big?’ No, right. What about this? ‘Water has several slowly.’ Even worse. Okay. ‘Water has several apples.’ That’s super silly, but at least it shows us that this is a noun.”

Related Words

Another category that can sometimes come up, is the related words category. For example, the adjective form of “property” is “proper”. It’s good to point this out to students. A word like “environment” has “environmental” and “environmentally” as related words. While students may not initially be able to use these words effectively in sentences, it is important for them to make connections with the different forms of the word. The more patterns and rules they can make for themselves the better equipped they are as readers.

Changing mindsets about spelling

In her wonderful book Getting to “Got It!” Helping Struggling Students Learn How to Learn, Becky Garner describes the undeveloped cognitive structures that many students have and which inhibit them from learning. She cites one example of a very poor speller she worked with who never realized that the spelling of words are permanent. They don’t change from day to day. Because this student had never really engaged with their learning and had never made this connection, they were unable to read or write effectively. Having realized the permanence of spelling, the student was able to make very rapid progress.

While few students may be like the one Becky Garner worked with, many have given up on trying to spell. They see it as a lost cause and rightfully get frustrated when they try to remember spelling words through rote methods. I remember one student who had never gotten a single word correct on our weekly vocabulary tests, learn to spell a word like transformation after reviewing it in class using the method I described above. Because she had properly learned the word, and had developed a deeper word consciousness with it, the spelling stuck. And of course I chose it for our vocabulary test that week.

Closing thoughts

You can’t teach all the words. You need to be strategic about which ones to focus on. A good method is to select vocabulary that can be maximally useful across content areas. Words like prepare, plan, brainstorm, organize, experiment, study, are useful in all classes. In content specific areas, words like density, hierarchy, Feudal System, have less applicability across subject areas.

Studies show that students need to use words in context up to 20 times before it can be said they know the words. But in addition to building reading skills, deepening word consciousness, and making connections to other words, students are better equipped with a strategy that promotes the connectiveness of sound, to meaning, to words, and to self.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, or send me your own vocabulary teaching methods.


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