Improving English Language Learners' Academic Vocabulary, Kenneth McKee

Area of focus statement

How can I systematically and effectively improve English Language Learners' general academic (Tier 2) word knowledge?

Context of study

I am a high school literacy and instructional coach who serves three high schools in Buncombe County. I worked regularly with a group of four English Language Learners for two months in the fall of 2014. These students all speak Spanish as their first language. At the time of the study, they had lived in the United States between one and three years. Working with the students in their ESL classroom, their classroom teacher, Emily Dodson, and I provided vocabulary and reading instruction. The students attend Charles D. Owen High School in Black Mountain, NC, which is a predominately rural community. Students categorized under NCLB's LEP (limited English proficiency) comprise about 4% of the total student population.

Purpose of the project

The purpose of the project was to determine whether providing generative vocabulary instruction, focusing on Greek and Latin morphemes would enhance students' academic (Tier 2) word knowledge.

What I hoped to accomplish

I hoped to develop students' abilities to determine the meanings of unknown words through morphological vocabulary instruction. Knowing "within-word" clues might help students develop word-solving skills that would provide greater comprehension than simply using context clues (which are often missing in authentic texts). These skills are related to the Common Core State Language Standards for vocabulary acquisition and use.


Many students have a limited knowledge of Tier 2 vocabulary (sometimes called general academic vocabulary). However, students who are English Language Learners or who are economically disadvantaged are especially affected, which inhibits their reading comprehension, writing, academic discourse, and achievement on assessments. Although teachers provide instruction on Tier 3 words (content-specific words), these words are not enough to help students unlock meaning in academic texts or speak and write in the genres of the content area.

For example, a high school drafting teacher will likely teach domain-specific vocabulary like "parapet" or "plaster line." However, in the same drafting class, students will also encounter Tier 2 vocabulary like "demonstrate," "influence," and "characteristic." In addition, they will likely encounter these same Tier 2 words in English, science, or art classes. Thus, lacking Tier 2 vocabulary knowledge impacts student achievement in all disciplines.

There is a vast number of Tier 2 words, so many educators struggle to find efficient ways to facilitate Tier 2 word acquisition. Thus, Tier 2 vocabulary instruction often does not occur or the words chosen for this instruction are not systematic.

The following table (adapted from Zwiers' Building Academic Vocabulary) illustrates Tier 1, 2, and 3 word categories.

Tier 1
(everyday speech words)
Tier 2
(general academic vocabulary)
Tier 3
(domain-specific vocabulary)
Basic words that require little to no instruction.
Precise or sophisticated words that appear across domains.
Low-frequency words that appear in specific domains.
Book, girl, sad, run, etc.
Adjust, translation, depend, structure, etc.
Allegory, monarchy, hypotenuse, mitosis, etc.

The activity

The following sequence describes the process of each of the vocabulary-building innovation lessons that I taught.

  1. The teacher selected a short, engaging text.
  2. A Tier 2 word from the text was selected for vocabulary instruction.
  3. The word was introduced before reading the text .
  4. The teacher provided explicit instruction on the meaning of morphemes within the word.
  5. Student groups generated English and Spanish words that share morphemes and meaning with the target morpheme. These words were collected on a poster.
  6. The teacher introduced other words to students that were morphologically related to the target word.
  7. Students read and noted target words and morphologically-related words while they read the text.
  8. Target words and morphologically-related words were regularly integrated into vocabulary games.

Problem of practice question

How can I systematically and effectively improve English Language Learners' general academic (Tier 2) word knowledge?