Teaching New Words & Building Vocabulary Using Context


Learning new vocabulary is an important component of language acquisition. It is essential for learning new concepts in school. Because multilingual students have a limited vocabulary, they often struggle to keep up with their classmates. The Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP) is a framework to make content material more comprehensible for English Language Learners. Using SIOP and the reading strategies listed below will help multilingual students learn and retain new vocabulary. 

Key Words. When introducing a new concept or topic, select key vocabulary terms necessary for comprehension. Introduce and define words simply and concretely. Visual aids such as real objects, pictures, anchor charts, graphic organizers, and timelines can add more depth of meaning. Use synonyms, cognates, and translation to further define vocabulary. Use key words in context to clarify the meaning and usage of new words. Below are some examples of key words by topic.

  • Civil War: internal, conflict, army, forces, general, battle
  • Photosynthesis: convert, energy, cellular, absorb, reaction
  • Math: addition, add, plus, equal, sum, total, carry
  • Story: narrative, plot, setting, character, conflict, resolution, conclusion
  • Family: father, mother, son, daughter, sister, brother, husband, wife

Students also need to learn how to identify key words. Textbooks often underline, highlight, or use bold print to identify important vocabulary. Key terms may be located at the beginning of a section, in the margin beside the text, or at the end of the chapter. The skill of recognizing and defining key words is necessary for academic success.



Context CluesBeyond key words, students will encounter other new words. After decoding, native English speakers often know the definition because of their large vocabulary. However, multilingual students usually do not know the meaning of a new word. Some multilingual students will stop reading and pull out their phone or dictionary when they encounter a new word. Stopping for new words makes reading a slow, tedious process and interrupts their comprehension. 

Learning to use context to infer the meaning of a word is a skill all readers need. This skill uses information in the text surrounding a new word to  determine its meaning. Readers must use the sentences before and after the new word, as well as consider the topic of the paragraph, as clues to deduce its definition.  Multilingual students may be uncomfortable with an imprecise definition, however, repeated exposure to the new word will clarify its meaning. 

While literate multilingual learners use context for defining new words in their first language, they often do not transfer this skill to reading English. By reviewing this skill, these students will begin to use context  to infer meaning  when encountering new English words.

DefinitionOften fiction and nonfiction texts define or explain new words. Many students are unaware of this and do not look for definitions. By pointing out definitions and explanations, students will begin to notice and use definitions in their learning. 

  • A monarch is a king or queen.
  • The slow-moving reptile with a shell is a turtle.

    ExampleSimilarly, many texts will give one or more examples to expand the understanding of a word, yet students do not recognize them. Teach students transition words that precede examples (such as, like, for example) and explain how the examples can broaden the meaning of a new word. 

    • Migratory birds, such as ducks and geese, fly south in autumn and return in spring.
    • An example of hibernation is a bear that sleeps during the winter.

      Synonym, CognateWriters often use synonyms to add variety to the text. Teach students to look for words with a similar meaning of the new word.

      • I'm fond of baseball. I enjoying watching sports games. 
      • A square is a quadrilateral with equal sides and equal angles.

        European languages often contain cognates for English words. A cognate is a word that has the same linguistic derivation and may have similar spelling as well. Cognates may have the same or a similar meaning. Encourage the use of a student's first language when defining new vocabulary. 

        • Cognate  adapt = adaptar (Spanish)
        • Cognate  school = schule (German)

        Connecting new English words to first language words is effective way to learn vocabulary. In some cases, translation of a new word is practical and beneficial. Translation does not always  have a one to one correspondence, 

          Antonym. In addition to synonyms, writers use antonyms to add interest through contrast. Students may not consider looking for words with an opposite meaning to define a new word. By becoming aware of this technique, readers will be able to use antonyms to define new words.

          • I adore actors, but I dislike athletes.
          • The mountain rose high above the valley.

            Part of SpeechAnother way to determine a possible meaning for a new word is to determine what part of speech it is. Word order, word function, and suffixes can indicate the part of speech. By knowing whether the new word is a verb, noun, or adjective, a reader can more accurately deduce a meaning.

            • An angle is a figure formed by two rays. "Ray" is after a number and the object of a prepositional phrase, so it must be a noun and a part of an angle. 
            • They journeyed across the plains in a covered wagon for two months.  "Journeyed" follows a subject and has an "ed" suffix, so it is a verb.

              SubstituteAnother way of decerning the meaning of a new word is to substitute a known word inferred from the context. This is not a precise definition but it allows the reader to continue reading without interruption. 

              • She ate a ripe green kiwi. (kind of fruit or vegetable)
              • He pulled the lasso tight around the neck of the wild horse. (rope)
              • They journeyed across the plains in a covered wagon for two months. (traveled)

              Prefix-SuffixMany new words can be broken down into parts and then defined. Meanings of the affixes combined with the root word help to define the new word. Knowing the meaning of prefixes, roots, and suffixes is valuable for all readers.

              • review - re (again) view (to see) - to see again.
              • microscope - micro (very small) scope (to look at carefully) - an instrument for looking at very small objects.
              • happiness -  happy + ness (state of being) - the state of being happy.

              Personal DictionaryEncourage students to create a personal dictionary of new words organized by subject, and concept. Define new vocabulary and include additional information such as part of speech, plural form, word forms, cognates, translation, synonyms, antonyms, related words, and drawings as well. A sentence using the new word can also be added. This is a personal resource for vocabulary and spelling. This empowers multilingual and regular students to choose vocabulary that is most important for their learning process. An example entry is given below.

              • colony - Noun (colonies)  A country or place controlled by another country. Often people from that country live there.
              • colonists N, people, colonize V to make a colony. colonial Adj.
              • Syn. settlement, outpost.
              • New Amsterdam was a Dutch colony.

              Using a standard dictionary is also a important way of defining new words and a skill that all students should learn. Picture and academic ESL dictionaries are available for different levels. A dictionary should be matched to the student's ability. Multiple definitions listed for one word can be very overwhelming for emergent readers. However, as a multilingual student's vocabulary increases, defining words using context should be emphasized.

              Repetition. It is necessary to review and demonstrate the above techniques many times, particularly at the beginning of a term. By giving appropriate prompts such as, "Do you see a synonym or antonym near  the new word? What part of speech is it? Can you substitute a word that makes sense? Is there a prefix, root, or suffix?", students will learn to use new word definition strategies.

              As students gain proficiency using these techniques, they change the way they encounter new English words and read with greater confidence and speed. No more stopping to define each new word and interrupting their comprehension of the text. Defining "new words" in context with these techniques will improve students' vocabulary, comprehension levels, and reading speed. 

              Additional Notes

              Word Wall / Key Word Handout.  A word wall is a visual display of key words in a prominent place in a classroom. It is highly effective way of teaching new vocabulary. A word wall can be used while introducing key words, referenced throughout the study, and reviewed before the test. Word walls benefit all levels of K12 and adult students. 

              Before a new concept is introduced, teachers can create a word wall. For repeating units, create a poster that can be stored and reused. If you don't have a permanent classroom, create a key word handout. Or students can create the word wall as a learning project. Words can be arranged by concept or alphabetically.  Use the word wall or key word handout to review vocabulary frequently. 

              Singing. Music is one of the best ways to teach and learn new words. Songs have a way of anchoring in the memory and can easily be recalled. Early vocabulary is often taught through song, but older students also benefit from vocabulary songs. There are many academic songs for science, history, and mathematics. Consider using songs such as the Bones of the Body or the Geography Song. There are many songs for practical vocabulary like the days of the week and months of the year for emergent learners.

              Practice. Multilingual students must practice using new words seven or more times to remember their meaning. It is best to use new vocabulary in a variety of ways and situations. New words can be written in sentences, reports, or practice questions. Small group activities that include speaking, listening, reading, and writing provide excellent practice for using new vocabulary. Using manipulatives and playing games are fun ways to review new words.

              In conclusion, it is essential for multilingual learners to learn new words and build their vocabulary to succeed in school and their life in a new country. Younger students can learn 7-10 new words in a lesson, while older students can learn 10-15 new words. As their vocabulary grows, multilingual students will catch up with their classmates and become mainstream students. By using the techniques above, students will acquire skills for a lifetime of learning. 

              In the next blog, Teach How to Connect to Reading Texts, more reading strategies will be discussed.


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