ELL Instructional Strategies: Improving Vocabulary Improves Reading Fluency

by Angie Barnett | Jul 31, 2018

ELL Instructional Strategies: Improving Vocabulary Improves Reading Fluency

Non-native speakers of English who are in an ELL classroom face struggles with reading in English even if they are already strong readers in their native language. The natural tendency is for the reader to translate the words into the native language in their head as they read. This practice slows the reader down and keeps the focus on individual words instead of the overall meaning of the text. The reader becomes preoccupied with decoding and translation, losing all but the most rudimentary reading comprehension, requiring re-reading and slowing the whole process down considerably.

ELL Instructional Strategies

Using Vocabulary to Improve Reading Fluency

ELL teachers need to help their readers develop fluency, which is the ability to read swiftly with minimal decoding and absorb meaning as one scans the text the first time. Without a strong English vocabulary from which to draw, the English Language Learner is limited considerably in their ability to scan a text without extensive decoding. Therefore, it makes sense for the ELL teacher to use every tool in their knapsack to help their students increase their vocabulary.

ELL Instructional Strategies for Sight Words

For beginning ESL readers—not just those who are young in age, but also those who are young in the use of English—sight words must be developed similarly to how they are developed in young native speakers of English.

Flash cards

Flash cards with pictures of objects are very helpful in developing basic vocabulary.

Provide Visual Cues

The ELL classroom should be decorated with colorful sticky notes identifying every item in the room—the desk, the chalkboard or whiteboard, the windows, the door, the trash can, etc. Visual cues identifying the objects in the classroom are powerful aids to the student in remembering the name of the items and how they are correctly spelled.

Highlighting Words

When using simple texts for beginning ESL readers, encourage the reader to use a highlighter to mark familiar words in one color and unfamiliar words in another color. This interaction with the text gives the reader a sense of control (even though much of the text may be unfamiliar) and activates prior knowledge. Color is a powerful cue for visual learners. Once the student has identified the unfamiliar words, they can develop a short glossary and use their dictionary (or the teacher, if the student is very young) to jot short definitions of the unfamiliar words. The student should be permitted to write the definitions into the text so that the definitions are easily accessible and don’t require constantly putting down the text to look up the words. This is a technique called annotation and is another interaction with text that helps build comprehension.

To ensure deep absorption of the new vocabulary words, the teacher should ask the student to highlight or underline those words whenever he uses them in writing assignments. Correct use of a highlighted glossary word should be rewarded with extra points. This practice will move the student beyond simple awareness of a new word into active use of the word in context and increase the probability that the student will memorize the word and no longer need to check the glossary or the word wall when he encounters it in future reading.


The teacher might feel that it is repetitious for the student to list the words, develop the glossary, and then transfer the definitions by annotating the text. However, repetition can be a strong aid in helping the student absorb the meaning. Another related ELL instructional strategy is to have the student transfer the words to a word wall in the classroom, where they become easily accessible for future reading without requiring the student to look up the definition in the glossary.


As the student builds their own English glossary, the teacher should also assign activities that require the student to use the words in the glossary to create activities suitable for other students, such as crossword puzzles and fill-in-the-blank sentences along with answer keys. Having the student “teach” other students, using their self-developed glossary as the word bank, is a strong vocabulary reinforcer. It also changes the way the student views the glossary; it becomes the text that they have created for them to use to help others learn, rather than a simple list of definitions to submit to the teacher for a check-off or a homework grade.

What other ELL instructional strategies do you use in the classroom?

Learn how Reading Horizons ELL reading curriculum helps English Language Learners master sight words and understand the phonetic structure of the English language.



Building a strong vocabulary takes time and effort. Nonetheless, it is an essential part of learning to read, whether one is reading in one’s native language or a second language. The effective teacher uses ELL instructional strategies designed for deep implementation of vocabulary into her students’ consciousness.


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