If kids get low grades on reading comprehension, number one on my checklist is vocabulary. If kids don’t understand the words they read, how can they possibly understand the sentences containing those words?
But how to solve this problem?
For ELL students lacking basic English words, I make flash cards: a picture on one side and the word or words used to identify that picture on the other side. A picture of a child pitching a baseball might use the words “pitch.” “toss,” or “throw.”
I start with pictures of CVC words: “cat,” hat”, and “bat,” for example. Picturing nouns is easy. Picturing verbs like “sat” and “win” is harder, and often I need to demonstrate the actions.
With my students I use the Explode the Code phonics series, so I picture vocabulary words in the order in which the student encounters the words in the series. To these I add a few sight (Dolch) words so that we can make sentences, such as “A cat is not a dog.”
What I have discovered is that students can identify the pictures with just a bit of study, but they cannot use the words in sentences. When they see the word “pitch” they can move their arms in pitching motions, but they cannot make a sentence using the word “pitch.”
Even for students learning advanced vocabulary words, like in the Wordly Wise series, this is true. They can define a word using a synonym but they have trouble using the word in a meaningful sentence. (For many students using this series in school, their teachers do not assign the part of the lesson in which students write the new words in sentences, a big mistake.)
When I review already learned vocabulary words, I ask for synonyms, but also for usage. “It is a cat” works for beginning ELL learners. But “It is a catapult” does not work for older ELL students or for English-speaking students.
Another method to increase ELL learners’ vocabulary is to use picture word books meant for preschoolers. Because I want to use the vocabulary my students study to teach them reading, I prefer to begin with CVC words even though a word like “pizza” might be more frequently heard.