How 3 Tiers of Vocab Make It Easier to Learn New Terms

Despite almost 40 years of speaking English, I often reach for a dictionary when adapting lessons for my ELLs. And, most of the time, I’m not happy with what I find. I usually get a concise definition that, while accurate, is at a level higher than what my students can easily understand. In these situations I have to find a way to articulate the meaning to my students in a way they can understand. But my goal isn’t to have the students understand the words for a few minutes—I need to move it through the exposure phase through conscious learning and ultimately to unconscious acquisition for them to get a step closer to fluency, even if it is for words they won’t hear outside of school often.

Thankfully, our colleagues have a similar problem when they teach academic vocabulary. Researchers such as McKeown (2014) have found a framework that helps students better understand difficult words they see for the first time in the context of what they already know. Although these techniques are often meant for students mastering their first language, I found they can be very applicable to ELLs, too.
We need to keep in mind that some words we want our students may not show up often in conversations they have outside of classrooms. That being said, some words will also show up very rarely in the classroom, but still need to be understood so the concepts will make sense.

McKeown suggests separating relevant vocabulary words into three tiers (McKeown, 2014):

Tier 1 – These words come up in everyday context and usually only have a single meaning—words such as “happy” or “baby” that you won’t have to worry about except at the introductory levels (and, at that level, make these a focus). These are the sorts of things that can help you develop a real-life setting or example that shows the concepts, such as railroad tracks for parallel lines, the resemblance students have to their parents to explain genetics, or why police read criminals the Miranda Warning for Civics or American History classes. If more dictionaries used these for their definitions, our jobs would be considerably easier. Since they don’t, we may want to latch onto as many of these as possible when figuring out how to define the concepts to our students.

Tier 2 – These are the more technical words like “virtual,” “perspective,” or “consistent” that may show up in practically any subject but aren’t used in daily conversation. They may be polysemous or they may have definitions that start to move beyond the more common usages, but either way these are the terms students will see in their questions. Be sure they can tell the difference between “analyze” and “infer” when reading passages, and take the time to look at your colleagues’ questions more than their content so you can be sure your activities target the skills students need to demonstrate understanding. This may go a long way toward improving not only your students’ grades, but also their WIDA or other language assessment scores.

Tier 3 – These are the subject-specific words like “photosynthesis” that are very specific to the subject and may not be heard elsewhere. The key here is to remember that we can’t teach the definitions of these words in isolation, because the students may not understand how they work with a larger concept. Your lessons should show how these terms work with a particular situation, and even then don’t expect them to grasp the meaning the first or even second time. Rather, these words should be what you make the point of your informal reviews before seeing how well the students can understand the terms.


Adrian, A., & Rader, H. (2016). Common Core conversations: Vocabulary. Retrieved from

McKeown, M. G. (2014). What do we know about how learners acquire new vocabulary? Retrieved from

from TESOL Blog


Free Books for Your Classroom 3: Storynory

Despite the fact that many educators have access to a wide selection of books from school and public libraries, it can still be challenging to choose the “right” ones and keep students supplied with material they are interested in. For contexts with limited resources, these struggles are even more pronounced. Luckily, there are many free online resources available, such as Storynory, that vastly increase the amount of material with which students can engage.

Storynory is simply a website with a collection of stories sorted into categories such as fairytales, myths and world stories, and classic audio books. Storynory is unique in that each story has a recorded reading so that users can read the text and/or listen to the story, which is beneficial in many ways and gives you added flexibility. Using the site is free and there is even a line of text at the bottom of the homepage which reads, “Our Terms and Conditions make it easy for schools to use our materials for free,” so you do not have to worry about doing so. Additionally, while there is a certain amount of emphasis on reading for children, I think the site does a decent job of selecting graphics that are not too childish and which would potentially alienate adult users. Don’t have Internet access all the time? No problem, just download the stories and save them for later!

Let’s take a closer look at the site itself. You can click stories from the homepage or choose a category from the “Stories” drop-down menu along the top of the page. “Educational Stories,” in particular, has some interesting options for English language learners including brief explanations of English phrases, language learning questions for select stories, and, if you choose to use them, tongue twisters. Even the “About” tab, which most people probably ignore, has a plethora of information, especially under “Where do I start?” because the folks at Storynory have a wealth of advice for you on that one. With hundreds of stories to choose from, it might be a good idea to have a road map before you get started.

Use Storynory in your classes or recommend it to parents and students for outside reading. If you like it, make a donation to ensure it keeps going and encourage others to do the same. For even more reading resources, check out parts one and two of this series as well as Rebecca Palmer’s compilation of websites with reading material for even more.

What’s your favorite reading resource? Share that and more by leaving a comment below.

from TESOL Blog

5 Tips for Enriched Vocabulary Presentation

Even in integrated skills courses, we often have some kind of time dedicated expressly to vocabulary. Many of us approach it in a similar way: listing out words on the board, providing definitions and sample sentences for each. In this post I’ll present five easy ideas for enriching that board work and ensuring that this explicit vocabulary-focused time is as valuable as possible.

Activating Schema

Before presenting, some kind of warm-up is in order. I have two ways that I commonly do this. The first is to tell a story into which I incorporate several of the words I’m about to teach. As I tell it, I’ll ensure that students can understand the words from context, and I’ll place extra emphasis on them in the telling. Another warm-up option is to activate students’ schemata by having them tell you what they think or know or can guess about the words you’ve written. Have you heard any of these words before? Are they similar to any words you know? Do you see any roots or affixes that look familiar to you? How would you guess this one is pronounced?

Collocations and Usage

Collocation is essential to actually using new words. Ok, so they understand what sympathize means now, but if we stop there, you’ll end up with students making sentences like, “I really sympathize this movie.” Don’t just teach sympathize; teach sympathize with [person]. Get all that information right up there on the board. In your sample sentence, make these features more salient by marking them up or using color.


Prefixes, suffixes, roots, and etymology don’t need to be a one-off lesson all their own. Incorporate them in an ongoing way. Encourage students to identify the constituent parts of a word and guess at its meaning. Even if they are wrong, you’re building their familiarity and some genuine neural connections with that word. Even if a student incorrectly guesses that sympathy means “nice,” they now have a concrete memory of wagering that guess and being corrected. This is likely to help them remember down the line (as I discussed in my last post).

By learning not just the word but its constituent pieces, that knowledge goes a lot further and deeper. It forges meaningful connections with other words and helps them to predict the meaning of words they encounter in the future.

Don’t limit yourself to simply telling students the denotation a particular affix (re- means again; pre- means before). Encourage them to recognize the patterns and connections between suffixes and parts of speech: This word ends in –ate. What kind of word do you think it is? How do you think we can change it into a noun? Between affixes and pronunciation: Where do we usually find the stress in words that end with –tion?


The neglect of pronunciation has been (rightfully) bemoaned for at least the past decade, and this is one time you can easily address it. Incorporating pronunciation into your vocabulary presentation is not about choral drills; or, at least, it shouldn’t be limited to that. Draw word stress and write phonetic spellings into your board word. Ensure that these will be meaningful to students when they get home and practice on their own (that is, depending on students’ language background, a spelling that appears phonetic to you may not appear so to your students). When having students pronounce words, also practice the sample sentences or at least phrases, so that students can get some practice in connected speech.

Word Families

Make sure that you’re teaching not just a common root word or head word, but pointing students to the rest of the word family, thereby making the most of each new word. That is, don’t just teach synonym and move on to unrelated words. Once you’ve taught synonym, broken it apart and discussed its etymology and derivation, make sure you’re not missing out on antonym, homonym, and pseudonym (and, hey, if you’ve got time, allonym, aptonym, backronym, eponym, glossonym, holonym, netcronym, pertainym, and xenonym)

You might be thinking that a board laden with all this information sounds overwhelming. It can be, certainly. I tend to decrease the number of words I focus on now that I take this approach, or, if I’m working in a curriculum with a fixed set of words each unit, I’ll make sure to help students to prioritize: This word is really useful. That word is really rare; you probably don’t need it. I also make sure to use the full spectrum of markers that are at my disposal, establishing a sort of visual code that (I think) decreases the cognitive load on students.

from TESOL Blog

Revolutionizing Education by Reshaping Narrative

Aziz Abu Sarah will present the Opening Keynote, titled “Revolutionizing Education: Building Peace in a Divided World,” at the TESOL 2016 International Convention & English Language Expo, 5:30 pm, Tuesday, 5 April.  

“The West wants to destroy the Arab and Muslim world,” one of my Syrian friends told me as we were drinking coffee in Amman, Jordan. He is an educated man who works with humanitarian organizations, but I wasn’t surprised by his comment. I grew up exactly like him, believing the world is against us.

This idea of a “clash of civilizations,” or a struggle between “East” and West,” is part of a widespread narrative in the world today. Whether I am speaking to Arab audiences in the Middle East or Western audiences in the United States and Europe, I frequently receive questions about why “they” are against “us.” For instance, after almost every lecture I give in the United States, I am confronted with statements like “They want to destroy our culture” and “They hate us because we believe in democracy and human rights.”

I understand where those fears come from. Often, these fears begin in youth, with exposure to media, comments from adults, and narratives taught in elementary school. For instance, I was taught in school that the Crusades were Christian wars, waged against Islam and Muslims. These kinds of stories— invented narratives that tell us “we have always hated one another”— divide our world.

The problem is these narratives are not true. Both Western and Middle Eastern textbooks tend to teach the Crusades were “Christians vs. Muslims,” but I was astonished to learn that this just isn’t historically accurate. For example, the Fourth Crusade was fought entirely between Christians: during the crusade, the Venetians, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Kingdom of France fought the Byzantine Empire and the Catholic Kingdoms of Hungary and Croatia. The Albigensian Crusade was also fought solely between Christian groups. Other crusades, like the Wendish Crusade and the Livonian Crusade, were wars between Christian and pagan groups. Still more crusades were called against against the Mongols, and one pope even launched a crusade against the Holy Roman Emperor!

It is also a mistake to think Muslims only fought Christians during the Crusades. In fact, Muslims frequently allied with Christian kingdoms. The Danishmends and Nizaris, both Muslim groups, allied with the Crusaders on more than one occasion. One might be even more surprised to learn that Muslims didn’t even think of the Crusaders as one, monolithic “Christian” enemy to fight against! Instead, Muslim chroniclers like Zakariya al Qazwini referred to Crusaders by their place of origin (as Franks, Byzantines, etc.); the term “Crusaders” (al-salibiyyun in Arabic) was only invented in the 19thcentury, when Arab writers angry at Western colonialism and missionary activity began using the term as part of an effort to link medieval wars with French colonialism. Overall, the Crusades as “Christian versus Muslim” is thus entirely a modern invention.

I also often hear Europeans describe the 1453 Conquest of Constantinople as another example of an ongoing “clash of civilizations” between East and West. But like the Crusades, the Ottoman defeat of the Byzantine Empire had little to do with Muslim-Christian relations. It was politics as usual, with cross-alliances of all sorts. Turks and Christians fought on both sides of the battle: the Ottoman sultan had Christian contingents in his army, and the Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI was supported by Turkic Muslim units. This complexity is also reflected in the fact that the residents of Constantinople didn’t blame Muslims for the city’s fate. Instead, they believed God was punishing Orthodox leaders for trying to unify with the Catholic Church. As a result, when Constantinople fell, the cry on the street was not “Christianity has fallen to Islam,” but “It is better to see the [Turkic] turban ruling over the city than the Latin [Catholic] hat!”

These historical examples show how easy it is to fall into an “us vs. them” mindset; they also show how education has the power to either foster understanding or fuel conflict. Having grown up in Jerusalem, I know this from personal experience. As a result, much of my work centers on using narrative to break down barriers, promote reconciliation, and foster understanding between cultures.

In this spirit, one project I am involved in works to correct Holocaust denial among Muslims, and fights a misconception among Jews that Muslims generally supported the Nazis during World War II. The project, called “I Am Your Protector,” looks to reshape these narratives by highlighting stories of Muslim-Jewish friendship. For example, the project describes how Muslims in France, Albania, and North Africa saved thousands of their Jewish neighbors from Nazi purges. Abdul Hussein Sardari is one such individual. Sardari served as the head of the Iranian consulate in Paris in 1940s. Without the consent of his superiors, he issued over 2,000 Iranian passports to Jews to save them from the Nazi regime, and made a case to the Nazis that Jews were Aryans, and therefore should not be killed.

As the “I Am Your Protector” campaign has expanded, it has grown to highlight other stories of how people from different faiths and ethnicities have helped one another: stories of Christians and Jews helping Syrian refugees, and stories of Muslims protecting churches in Pakistan, for instance. Learning such stories is vital for changing the atmosphere of hate and fear that so often prevails in public discourse.

Overall, revolutionizing education involves learning to question and critically examine the stories we hear on the news, in books, and in the classroom. No matter our religious or ethnic background, we must struggle to understand the complexity of both historical events and modern issues. The only way to tear down the walls of hate and fear is to learn about other cultures and explore new ideas in education. If we change these popular dividing narratives and learn to humanize “the other,” we will witness the world change in our lifetime.

Aziz Abu Sarah is the executive director at the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy, and Conflict Resolution. In 2009, he cofounded MEJDI Tours to use as a bridge between conflict resolution and business. Aziz is a lecturer and has spoken and facilitated meetings for countless international organizations and universities on the subjects of peace, reconciliation, and interfaith dialogue. Aziz is an expert on Middle East politics, and conflict resolution strategies. He has published articles in The New York Times, Haaretz, the Jerusalem Post, Alarabiya, and others, and regularly provides analysis for television news programs such as Al Jazeera, CNN, and Fox. He has been honored to receive numerous awards including the Goldberg Prize for Peace in the Middle East, the Silver Rose Award, the Eisenhower Medallion, and the Eliav-Sartawi Award for Middle Eastern Journalism. He was named one of the 500 Most Influential Muslims by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre for 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014.

from TESOL Blog

Friday Freebie

Hello everyone!
It is Friday and time for a fun freebie!

Get ready to have fun practicing colors with this great colorful game board and color cards. This 2 page kindergarten packet includes a gameboard and color cards for endless fun and color name practice. 

Click here to download this freebie!

This kinder unit will definitely get your students motivated to learn through hands on activities that are so much FUN! 

Click here to download this freebie!

Happy Teaching!

from Fun To Teach ESL – Teaching English as a Second Language

Fun To Teach Spring Sale!

Hello everyone!
Spring is here!

It is time to get inspired and Teachers Pay Teachers is the place to find your inspiration!

Fun To Teach is having a 20% off spring sale right now.  

Pop over to the Fun To Teach Store and stock up on products that will inspire you and ignite your teaching!

Check out some of our best selling products!

Happy spring!

Happy Teaching! 

Happy Teaching! Lori
from Fun To Teach ESL – Teaching English as a Second Language