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Evidence-Based Vocabulary Interventions for Struggling Students

June 29th, 2018 | 2 min. read

By Gryphon House

As globalization makes it easier for people to cross national borders and enter new cultures, teachers find themselves with more and more children for whom English is a second language. Dual Language Learners (DLL) experience early education in a way that is unique and sometimes confusing, the language they are still learning at home shifting to a different language whenever they enter the classroom. This back and forth can lead to literacy difficulties and stunted vocabulary as these children struggle to learn two languages at once.

Oftentimes, DLL students end up falling behind in language and literacy as they progress into elementary school. However, this is not because of an inability to learn new words; in fact, research shows that when the child’s vocabulary in their home language and their school language is combined, their knowledge often outnumbers that of their monolingual peers. The problem is that the vocabulary in each language on its own is limited. Which begs the question: How can teachers work to remedy vocabulary stagnation in one or both of a child’s languages?

In her book, Many Languages, One Classroom, Karen Nemeth makes the case for including resources in the child’s home language in order to build vocabulary. Our basis for language is developed at home; it’s where we first hear people speak and begin to understand how sentences are structured and how certain words are used. That foundation is important to for any linguistic concept we learn afterward, including new languages. By providing them with additional class time in which they learn in their home language, children continue to develop their vocabulary, which they can later apply to their school language as well.

Another important step to building vocabulary is providing a varied vocabulary at all points in the classroom. This can be done in either of the child’s languages and is beneficial for monolingual students as well. In addition to learning the classroom words of the week, teachers should use a variety of synonyms and antonyms, as well as introduce new, more complicated words into the classroom. Hearing these new words being used in conversation will allow children to remember them and perhaps begin using them themselves. Teachers should also make it a point to encourage discussions and conversations that use the words of the week, permitting students to practice using this new vocabulary. Fun vocabulary games are a great way to facilitate these discussions. Here is an example:

The Big Board Game


  • Plastic tablecloth, shower curtain, or Twister game sheet
  • Permanent markers
  • A large cube
  • Either a box or a purchased “picture cube” with clear vinyl sleeves
  • Photos, words, and numbers to post on the 6 sides of the cube
  • Labels for the spaces on the game board in the languages of the classroom—words that match what is on the sides of the cube
  • Costume items that allow the children to become game pieces, such as different hats, vests, etc.

Key Words:

  • Blue
  • Finish
  • First
  • Five
  • Four
  • Go
  • Green
  • Move
  • Next
  • One
  • Red
  • Roll
  • Six
  • Start
  • Stop
  • Three
  • Two
  • Wait
  • Yellow
  • The names of pictures you place on the dice

What to Do:

  1. Before the activity, set out the tablecloth or shower curtain, and use markers to draw a path along it of several squares the children will move themselves along during the game
  2. Label the sides of the dice with pictures and the number of color words in all needed languages
  3. Find one or two children who already know how to roll the dice and move along in a board game. Ask them to demonstrate
  4. Begin the game with a few interested children. Review the words on the dice, have them roll, say the word that comes up on the die, and move forward one step for each syllable in the word the child said
  5. Repeat the steps with the children, encouraging them to take turns moving along the board

Knowing multiple languages should not be a hindrance to a child. With the right instruction, DLL students can become proficient in both their languages and maintain the same reading levels as their peers, vocabulary and all.