Special Language Dictionary- Teaching Vocabulary to ELLs

My 8-4 job has me standing in front of a room full of 6 and 7 year old children.  They are from over 5 different countries. English is not the official language in any of these countries.  Some of their parents don’t speak English and some do.  Some families plan to remain in Japan forever and others plan to return to their home country within five years. A question that haunts me constantly is….

How to teach vocabulary that will support the children in their reading and language acquisition?

This is a constant struggle for me. Here’s why, our school uses the Reading Workshop Model to teach students reading.  The Reading Workshop Model is a reading program that was founded by Teacher’s College at Columbia University in New York City.  In the Workshop Model children read at their own reading levels.  For example, if a child can read at a second grade level, I wouldn’t give them a book on a first grade level.  It’s all about meeting the child at his/her reading needs.  This is great! This allows children who are struggling to read at their level and those who are are excelling to keep growing.

However, when you have a room full of young bright eyed charges, you can’t teach them every word they will encounter in English. So you have to teach them strategies to understand and comprehend what they are reading.  You can check online for tons of ways to do that. However, I chose to use something I call The Special Language Dictionary or The SLD.  The SLD is composed of three columns.  The first column is the word in English.  The second column is the definition.  The third column is the word in the child’s mother tongue.


English Definition Mother Tongue 


language Communication of thoughts and feelings through a system of arbitrary signals, such as voice sounds, gestures, or written symbols. 言語

The children use this dictionary when they find words they don’t know and they keep them in a notebook. Some vocabulary strategies state that the you should write a sentence with the word and draw a picture. However, that is not the purpose of the SLD. My purpose is twofold. If the children are with me all day, then they are not learning important vocabulary in their mother tongue. For the Japanese and Chinese students they are missing out on Kanji while they attend our school.

Another use of the SLD is to make sure the parents can participate in their child’s learning. If some of the parents can’t speak English, then who will help the child at home with reading comprehension? You could say, that’s your job as the teacher, but we know that when parents read to their children they answer questions and fill in the comprehension gaps that their child may have. If parents support their child with the SLD, then the children will be able to gain a deeper meaning of some of the words they are reading. For example, one of the children read a book with the word dare in it.  (You know, I dare you to keep reading this post! Or I dare you to leave a comment on this post.)  The word dare was on every page of the book.  For some reason, the child wasn’t able to pick up the context clues surrounding this word and they listed it in their SLD.  Now, I’m alerted that there is a problem.  I can easily flip through the book and we can start discussing the problem with the word and how it relates to understanding the story.  After we looked at the word, the pictures, and re-read bits and pieces of the story, we were able to figure out what dare really means.  This was a great way to grow the child’s language and reasoning ability.

Another example, no matter how many times I used the word flour or dough, the children were confused. Now mind you, we cooked with flour and made dough.  Even with a very tactile approach some of the children kept forgetting. So what did they do? They opened their SLD and read the word again.  My first year at the school left me frustrated when we cooked and we used recipes and one child would say over and over again, “What is a recipe?” For some reason that word didn’t stick.  We used it quite often and I couldn’t understand why this child had a hard time grasping that word. After I instituted the SLD many children tend to use it to remind themselves of the definitions of words.

The SLD is just a jumping off point. There are loads of vocabulary exercises, games, and story writing prompts that I can use with this vocabulary strategy. I’ll save those for another day!


About Michaela Chatman

Michaela Chatman is the founder of Camp Roadless Summer Visual and Performing Arts Summer Camp based in the Tokyo area. She has taught in Chicago, New York City, Hiroshima, and Tokyo. She has worked with children from ages 5-16. She is a dedicated fan and supporter of the arts. She performs locally in Tokyo with Kaguratei, a blues band. She is an active member in TELL:Exceptional Parents Group, Japan Affiliate of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum (JASCD), Tokyo Investment Group, and Pink Cow Connections Networking Group. For fun she organizes The Tokyo Lovers Pizza Meetup Group.
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