How to Support Emerging Multilingual Learners: Essential Vocabulary

Updated: May 7


classroom examples emerging multilingual learners

Meaningful activities with vocab makes all the difference. Learn how to help your emerging multilingual learners with this fun activity below.

For emerging multilingual learners, teaching essential vocabulary effectively and authentically could provide a strong entry point to your content. In my 21 years of teaching, vocabulary has been the bane of my existence. I struggled to find a method where both my kids’ needs were met and my content needs were met. But most importantly I struggled to find a method that gave vocab development the fluidity and authentic use needed for kids to really own the words they were learning. Word walls, vocab notebooks, vocab diagrams, all great singular activities. The problem was they were usually one and done activities. Vocab was taught in isolation, even when claiming not to be.


After years of practice, trial and error, I now use a process that will help emerging learners really own their new vocab! Going through this process will help your emerging learners engage with their essential vocabulary in a way where they authentically begin to use and own the words.


Identifying Essential Vocabulary for Emerging Multilingual Learners


First, start by identifying your most essential vocabulary. We as teachers, struggle with whittling down our vocab lists because we typically love our content. But having a huge list of words makes it really difficult for your emerging multilingual learners to decide what is most important to focus on. The truth is, not all words are created equally. So when identifying your most essential vocabulary, think about tier 2 & tier 3 words.


Tier 2 are those words that kids are likely to see across content areas & tier 3 words are more content specific. Just be sure that the tier 3 words you choose are the ones that you will be using most often throughout the semester.


Once you identify your most essential vocabulary, use this 3 Step Simple Process to help your emerging learners start to own their words.


Step 1: Initial gathering of info


With essential vocabulary, it is important to start with some method for students to gather basic information. I use a simple essential vocab sheet where they identify 5 things.

  1. The word (spelled correctly)

  2. Note the location of the word in the text (if applicable)

  3. For math: note where it can be found in a problem

  4. Part of speech

  5. Definition in their own words

  6. Here I allow them to use any language

  7. I stress that this sheet is for their use, not for “points” and not for me

  8. A visual

  9. You may have to guide them on this part! Oftentimes kids will Google the word and copy an image they find, yet that image doesn’t always “show” the meaning. Tell students to try to think of a visual on their own or they can do a Google search of the description or paraphrased definition. So for instance, instead of doing an image search of the word “neutral” they would search “not picking a side.”

emerging multilingual learners example graphic organizer

“Essential Vocabulary Sheet” for emerging multilingual learners. Click the image above to request this resource to be sent directly to your email!

Step 2: Collaborative Vocab Activity


After students are given time to gather as much info as they can for their new words, do a collaborative vocab activity. This allows them to share their work with each other and helps them continue to gather information if needed. They can help others with their info and double check their own information for accuracy.


Remember the point of all the practice we have kids doing in the classroom is to help them gain a true understanding of any concept, so having them share ideas and explanations will only deepen their understanding. Always allow your students to have these conversations in any language. The conversations they have with each other in their native language about content deepens that understanding even further. 

emerging multilingual learners example group activity

“Collaborative Vocab Activity” Click the image above to request this resource to be sent directly to your email!

In this Collaborative Vocab Activity, kids work in groups to really own their words. There are 7 things they work to find. Students have already found several of these items from the previous day in their Essential Vocab Sheet. It’s a good check to see if they were just writing down information or really thinking as they were writing. In addition to the info from their vocab sheets, they also need to find the following:

  1. Word parts or word families

  2. Synonyms or expressions with similar meanings

  3. Sentence in context

  4. Translation into any language

This is a great review as they have access to all groups’ words, are referring to information they’ve already gathered, and are building upon that with new information about the words. The activity can be done digitally or with posters.


Step 3: Living Word Wall


Finally, we move into what I like to call a “Living Word Wall.” I’ve struggled with the idea of a word wall for many years. How do you manage it all? Do you just keep the words up forever? All the words? Words and no meanings? What about limited space?


The Circle Map solves everything. Once I saw it, I instantly knew it could be used for vocabulary. I envisioned how I could take The Circle Map and use it to create a “living” word wall. You can have the words “live” on your wall as long as you need it. Keep some words up, while taking others down and adding more to the wall as students master vocabulary.


How to Create and Implement The Circle Map for Essential Vocabulary


To start a circle map, add your word in the middle. As the kids come upon the words through the coming weeks, they add examples, images, explanations, and translations to the map. Students can add anything that will aid in their understanding of the word.

If you have several periods, it can be a multi-class collaboration. Then as you come upon more information, examples or whatever, you continue to reference and add to the maps.

emerging multilingual learners example

In my class, we had the above map up on the wall for the word “neutral”. Today, we did an activity where the word “objective” was used often. This new word lead to a class discussion. We talked about “objective” and decided to add it to the circle map for neutral. Once again, reviewing and referring to the information on the map.

Repetition and scaffolding on previous information is key to students learning and success.


The point is that this word wall is living and fluid. It reinforces knowledge, it is never one and done. Students gain understanding of things, deep understanding. This is a process, and takes continual practice.


You’ll notice that during this process, each activity spirals back on the last. It moves forward with a bit of new information. This allows for our emerging learners to engage with the words in multiple ways independently, with partners, and whole-class.


Moving Forward with Your Emerging Multilingual Learners


As you look to implement these activities in your classroom, remember it is OK to put your own spin on things. You are the expert in your class. Trust your instincts, give little tweaks that will serve your students and your content goals.


The most important thing is that you give your kids a chance to experience the words in multiple ways and that they continuously see them weaved throughout their everyday interactions with the content.


Contact Kimberly Moreno through email or social media at:

kimdmoreno@gmail.com Instagram: @la_miseducada Twitter: @LaMisEducada





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