How to Teach ESL VocabularyBy Lorena Siegel
November 25, 2020
Vocabulary is crucial to a student’s language development and communication skills. After all, without adequate words, it’s difficult to relate thoughts, ideas, and feelings about who we are and how we interpret the world around us. But how do we achieve this goal without making students memorize lists of ESL vocabulary that will be forgotten after the next pop quiz? Learn teaching strategies (some from Bridge TEFL/TESOL courses) for introducing new vocabulary, making it available for recall in your student’s minds, and practicing it in a relevant and engaging way – whether you’re giving classroom lessons or teaching English online.
What is the best way to teach ESL vocabulary?
Create a context around words you teach
It’s a good idea to think about how students will recall a word when sitting for an exam and use this as your starting point to determine how you want your students to remember what you have taught them. In other words, don’t teach new words in a vacuum. You want to create a contextual experience (an interesting story, a series of images, a dialogue) that leaves a deep impression so when the time comes for your class to recall a particular list of words, they’ll be able to access these words with little trouble.
Teach relevant ESL vocabulary
Be aware that if you focus on vocabulary that can’t be put to immediate and repetitive use in your students’ day-to-day lives, it will be relegated to the quicksand of short-term memory and soon forgotten, thus rendering all your hard word useless. Choose vocabulary that is connected to your students’ lives and can be easily applied to their world outside of the classroom.
Consider your students’ age
If you are teaching English to young learners, remember that they are innately curious and love to learn about the things that surround them.
Teens, on the other hand, need vocabulary to help them understand the books they read, the music they listen to, or the shows they watch, as well as words that can help them express their feelings.
Adults need the appropriate English vocabulary to help them relate on both a personal and business level, and they rely on you to give them the best and most common words and phrases that will help them improve their communication skills.
What are the techniques for introducing and teaching new ESL vocabulary?
Show images or drawings
Because drawings and photos are fairly universal and understood by most people, this is perhaps the best way to present new vocabulary. The Internet is chockfull of photos and pictures, and there are a variety of photo-stock websites to choose from.
If you have a knack for drawing, you can make your own pictures or create your own characters, but make sure that these are large enough for everyone to see clearly if you don’t have access to a smartboard. Keep the composition of your photos or drawings simple, as too many things happening at once can confuse students.
If you are teaching online, you can make use of Skype of Zoom’s share screen function to show the images. These platforms also have whiteboard features and annotation tools, which you can use for making simple drawings onscreen.
Present vocabulary with realia
Realia is essential to the learning of ESL vocabulary. For a lesson on how to describe the flavors of different foods, for example, there is nothing better than to have students taste a variety of foods, condiments, herbs, and spices. As you give your class a taste of each ingredient, announce what it is, and give them the accompanying statement that incorporates the vocabulary you are teaching. Example: This is sugar! Sugar is sweet. These are potato chips! Potato chips are salty. This is mustard. Mustard is sour.
Introduce new words in the context of a story or article students read
ESL readings are of great value because they expose students to vocabulary they might not encounter in their day-to-day lives, but that is useful, nonetheless. To pre-teach vocabulary from the reading you’ve chosen, follow this structure:
As you continue the lesson:
Use translation from the students’ first language (yes, sometimes it’s okay!)
If you speak the students’ language or you have a teaching assistant who can help you translate, ask students what words they would like to learn. I call this “How do you say?” day.
During these sessions, students are encouraged to ask questions about things that interest them or help them to communicate in school or at work. Be sure to stay away from taboo topics as well as topics that are too personal.
These lessons are usually short and can be complemented with ESL role-playing or ESL games which encourage students to put their new vocabulary to immediate use. And always be sure to ask the appropriate questions that promote verbal repetition.
Use antonyms and synonyms to teach and review ESL vocabulary
In order to build vocabulary, it’s a good idea to not only use the words from your chosen vocabulary list but to also incorporate their synonyms and antonyms. Using opposites to teach new vocabulary gives students the opportunity to learn twice as many words. To make a bigger impact on your students’ learning process, use pictures to illustrate sentences, or put words into short sentences that tell a story.
The following is an example of how to use opposites that can be used with beginner-level students:
Vocabulary: day/night, sun/moon, 0pen/closed, on/off
Put the following sentences on the board. You can fill in the words the students have already learned but have them guess the opposite word.
Then fill the words in as the students say them.
Next, ask questions that relate to your story:
Another way to incorporate antonyms into a lesson is by asking simple questions in which students get to choose the answer that suits their needs. Enchanted Learning at https://www.enchantedlearning.com/ provides an excellent and easy-to-use list for your lessons. Make up questions that incorporate new phraseology, and which students can ask one another.
Do you like staying at home on your day off, or do you like going out with your friends?
What do you save your money for, and what do you spend your money on?
When do you feel happy, and when do you feel sad?
(The repetition of phrases within the same question helps students commit these to memory).
How can I make vocabulary fun with ESL vocabulary games?
Games are an essential tool in the ESL and TEFL classroom. They allow students to think outside the box, put what they’ve learned to immediate use, create experiences with their classmates, and break away from lessons that could otherwise be tedious. These popular games and activities can be used to teach ESL vocabulary.
The Missing Object Game
This interactive game from the Bridge Micro-credential course: Games and Activities for the Online Classroom (Very Young Learners) is a fun way to teach or review vocabulary with online or in-person students.
This game not only allows students to use their new words but forces them to ask each other questions and review the alphabet. When working with beginners, have the host group choose the words to be guessed from the vocabulary list. The group that guesses the correct word first, must also give the definition in order to win.
For more advanced students, have the host group write their own definition for the other teams to guess. Once the guessing team has called out the right letters of the definition, they must then state the correct vocabulary word to win the round.
If you are unsure of the rules of the game, you can go to https://www.wikihow.com/Play-Hangman. You can also try Flash Hangman for ESL Students (http://www.manythings.org/hmf/) for different ideas on how to play this game.
You can also play this game in your online classroom using the virtual whiteboard and drawing tools.
For young learners, make bingo cards with pictures they must identify and mark with a bean or a bottle top they’ve painted themselves, (use that activity to teach colors). iSLCOLLECTIVE has a large variety of bingo cards for you to choose from.
For older students, print vocabulary words using the same bingo card format. But instead of calling out the vocabulary, read out the definitions to the class ask students to place a bean or bottle cap on the corresponding word. Be sure that your bingo cards are not repeated and tell your students they must reproduce a predetermined pattern on their cards, such as a diagonal line, an X, or a T in order to win the game. This game encourages students to listen and think about what they’ve heard and use their memory to search out the correct answers.
Music is an engaging and fun way to teach new vocabulary as well as proper pronunciation and grammar.
For young learners, (and some older learners too), you can try “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes,” which includes kinesthetic, visual, verbal, and aural learners. Watch a video from the Bridge Teaching Young Learners Specialized TEFL/TESOL Certification Course of a teacher using this song in class:
For older students, take a listen to the “Parts of the Body” video. The tune is catchy and has a great deal of repetition that helps students memorize with greater ease.
Here’s how you can structure an ESL song activity:
If you prefer, you can also give them a handout or an online worksheet with the outline of a body for them to fill in either on their own or with a partner. For homework, have students write sentences describing what each body part is used for.
What are other ways ESL students can improve their vocabulary?
If you ask students who are self-taught what methods they used to learn English on their own, they will invariably tell you the following;
Another useful device for improving students’ vocabulary is to have them keep a notebook that is small enough to fit in their pockets. (They can also use their phones for keeping lists). This is a great way for them to have a real-time record of the words and short phrases they use in their daily lives. When students keep a list of the words that are of interest to them, they are effectively writing their own little dictionaries which can be filled with pictures, synonyms, antonyms, and sentences that are useful to them.
Points to remember when teaching ESL vocabulary
Whether you are teaching vocabulary, grammar, phraseology, or pronunciation in a physical classroom or online, do your best to make sure your students can relate to each lesson and are almost immediately able to use what they’ve learned. Follow a logical and organic order when teaching new vocabulary and put words into useful phrases as often as possible. Look for every opportunity to review what you’ve taught from one lesson to the next, and engage your students by focusing on topics that interest them the most. And always encourage your students to ask you about the meanings of words and how these can be applied to their lives outside of the classroom.