How to Teach ESL VocabularyBy Lorena Siegel
September 18, 2021
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 students’ minds, and practicing it in a relevant and engaging way – whether you’re giving classroom lessons or teaching English online.
Table of Contents
What is the best way to teach ESL vocabulary?
Create 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 that 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 work 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
Young learners are innately curious and love to learn the names of things that surround them. Hands-on activities, songs, or colorful visuals work well for kids.
Teens, on the other hand, need vocabulary to help them understand the music they listen to and the shows or movies they watch, as well as words that can help them communicate with others and 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 chock-full of photos and pictures, and there are a variety of stock photo 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 SMART board. 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 or Zoom’s screen share 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. Examples: This is sugar. Sugar is sweet. These are potato chips. Potato chips are salty. This is mustard. Mustard is sour.
Even if you’re teaching virtually, you can use traditional and digital realia in your online classroom. For example, you can use an online map to review English directions or the PDF version of a restaurant menu to practice phrases for ordering food. You can learn more about using realia in the virtual classroom by watching a past Bridge Expert Series webinar on the topic.
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 role-playing or ESL games that 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, open/close, 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. Make up questions that incorporate new phraseology and that 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 them to memory.)
How can I make vocabulary fun with ESL vocabulary games?
Games are an essential tool in the TEFL/TESOL 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.
There are many simple games and activities that can be used to teach ESL vocabulary. For example, in the video below, a teacher plays a game called “Missing Object” with his online students.
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.
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;
Need a quick refresher on how to teach ESL vocabulary? Download this Bridge infographic that you can review just before teaching a class or creating a lesson plan!
Points to remember when teaching ESL vocabulary
Here are some more tips for helping your students learn vocabulary better: