10 easy ways to teach vocabulary to english language learners


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 fromnhatroso.com 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.

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What is the best way to teach ESL vocabulary?What are the techniques for introducing and teaching new ESL vocabulary?

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

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 nhatroso.com Expert Series webinar on the topic.

Here are 10 fun ways to use realia in your classroom.


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:

Make a list of 10 to 12 words that will be found in the reading and go over these verbally with students prior to starting the lesson.As you go through the list, ask your students if any of them know the meaning of each word. Give them time to discuss words and guess the meanings if they’re not sure. (It’s a good idea to have two or three words that students already know, as this gives them familiar ground to stand on.)As students call out the definitions they know, write these on the board, but leave a blank space next to the words they don’t know.Try to teach these words by drawing a simple picture or acting them out, if possible. If you are still unable to get your point across, let your students know that they’ll be able to figure out the meaning when they’ve read the text, and remind them that you will make sure everyone understands the vocabulary by the time the lesson is over.Pro Tip: Tell your students to not copy the definitions in their notebooks until you’ve finished the first part of the activity. The reason behind this is to make sure that your students are focusing on the lesson, listening to one another, and exchanging ideas instead of getting hung up on copying words from the board.

As you continue the lesson:

Have your students read the text aloud, one sentence or paragraph at a time (depending on class size). Don’t interrupt as they read unless they’re having great difficulty with a word.Once everyone has had the opportunity to read out loud, go over the words they don’t understand, including those that are not on your initial vocabulary list. Remind students to underline words they have difficulty pronouncing or do not yet understand.Readings should always be followed by questions, first verbal and then written, to give students the opportunity to test their newly acquired vocabulary words and commit what they’ve learned to long-term memory.Homework that involves students writing their own sentences or answering predetermined questions will also help to reinforce the vocab they’ve learned in class. (Be sure not to use multiple choice questions or short answers, as these do not aid in the reinforcement of either writing or speaking in the target language.)

Learn more about the importance of storytelling in the ESL classroom.

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 topicsas 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.

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The sun is in the sky during the day. We can see the ____ at _____.I turn the lights off during the day, and I turn them____at night.I open the windows during the day, and I____ them at night.

Then, fill the words in as the students say them.

The sun is in the sky during the day. We can see the moon at night.I turn the lights off during the day, and I turn them on at night.I open the windows during the day, and I close them at night.

Next, ask questions that relate to your story.

Do you see the sun during the day or at night?When do you see the moon?When do you turn on the lights?When do you turn them off?Do you close your windows during the day or at night?Pro Tip: When answering yes/no questions, students should use complete sentences. Short answers do not help in the acquisition of new vocabulary and sentence structure nor do they motivate students to practice their language skills.

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 thenhatroso.com 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.

Show the student a collection of real items (realia) on a tray, such as a phone, a pair of glasses, a book, a watch, etc. You can include items that review vocabulary you’ve recently taught or items along a certain theme, such as foods.Ask the student what each item on the tray is. Practice the pronunciation and ask follow-up questions (ex: “What do you use a phone for?”).After you’ve reviewed the tray of items with the student and discussed them, move the tray out of his or her sight, and remove one item. Then, show the tray again and ask the student, “What’s missing?”If the student cannot figure out what’s missing, provide a clue (ex: “You put these on to help you see better”).

Check out more fun ESL games and activities for young learners and teens.

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;

They listen to and learn their favorite English songs andwatch movies and TV shows with subtitles in either English or Spanish (some students swear by English subtitles, saying that it helps with their pronunciation).They read English books and magazines that are of interest to them.Another way to improve 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 that can be filled with pictures, synonyms, antonyms, and sentences that are useful to them.

Need a quick refresher on how to teach ESL vocabulary? Download this nhatroso.com 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:

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.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.Learn more teaching techniques to enter the classroom with confidence by enrolling in the120-Hour nhatroso.com Master TEFL/TESOL Certification Course.