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How to Teach ESL Vocabulary

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 some of the teaching strategies we share in BridgeTEFL certification courses and others for introducing new vocabulary, practicing it in a relevant and engaging way, and making available for recall in your student’s minds.

What is the best way to teach 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 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 children, remember that they are innately curious and love to learn about things that surround them.

Teens, on the other hand, need vocabulary to help them understand the books they read, music they listen to, or the shows they watch, as well as words that can help them express their feelings.

Adults need the appropriate 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 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 like, you can also create a couple of characters that your students can relate to and use them throughout your course to present new ideas. When used consistently, students form attachments to the characters and will rely on them when learning new concepts.

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.

There are an endless selection of online games to suit to your students, just remember to choose the age-appropriate games that are of interest to your students.

To pre-teach vocabulary that students will encounter in the reading you’ve chosen, you can follow this structure:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. As students call out the definitions they know, write these on the board, but leave a blank space next to those that are not known.
  4. Try to teach these words by drawing a simple picture or acting the word 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 will understand 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 class is 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 students read the text one sentence or paragraph at a time (depending on class size).
  • Don’t interrupt as they read unless they are having great difficulty with a particular word.
  • Once everyone has had the opportunity to read out loud, go over the words they don’t understand, including those that are not in your initial vocabulary list, and remind students to underline or circle 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 what 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.)
  • Finally, always be sure to check homework and review what students have learned from the previous lesson.

Use translation from the students’ first language

If you speak the students’ language or you have a TEFL 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 topics that are too personal, such as pick-up lines, asking someone very private information, or topics you know should not be discussed in class.

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.

What are vocabulary building strategies?

Antonyms and synonyms 

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  (you may need to pre-teach during)

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.

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 or 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 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 vocabulary games?

Games are an essential tool in the ESL classroom, regardless of the age. 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.


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.


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).

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 card, 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.

ESL Songs 

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.

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 the activity: 

  • Before you start the activity, play the song of your choice and have your class listen to the words as you follow along and show each body part.
  • Once this is done, ask your students to stand up and then play the song again so they can do the movements with you. Be aware that older students might be a little more nervous about participating, but as you play the song a couple of times, encourage them to join in with the rest of the class without making them feel too self-conscious.
  • After you’ve practiced the song a few times, draw an outline of the body on the board and ask students to name each body part starting with the head and ending with the toes. Write the words on the board as they are called out. (Be sure to tell your students to not write anything in their notebooks just yet, as you want them to listen and participate during this part of the exercise).
  • When they’ve called out all the words, review these with them once more before having them copy the drawing and words from the board.

If you prefer, you can also give them a handout 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;

  • They listened to and learned their favorite songs, watched 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 books and magazines that were of interest to them.
  • Many students also download language learning apps to their smartphones, such as babbel.com, duolingo.com, and newinslowenglish.com, so encourage them to use these tools to help them develop their language skills on their own time.

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, 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.

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