Select Page

A primary objective for a language learner is increase their vocabulary – learning new vocabulary is an essential part of any ESL student’s language development.

The process of acquiring a second language, such as English, can only occur effectively if students become more and more proficient at being able to relate feelings, thoughts and ideas. This won’t be possible if they don’t constantly expand their lexicon.

So, it’s vital for ESL teachers to find and use effective vocabulary building strategies to help their students interpret the world around them.

Memorising Vocabulary Lists

Language learners often complain that they lack the vocabulary to express themselves eloquently. So, proactive students and passionate teachers are always on the lookout for learning strategies to increase vocabulary that they can try.

There’s a very important maxim that I tell my students and fellow teachers when it comes to learning English…

Learning strategies are infinite. 

The time you can allocate for learning is finite.

It’s true that memorising words does work for a small percentage of learners. And when you’re a complete beginner, you have no option but to try to be a sponge and absorb as many new words as possible, and that includes memorising to some degree.

But for the vast majority of students, the rote learning of word lists is pointless and a complete waste of time. I have seen situations where teachers have asked students to memorise 10 new words and their definitions every day for a week. Students faithfully complete this homework but then bomb out in their quiz on Friday. Most students struggle to remember even a small amount of what they have tried to memorise.

Frankly, there are much better strategies to learn vocabulary. Some of the best ones are discussed below.

1. Using images

Flash cards are a great way to get kids interested in learning vocabulary. They work because students can relate words to colourful visual images and because they can be topic based. For example, a teacher can focus on animals, prepositions or the alphabet, which gives context to learning, a key element of language acquisition.

For older students, there are numerous possibilities. In all of the activities below, students can work in pairs or a small group and compare vocabulary use:

  • Making Comparisons
    Students look at two different pictures or paintings that are similar but not the same – and then discuss and write down what the differences are.
  • Picture Profiles
    Ask students to find a picture of someone in a magazine. They can then write a profile of that person: name, age, nationality, profession, goals, hobbies, likes and dislikes
  • Creating Storyboards
    Teachers create a series of pictures. Students need to create an order for the pictures and then write at least one sentence for each picture that tells a story.

2. Using realia

Presenting vocabulary with the help of realia means bringing real objects into the classroom. Using realia can make vocabulary more memorable than a picture. You can use more senses that just sight – students can touch, smell and if you include food, taste it.

Realia can include such diverse items such as chocolate, tickets, timetables, clothes and pens. The items don’t need to be real – for example, teachers can use toy animals and plastic fruit.

Realia vocabulary building activities include:

  • Role Plays
    You can then ask students to create a role play around an item – buying a ticket to watch a movie or returning a clothing item to a department store because there is something wrong with it.
  • Recreate Realia
    Most students really enjoy getting involved in arts and crafts. As a class project, students can make their own version of a local newspaper or brochure to advertise a local tourist attraction.
  • Scavenger Hunt
    Divide your class into teams. Each team needs to find items of a certain size, colour or shape – either in the classroom or at home.

3. Using literature

Research shows that reading is one of the best ways to expand your vocabulary. Assigning an English level appropriate and age-appropriate text to your students can open their eyes to exciting new characters and storylines. Students will learn new words and see how they are used in their correct context, as well as consolidate vocabulary they have learned in the past.

Here are three activities that I have found that work well:

  • Comprehension Test
    Ask students to read a certain number of pages per week. At the end of the week, give a small comprehension test with questions about the pages they have read.
  • Find New Vocabulary
    Set your students an appropriate number of pages. After placing them in pairs, ask them to find at least 10 words that they don’t know. After listing the words, they should, without the help of a dictionary, try to ascertain the meanings of their words from context. Teachers should rotate around the classroom and review student answers, giving advice and support when and where appropriate.
  • Synonyms and Antonyms
    A follow up activity can be for teachers to choose 10 sentences from the text, highlighting one or more key words. In pairs, students should rewrite these sentences, replacing the key words with synonyms. To give them more of a challenge, they can write sentences with the opposite meaning using antonyms.

Facebook Comments