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Six ESL Vocabulary Activity Ideas to Engage Your Beginner Students

written by: Audrey Alleyne • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 8/2/2012

A major part of communication in learning a new language is accumulating a base amount of vocabulary. Help your students get messages across by playing these ESL vocabulary games.

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    Topics and Themes

    Organize the vocabulary you will teach around a topic or theme. One of the first topics can be based on personal information. Have the students review key words like: married, single, children, phone number, address, date of birth and the personal pronouns. Then have them role play situations. For example they can pretend they are in a bank, a mall or a restaurant, or even use the classroom situation.

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    The Classroom Situation

    For the classroom, they can take turns at being the teacher and asking the students to introduce themselves and say a few brief sentences about themselves. This situation can also involve the use of classroom vocabulary, such as: book, pen, paper, open, close, read, write, listen repeat, etc.

    Use role play or a picture poster to have them identify relationships. Have them either act out family roles or point to a picture of a family on a poster and talk about what members of the family are doing; for example: mother, father, son , daughter, brother, sister, and introduce other words such as neighbor and friend.

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    Preposition Games

    Preposition games are great, since it is so easy to misunderstand prepositions. Place objects in different locations and have your students ask each other where certain items are located. They can also ask where classmates among them are sitting or standing, so they can respond with: in, on, under, behind, next to, etc. The cardinal directions can also be involved here: North, South, East and West, with the students asking each other directions.

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    Numbers should be a high priority in games, since they can be so difficult to learn. Have the students practice talking on imaginary phones or on their cell phones for that matter, and have them exchange telephone numbers. You can also call out names and numbers and have them apply the relevant numbers to names they have written in their notebooks. For ordinal numbers, introduce the vocabulary of daily routines and have them talk about the order in which they do things. Draw or show a picture of a hotel or apartment building, and ask them questions about what's happening on different floors of the buildings.

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    The Guessing Game

    Make little squares of index cards for example, and place them on the table, or in a hat or small box. Have each student pull a word, and they can play a guessing game. The student describes or defines the word without saying it. Students have one minute in which to guess the word. For example, if someone picks up the word ‘country’ they can say, ‘It’s not the city’ or ‘there are many in the world, you can visit some’ or 'there are meadows and farms here’. This can be a lot of fun, and much new vocabulary can be learnt this way. The student who collects the most squares wins the game.

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    Word Power

    Another very nice game to give your students word power is called exactly by that name: ‘Word Power’ You give them a list of words in the left column, and of those words, at least one is not paired with a word in the right column. They have to put a line through that odd verb. For example:

    do/return/make/receive - a phone call.

    The odd word to be crossed out here is ‘do’

    receive/return/do/give - a compliment

    Once again, the odd word here is ‘do’

    receive/accept/turn down/offer - an invitation

    The odd word here is ‘offer’.

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    Action Verbs

    There are many other games you can have your students play in order to learn vocabulary, like Action Verbs for example, where they can perform the actions of going, coming, bringing, cleaning, shopping and other verbs which describe daily routine and activities. These games make the language more alive and applicable to everyday living, and will result in the students retaining the vocabulary more effectively.

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    Dave's ESL Idea Cookbook - Vocabulary