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ESL English Lesson Plans: Oxford Sight Words Or Phonics to Improve Vocabulary?

written by: Anne Vize • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 9/11/2012

You're planning your ESL English lesson plans: Do you use phonics, Oxford sight words, or a blend of both to improve vocabulary in your ESL students? This article gives you the rundown on using Oxford sight words as a useful strategy to improve vocabulary and guides you to smart teaching choices.

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    Learning With Word Lists

    Word lists are one of those teaching approaches that seem to come and go from time to time, but no one argues with the benefit of strategies to improve vocabulary, particularly as part of your wider ESL English lesson plans for adult learners. Sometimes teachers seem to use word lists to the exclusion of all else. Sometimes phonics is a more widely used approach, with word lists and the learning of a sight vocabulary dropped to play a poor second.

    In part this is to do with current research, and sometimes it is related to the training that has been provided to teachers of English language learners. Sometimes it is just the personal preference of teachers which method they find most effective. Often teachers find that a combination of teaching methods, such as using word lists to build a sight vocabulary, along with the teaching of specific phonics skills, can work well for students.

    The Oxford Sight Words are helpful for English language learners to improve vocabulary because they can build a good sight vocabulary of words that can be readily recognized and therefore used in reading text in newspapers, books or magazines as well as online sources. As an activity for teaching learning disabilities students they are also useful as they can be customized to suit individual learning needs. The text may be in books, magazine articles, teaching notes and information pages, student workbooks or general community information.

    Word lists can be tailored to meet the needs of the English language learners who are using them. It is helpful for a teacher to analyze the needs and interests of a class group and then structure word lists and other learning experiences around those needs and interests. It is important to remember that students who are interested in and motivated by their learning content are more likely to learn well and retain information from their ESL English lesson plans activities in class.

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    Oxford Word Lists

    The Oxford Word Lists resource is a new online teaching resource that has application to students in many different learning situations and in many different ESL English lesson plans. The word lists have been compiled by researchers at Oxford University Press and have been based on samples taken from students in the first three years of school. The purpose was to collect recent samples of the most frequently used words of students in those year levels. The word lists can then be broken down into various student profiles, such as:

    • year level
    • gender
    • indigenous speaker
    • English Language or Non English Language background speaker
    • living location, e.g. urban or city living

    Teachers should note that the word lists do have some restrictions placed upon their usage. You need to read the website details carefully to ensure you are not breaching copyright by using the word lists, and contact Oxford University Press.

    The major advantage of these word lists are that they are based on modern writing samples from a large sample size of students. They therefore contain a variety of words that are a part of our modern way of life (e.g. computer), which may not be the case with word lists that have been based on research and text analysis from many years ago.

    Teachers are even able to customize the word lists to suit the type of reading or writing that a student will be doing. This is an ideal way to improve vocabulary for specific purposes, such as in ESL English lesson plans related to learning medical, office-based or other work or academic-specific situations, or English for everyday literacy purposes. For example, if students are learning about expository writing or narrative writing, they can be given access to word lists that relate specifically to that type of writing genre. This increases the chance that English language learners are able to read and write using words from their sight vocabulary that are appropriate to the topic and style of writing being taught.

    When used in conjunction with other learning methods such as phonics, decoding skills and the use of tools such as online and print dictionaries and spell checkers, word lists such as this one from Oxford can be a useful teaching approach for English language learners, and should rank as one of your important class activities for teaching learning disabilities students.

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    Additional resources

    Links to online dictionaries, as well as an evaluation of their utility, can be found in these articles:

    Online English Dictionaries- Oxford and Cambridge University Presses

    Online Dictionaries- The Webster Dictionaries

    Online Dictionaries- An Evaluation of The American Heritage and Some of the Others