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ESL Education: Teach Them Vocabulary Through Real-Life Examples

written by: Leyla Norman • edited by: Linda M. Rhinehart Neas • updated: 12/30/2013

English teachers are their students' main points of reference to understanding their new lives and new language. Teachers provide students with information about life in general in their new communities and about how to navigate social situations in English.

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    More Than Words

    English as a second language education is more than simply teaching the words and structure of English to students.

    • Help your students learn more than just the words to use when asking for directions. Show them where the major tourist attractions are in your country.


    • Teach more than just how to address a letter to someone in an English-speaking country. Help them write letters to English-speaking pen pals.

    Make your lessons practical and memorable for your students. Your main objective is to teach the English language in the context of real life to make it usable to students. Strive to give students opportunities to practice English in the classroom and give them confidence to use it outside class.

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    Use realia in your ESL classroom as much as possible. Bring in real telephones to help them practice making appointments or leaving a message. Bring examples of real coupons in when showing students how to save money at the grocery store. Bring an example of an electric bill (with personal information blacked out) to put on the overhead for everyone to see as you explain its different parts. Realia is also a way to engage visual learners. Realia makes a lesson more engaging, lively, and pertinent to the lesson at hand. Students will be more apt to remember the language needed to work through difficult situations in English when you use realia in the classroom.

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    Field Trips

    Kelvingrove Art Museum Field trips are a good way to demonstrate real-life situations in which students will encounter English speakers and have to produce English themselves. The library, grocery stores, restaurants, and other public places are some examples of places to take students. Students will be in a group, so they will not feel like they are the only ones that will have to demonstrate their new knowledge of English to strangers. You, as the teacher, will be there to guide them and provide the extra boost of confidence they need to produce English in social situations.

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    Guest Speakers

    Bring in a guest speaker to your class to demonstrate another accent or manner of speaking to your students. Firefighters can present a class on fire safety, or police can share tips on personal safety with students. The police department may also be able to forge better relationships with immigrant and refugee communities who often mistrust police officers when they come into English classes. A representative from the public health department can come and discuss nutrition with students, as well. Even if students are not at an advanced level, translators can be on hand to share important information and clear up any misunderstandings students may have during the talk. The point is not to force English all the time. Rather, in these types of cases, allow students to hear English spoken by someone other than their teachers, and learn life skills necessary to living and working in an English-speaking country.

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    Tools of Success

    Demonstrate real life to your ESL students. Education is broad in scope and content when you work with them. Preparing for GED classes or university, buying insurance for a new home or car, going grocery shopping, and other practical, everyday events are examples of cultural knowledge we, as English-speaking teachers, sometimes disregard. Share your knowledge with your students alongside teaching them the English language. Encourage independence in your students by providing them with the tools they need to empower themselves to succeed in their new countries.

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    Source: author's own experience

    Image: Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum 1.jpg by Zhi Yong Lee under CC by 2.0.