Ways to Teach Vocabulary to ESL Students

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Why Teach ESL Vocabulary?

The elements of a foreign language are like a tree. The trunk and branches signify grammar and the leaves signify vocabulary. Leaves cannot exist without the trunk and branches and the trunk and branches serve no purpose if there are no leaves. That is why it is impossible to understand an oral discussion or written text without having acquired some basic elements of all parts of the foreign language.

There are many different ways to teach vocabulary to ESL students. The most popular methods involve letting students look for definitions in a dictionary, giving a detailed description of the appearance and qualities of the word or using synonyms to make students understand the new word.

There are also other methods requiring more awareness on the part of the student and more detailed presentation on the part of the ESL teacher, such as:

  • using examples
  • using illustrations in the form of pictures or objects
  • demonstrating the word through acting or miming
  • putting the word in a meaningful context in a story or appropriate sentence
  • using opposites
  • translating the word into the students' native language
  • using associated ideas

Ideas for Vocabulary Activities

While there are unlimited opportunities for learning new vocabulary in real-life situations, a classroom setting can be a difficult place to set up meaningful situations in which a student will find himself naturally confronted by new vocabulary and the need to learn or use it. The following ideas for vocabulary work in class may not be equal to authentic, real-life situations but they are useful and effective ways to teach vocabulary to ESL students.

Brainstorming: This is useful for revision and for the introduction of new words. This technique can be used as a warm-up exercise or as a way to teach new vocabulary. Teachers write a single word in the middle of the board and ask students to brainstorm any words they can think of that are connected to that word in some way. Teachers write down all suggestions with a line connecting them to the original word. At the end of the exercise, there will be a star-like diagram of associated vocabulary linked to the original word. Students will have had the opportunity to learn new words, suggested by others, that they didn’t know at the beginning of the lesson. A discussion of new words can take place at the end of the brainstorming exercise.

Identifying Known Words: This is a morale-boosting exercise in that it stresses what students know rather than what they don’t know. It also encourages student co-operation and peer teaching in class. Students are given a text and asked to underline all the words they know. They are then split into groups to share their knowledge. They must explain what they know to others who don’t, in English. At the end of the exercise, each group presents their remaining unknown words, which are thrown open to the floor for discussion and explanation by the whole class. This method is built entirely around the students as the teacher only intervenes at the end, as a last resort, if students are unable to explain a word accurately.

Fill-in the Blanks: Students are split into groups and given a text in which words have been removed. Their task is to fill in the blanks with the correct words. Teachers can provide a list of possible words for weaker groups and let stronger groups guess without a backup list. This exercise is not only effective for learning and revising vocabulary but for learning correct grammar tense usage. Teachers can use worksheets that have already been designed for this type of exercise or they can create their own fill-in-the-blank worksheets online.

There are endless ways to teach vocabulary to ESL students. In addition to the methods listed in this article, teachers can also use flashcards or put students into real-life situations where they are forced to understand the meaning of the words through the context in which they find themselves.