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4 Ways to Teach New Vocabulary

September 20, 2012

Mix things up by introducing new vocabulary with these fun techniques!

Vocabulary…it’s a double‑edged sword. Students universally recognize the need to expand their vocabulary in order to improve their fluency, but it’s difficult—and often boring—to memorize word after word. Varying the types of vocabulary exercises used will engage your students and enable them to retain the new words more effectively. Remember: your goal as a teacher is to get the students to be able to use the new words when they speak or write. As such, repetition is key—but using the same technique over and over will cause students to lose interest. Using a combination of the following methods will hopefully get your students excited about vocabulary again!

1. Vocabulary Board Game

  • Write all of the new words in a long list on the left side of the board.
  • Divide students into two teams, and explain that you’ll be reading out a definition to one team at a time.
  • If that team can correctly guess the corresponding word, they get $100 (pretend money, of course!). If they guess the wrong word, the other team can “steal” the money by guessing the correct word for $50. If the second team still can’t guess correctly, it goes back to the first team for $50, and so on until one team gets it right. Play then resumes with the next definition getting read to the second team, for $100 if correct.
  • You can provide students with a copy of a word-definition list after the game to save them from having to stop and write down the definitions as you go. Or, to save trees, write the definitions next to the words as they are guessed correctly, and students can copy them down.
  • The winning team is the one who has the most money once all the definitions are filled in! For the last definition (since it will obviously correspond to the only word left on the board), I often make it more challenging by making the team tell me what they think the definition is. If correct, they get $100; if not, the other team can try for $50, and so on.

2. Matchup

  • Have one page of words and definitions for each pair or small group of students. Cut each word and definition from that page into strips (a paper cutter works wonders here). Repeat for each page (paper clips help to keep the piles separated). Don’t forget that you can keep the strips for vocabulary review later, or for review for a test.
  • Give a mixed-up pile of strips (words and definition) to each group. Get students to match up the words with the correct definitions.
  • Circulate, pointing out where students have made an incorrect guess so that they can make another attempt with that particular word. Don’t forget to keep a master list for yourself; it helps to refer to it as you circulate.
  • When all the students are finished, you can go over the answers as a class. To make it more exciting, you can turn it into a competition by naming the first group to correctly match everything up as the winner.

3. Mini-Presentations

  • Assign one new word to each student. Have them look up the definition in their dictionaries (preferably English–English).
  • Tell them to write down the definition in their own words. They can ask you for help, if necessary. Circulate to check that their definitions are clear.
  • Also, get them to write down an example sentence, so that their classmates will be able to better understand the meaning of the new word. Circulate to check that the example sentences make sense.
  • When all of the students are done, have them come up to the front of the class one by one. Get each student to write the word and definition on the board, and while the other students are copying it down, have that student read the example sentence. You can add additional clarification at this time, if need be.

4. Context

Being able to use the context (the sentences or paragraphs that surround the word) to figure out the meanings of new words is an essential skill that you want all of your students to be able to master one day. Because it is difficult to do, try it as a class activity once in a while to get students used to it.

  • Have students read through the text first. You can have them do it silently or out loud. Reading out loud enables you to correct their pronunciation and intonation, which is a good use of time since you’re practicing several skills at once.
  • Once you’ve gone through the text, point out the new words one by one, and have students guess at each word’s possible meaning as a class. After a few guesses, you can give students the answer if they are unable to come up with it. Point out the contextual clues that could help them figure out the meaning for next time.
  • This exercise is especially helpful in preparing for examinations like TOEIC, TOEFL, IELTS, etc.

It’s important to note that going over vocabulary only once will rarely result in retention. In my next post, I’m writing about fun vocabulary review activities, so check back soon! You can also check out 10 Ways to Use Flashcards in Class for ideas on using flashcards for vocabulary practice and review. Our Simple Sentences and Word Bank lessons have lots of vocabulary activities for lower levels too.

I hope your students will find learning vocabulary to be more engaging after employing these techniques!


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Comments (29)

Maryanne Burgos(Guest)

Thanks for your useful suggestions.

Reply to Comment

Ning Cao(Guest)

Thanks for your post, it is very interesting. As an essential part of language, vocabulary plays an important role in the process of learning language. Therefore, ESL learners must acquire a large number of vocabularies. Then, how to help them acquire vocabulary efficiency? I think I could find some answers from your methods.I will try to use these methods in my class. Thank you.

Reply to Comment

Melanie M.(Teacher)

This is great! I've been looking for new ways to teach vocabulary because mine were getting a bit dry. Thanks a lot, can't wait for the next post!

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Thanks, guys! I'm glad you enjoyed this post! :)

Reply to Comment

Max Shayani(Guest)

Thank you Tanya, new ideas can always make 'learning' and 'teaching' easier,
here in Latin America the use of 'English' language is becoming more and more popular, when I moved here some fifteen years ago you had to convince someone to take classes, now a days people look for new opportunities, learing new vocabulary is always a chalenge for the new students, thanks again
for your good ideas. royalenglishinstitute.com

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Thanks, Max! I'm glad that more and more people are choosing to study English, too. :)

marta (Guest)

Very clever and innovative-thank you but can you also give me more ideas on how to teach conversation class( my students don't want to write at all). Thank you


Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Hi Marta,

My students always preferred speaking to writing, too! Thanks for the great idea for a blog post. Keep checking back...I'll write a post on conversation techniques soon! :)

Nguyen Thanh Tu(Guest)

Dear Tanya,

Thank you very much for your fun techniques. I will practice it next week. I believe that my students will have an interesting lesson next week. Thanks again.

Best regards,

Nguyen Thanh Tu, a teacher at Hong Bang Secondary School in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

I hope your students enjoy these techniques! :)

Eva S.(Teacher)

Thanks Tanya for giving some fresh ideas which can make our teaching exciting! Your name is as cute as your ideas.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Aw, thanks Eva! I like your name, too. :)

mary (Guest)

Thank you.
Im glad to see these new ideas!

Good luck

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Thank you, Mary! I hope your students enjoy them.

Rezsa (Guest)

Many thanks Tanya ...
I found it so much useful

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

Thank you, Rezsa! I'm happy to hear it. :)

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