How to Teach English Vocabulary

English students must study English vocabulary.

Without expanding their vocabulary they lack the word power to express themselves. They become frustrated and even feel resentment in studying English.

They may regard the whole process as impossible and give up.

As an English teacher, it is your job to motivate them. One thing you can do is to NOT use the dreaded vocabulary books. Big lists of words on a page with a half-assed illustrations next to each word is no use to anyone.

But the students still need to learn more vocabulary. There is just no need to resort to lists of vocabulary and boring them to death.

That is why I have compiled this list of ideas that you can start implementing in your classes from today.

Use all these following ideas and you will find that learning new English words will suddenly become more interesting and more immediately useful to your students.

Are we ready?

Let’s get right into it.


First Things First

Get your house in order and make sure there is a useful and effective system in place. It is no use just throwing up a bunch of words on the board, shouting out what they mean and how to spell them and nothing else.

The students need to know more than that about new words.

You should follow these steps when introducing new words:

The Meaning — Tell the students what the word means. Provide meaning by showing pictures or performing an action. Or for more advanced students, you can ‘talk around’ the word, providing synonyms or antonyms to help fill in the gaps. But the most important thing is that the students need to know what the new word means.

The Form — Then they need to know what form it is. Is it an adjective or a verb? A noun or an adverb? For beginner students, you don’t need to provide this information or you will just confuse them but for more advanced students that know the difference between a noun and a verb they will need to know. This will help them in how to use the word correctly.

The Pronunciation — They need to know how to say the word. So — repeat, repeat, repeat. Say the word again and again and get the students to say after you each time. This is especially important for beginner students where English words just sound like a load of jumbled-up sounds smashed together.

For more advanced students they will still need to know how to say these new words.

The Spelling — Then help them with the spelling of the new word. Write it out and make sure they can see on the board how to write the word. When you have several words together you can do some spelling games to check for understanding.

Hangman is always a firm favourite with students. As long as you do not make this an entire lesson plan! Playing hangman is not a lesson plan.

Crosswords can also be useful.

Please check the list at the end to see all the games and activities you can play when teaching English vocabulary.

Students will also need to know how to read the word and how to write and say the word in context. You need to provide all of this so they have a better understanding.

Providing reading material is always useful. If you are teaching words in a centralised theme, then try to write your own reading materials for class. You can use them again and again for new students.

And give the students writing assignments where they have to write the new words in the correct context.

They need to use all four English skills to ensure they remember new words — listening and speaking, reading and writing.


Labels Everywhere

If you have a dedicated class for your classes, you can use labels.

This works very well for beginner and lower-intermediate classes. You simply put labels on everything in the class. So you could have labels for window, door, whiteboard, desk, light, light switch, fan, trash can, etc etc.

For beginners, you can turn this into an activity that can become part of your lesson plan.

But more advanced students will not see too much benefit from these kinds of labels. You can still use labels for things they would find useful.

So you could label maps with the names of countries or cities in English. You can also use pictures and photographs and make labels to introduce new words for upper-intermediate or advanced students.

Pictures usually work best for nouns and objects. But you can also use pictures to introduce more abstract adjectives. For example, you could have a picture of the Taj Mahal and the word spectacular beneath it. Or the word gorgeous and a picture of a well-known movie star of the students’ choice.

The good thing about seeing these labels and pictures is that you can implement the words in your lessons and make the students aware of them regularly.

You can change the pictures and labels and update them as the students make progress.


Teach the Important Words First

Before starting a new class, introduce the new vocabulary they will need at the beginning of the lesson.

You can do this by writing the words on the board and then using the words in a warm-up activity to make it fun for them. If the activity has enough energy, the students will forget they are studying and just get on with the activity.

Then later when they come across the words you wrote on the board, they are more likely to remember them.

Do not just waltz into a new lesson without introducing any key vocabulary for the lesson at the beginning.


Preview All New Words Before Reading

What I said above doubly applies to any reading activities you do in class.

When reading a text pick out all the new and difficult words and help the students gain a better understanding of this new vocabulary.

This will help you in the long run. As you begin the reading you are less likely to have the students stumble over new words or any difficult vocabulary.

You could provide a kind of glossary on the board of all these kinds of words that you and the students built up at the beginning.


Read Together

And do all the reading together.

Get the students to read out loud in class. They get to say any of the new words out loud in front of their peers and you. This gives them all the much-needed confidence they require helping them come to terms with how to pronounce the new vocabulary you are introducing to them.

They can also read the new words in context. This is vital for the students so they understand how to use these words in a sentence.

And finally, they can hear how these words sound against other words. Sometimes certain words in English might merge with others.

For example, the word hotel. We don’t say the-hotel. We usually say something that sounds like th’hotel.

The word advertising — we might say inad-vertising when saying in advertising.

Student can pick much of this up by reading out loud.

Lots of reading in class hurt no one.


Play Games

As an ESL teacher, you are spoilt for choice with games to play.

This does not mean playing hangman for the entire class. There are dozens of word games to play in class.

Let’s take a quick look at some you can use in class.


Remember playing this at Christmas family get-togethers?

You can play this game to great effect in the classroom. It is great fun, has a lot of energy and the students will become actively involved.

This game works especially well with verbs.

The students take it in turn to act out a verb in front of the class and the other students have to guess the word.

Great fun and the students will love it.


This is actually a board game but you can easily adapt the game for classroom use. The person in front of the class cannot use hand gestures, numbers or symbols and can only draw pictures.

Some students will complain about not being good at drawing but this just makes it all the more fun.


For smaller classes, you can play scrabble. Speed the game up by giving students a short time frame when it is their turn or the game can really drag.

Have an adjudicator to check all words in the dictionary.

This really works best in a small class or one-on-one class as it is quiet.


You can also play bingo — but instead of numbers use words.

I will give a list of games you can use in class at the end of the article. Please check.


Sing Songs

Yes, I know. ESL teachers hate this.

The living fear of being asked — told — to sing a song in front of an eagerly awaiting crowd of students is something no one should have to live through.

But if you are the kind of person who likes to belt out a tune or two then this could really save you in the classroom. It can be the perfect way to teach English vocabulary to younger students.

The trick is to find songs that your students like. Don’t be so keen to dig out those rarely heard tracks to show off how cool you are. Ask your students what kind of English songs they like.

Once you find out a list of songs, then you just need to Google the lyrics and then you are on your way.

Go slowly, line by line and make sure the students can pronounce the words correctly. Check that they can pick up the meaning of the lyrics — some songs have some obscure meanings so this can be a bit of a challenge for you.

Once the students get past any shyness, you will find that this can be a great exercise to use in class. Works great for younger kids and beginners too. But if you choose the right songs, it can work well in any class.


Roots, Suffixes and Prefixes

Teaching roots, suffixes and prefixes can be a great way to help more advanced students extend their range of vocabulary. It might become a bit too linguistic for some students but it is a great way for them to build their English word power.

One benefit of studying roots, suffixes and prefixes is that students come to terms with cognates. These are words that have a common origin. English doesn’t really have much in common with languages like Chinese or Japanese but it shares many cognates with Latin languages like Spanish or French. So for students from Spain or France or any other Spanish-speaking country, learning cognates would be useful.

Words such as accident in English is accidente in Spanish, the same for camera/cámara, distance/distancia and history/historia. By learning the cognates, the Spanish student can build their English vocabulary with ease.

But this also helps students to determine the difference between inspector and inspection, cancelled and cancellation.

Learning roots of words can help them to determine new words. If they understand that ‘bi’ means ‘two’, it becomes somewhat easier to figure out the meanings of words such as bifocal, bisexual, bi-symmetrically and bi-cyclical.

The same with suffixes.

Understanding that the suffix -ment means action or result makes it easier to figure out what words like movement and shipment might mean.


Word Maps

Word Maps can be a great way to help English students learn English vocabulary.

They are easy to make and a very easy exercise to set up in the classroom.

Get the students to write a word in the middle of a large page and then get them to write down associated words or phrases that form collocations using the main word.

So, for example, you could have the word heat in the middle of the page. Students could come up with heatwave, heat in the microwave, cool, hot, cold, heat up, heated argument, in the heat of the moment, etc.

You can use word maps with all levels of students. For beginners, they may only come up with six or seven other words on their word maps, but they are then building their vocabulary by connecting words via association. They are finding similar words but also opposite words and others.


Personal Lists

Another useful exercise you can do is to get the students to create their own lists of personal words. These are lists of words important to them in their own lives.

If you have a student who is just crazy about playing basketball, then this exercise becomes very easy.

You just ask the student to collect all the words about basketball.

You could have:


Basketball player

Basketball court

Basketball coach



Slam dunk

Throw the ball

Catch the ball

Pass the ball

You can easily adjust this to accommodate any level of student and still provide a lot of new vocabulary for them.


Use a Main Theme

And if you are going to have a vocabulary class, then you need a central theme where all the new vocabulary has a connection.

You could be teaching a class on Houses and Homes. So all the new words are connected to that theme. Thus you could have house, home, cottage, mansion, villa. Also windows, door, garden, path, bedroom, living room, kitchen.

Any reading you provide in such a class should be related to houses and homes too.

It would be a terrible idea to have a bunch of mismatched words and phrases that have no commonality. The students will just end up becoming confused.


Acting Out Words

We touched on this earlier in the games section when I introduced playing charades in class. But this can be an effective way to help students learn certain words. This works especially well with verbs.

For beginner classes, this is a great exercise. But can also work in certain situations with more advanced students.


Using Stories

I really believe that telling stories is one of the best ways to engage students.

What would be more interesting? Having a boring class where the teacher goes through a list of new vocabulary and then has a spelling test at the end? Or telling a story?

People love to hear stories — and have done for many thousands of years. So please use stories in your classroom too.

You can tell the story yourself. But what is much better is to get the students to read out the story one by one. You can check for pronunciation and the students gain much-needed confidence by reading out loud in front of their peers.

After telling the story you can always have a session on comprehension with some questions to check for understanding. Then perhaps a discussion about the story itself.

Another exercise you can do is to introduce some new vocabulary and then get the students to make up their own story. They could do this as homework and then read out their stories in class in the next lesson. Or they could do it all live in the classroom and present their stories in the same session.

For beginner classes or less advanced students, you could put them in groups and ask them to present their story as a group where each student tells a small part of the story.

I cannot stress enough how great stories can be in any English class.


Some Games to Use in Class

As with any ESL class, games can be a great way to introduce new vocabulary and help the students remember it.

Let’s go through some games according to the topics we looked at above.

Label Games

I found this great resource of online label games.


If you have a video screen and a projector, this could be great fun in the class.

There is also this site with a ton of labeling print outs.


A great list of vocabulary games here:







I hope you can see some of the things you can do in class when introducing new English vocabulary to your students. There is no need to just use the textbooks that the school or training centre may lump you with for your class. You can do so much more.

Just remember to go through all the stages of learning new words as I outlined in First Things First and you can’t go wrong.

From there you have so many other choices to help the students engage with the new words and to memorise them. Things, like singing songs or telling stories or playing some high-activity game, will win you a lot of praise from your students. They will enjoy being in a class that holds their interest.

I hope you get the chance to use some of these activities and exercises. And as always let me know in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “How to Teach English Vocabulary”

  1. You have really covered this topic thoroughly! The ideas for teaching vocabulary are exciting and doable! You have also stressed the fundamentals of knowing what the word means and being able to use it in its different forms or placements. Thanks!

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