9 Fun Ways to Teach Vocabulary to Your English Students

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Teaching vocabulary using the same games and activities can become repetitive and stale. As teachers, we can sometimes get into a routine and just stick to the classic methods of teaching vocabulary. So, to help, I want to give you some great activities and methods that I use regularly to make teaching vocabulary fun and exciting for both you and your students.

Let’s first look at a few tips to help set you up for success!

  • Choosing the right vocabulary – It is important to make the right selection of words. This may seem basic but often teachers end up teaching a wide variety of seemingly unconnected words. Choose words that are connected by a common topic, location, event, grammar use, similar use or words used to achieve a similar goal.   
  • Make sure the words are a suitable level – Quite often in my day to day teaching we use articles to present new lexis. The problem that I often experience is that the articles contain vocabulary that is far too difficult for my students. English Profile is a great resource that profiles that English language allowing us to make better judgments about what vocabulary to teach.
  • Mix it up! – Make sure you vary the method of presenting and reviewing vocabulary.  Doing this will not only make your vocabulary classes more dynamic and fun but your students will also benefit much more.

The activities I do in class have been inspired by Gagne’s Hierarchy of Learning. In short, Gagne proposed a system for classifying different types of learning in terms of their degree of complexity.

I look at language acquisition in a similar way. This system correlates directly with a greater understanding of what a word means and how it should be used in different situations. This also means word retention is greater.

With all that being said, on to the games!

Copycat

This is a great game to introduce vocabulary for this first time and can be used to get your students familiar with words and common collocations. As the name suggests, students simply have to repeat what you say. I usually prepare about 20 sentences (feel free to freestyle if you are good at thinking on the spot). The sentences start off small and simple and later become more complex. The final sentences might include 3-4 of the new words.

To further this game I will tell my students that the game will be played throughout the whole class and that anytime I shout the word “copycat” they must repeat the next sentence after I finish. You can even build on this further and get the students to create a series of sentences everybody else must copy.

Make them say it!

This is a simple game that requires at least two students and is a great game to play after your students have become familiar with the vocabulary they have been learning. Give one of your students a word – only they can know the word and they must not say this word.

Their challenge is to get their partner to say that word. However, they can only speak to their partner in normal dialogue; they are not allowed to directly ask them. Both students should talk in normal full sentences.

Act or draw it

Students write a sentence on a slip of paper. You can specify the complexity depending on the level of your students. For advanced students I might say that the sentence must include a certain number of adjectives, adverbs, or specific vocabulary.

Once your students have written their sentences fold the slips of paper and put them in a hat. One by one students take a piece of paper from the hat and flip a coin. Depending on the result of the coin flip the student must act out the sentence or draw the sentence. I tell my students that they can write on the board when someone gets a part of the sentence right.

The story

If I am teaching a group of nouns I often play “The Story” game. You need to prepare two things for this game. You need small pictures/photos of all of the nouns and a short story that includes all of the nouns in question. I will read the story to my students, as they listen to me then must order the pictures based on the order they hear them in the story.

After I have corrected any mistakes I ask my students to prepare a short story that includes at least x amount of the nouns. As each student reads their story the other students must order their pictures as they did previously with mine.

What’s the difference?

In order to successfully complete this game your students must not only have a good understanding of the words but they must also communicate effectively. This is a good game for reviewing vocabulary based on a location or specific activity that could involve a mix of lexical items.

To prepare for this game you need to find a picture that includes the items you want to teach. For example, a picture inside a busy restaurant. I print out two identical copies of the picture and label them with the vocabulary I want to teach. This works well if you have between 10-20 words to review. Now, on each picture I label some things correctly and some incorrectly. I vary which ones are correct and incorrect on each photo.

With your students working in pairs I give each student one copy of the photo.  They must not look at each other’s photo. I tell them they must communicate in order to make a communal list of everything that is either labeled correctly or incorrectly in both photos. To end this task get another pair to peer correct. This will inevitably involve your students going through all of the vocabulary and if they have forgotten the vocabulary describing what is being labeled. See the picture below as an example.

That’s me

This is a quick game that needs little preparation. Have the words you want to teach on some flash cards or slips of paper and distribute the cards evenly to your students. I then give a definition/use/example of one of the words and if the student thinks they have that word they must shout “That’s me”. If they are correct they win a point, if not they lose a point.

You can further expand on the game.  Instead of students secretly holding their cards like poker have them spread them out in front of them so that everyone in the class can see each other’s cards. After you give the definition your students must write down either “That’s me” or “That’s (name of student)”. On the count of three everyone reveals who they think has the word with people who are correct winning a point and those incorrect losing a point.

This Is Jeopardy!

Maybe you won’t hear most students brag about watching jeopardy every evening and enjoying it. However, I’ll bet they would appreciate it more than an independent matching exercise. Incorporating this classic into your lessons will help you apply the different levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy in a fun and interactive way.

This game’s use of categories and point levels makes it easy to include prompts of different Bloom’s Taxonomy levels. For example, the 100’s may test memory while the 400’s can test application, evaluation and so on.

Implementation of classroom ESL games has become popular and virtually a requirement for K-12 because games are so effective. Many studies, published and unpublished can attest to this, as A Framework For the Design And Integration of Collaborative Classroom Games, which utilized the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy. The study found a significant increase in the number of students who answered test questions correctly after participating in a game.

Having created a jeopardy game using Microsoft Powerpoint, you can use slide slow view to ask students questions (in the form of a statement). Allow them a reasonable amount of time to answer, and, depending on their familiarity, permit them to use (not rely on ) their notes. Try to avoid simply showing them the definition or word, but get creative by using examples of the terms, hypothetical dialogue that includes the terms and fills in the blanks.

For example, in a less effective scenario, a teacher may ask “what is the color blue?” or just state “the color blue.” The student proceeds to point to or hold up an object that is blue. More effective prompts would be “This is the color of the sky.” The student’s response would be, in the spirit of Jeopardy, “What is blue?”

Another more effective prompt might incorporate dialogue. For example, the prompt may read as follows:

Penny: “Jan, I can help you study for your English test.”
Jan: ” Great! I really appreciate it.”
The word appreciate means ______.

Of course, vocabulary word and prompt difficulty depend on student current mastery levels.   A prompt may also ask students to provide examples of a vocabulary term. For example, it may instruct the student to do the following:

“Provide an example of family.”
Responses may vary and may include sister, mother, grandfather, etc.

Do always consider your audience. This game is designed as a review, so it best suits the studious and those who have had at least a week of exposure to the words in the game.

Unleash the Artiste: Painting with Words

Verbal constructed responses, those in which students are required to use words to apply previous knowledge to create, are superb methods for teaching vocabulary to ESL students. These tasks help students accomplish both the application and creation stages of Bloom’s Taxonomy. The more challenging levels of Bloom’s, which go beyond memory and understanding, signify deeper learning. Deeper learning fosters mastery of concepts.

According to Jo-Ellen Tannenbaum, ESL students benefit from guided or controlled writing exercises in which they are introduced to each step in the writing process: pre=writing, drafting, revising, editing and proofreading. She also mentions that themes can motivate students to write.

For the “artist’s prompt” exercise, teachers provide a theme in the form of an image of an object, concept or scene. The teacher provides a few words describing the picture, and students follow by creating a concept map of their own words describing the picture. They are encouraged to think of as many English words as possible to describe the picture.

The idea is not for them to actually paint the prompt with paint, but to use words to “paint” the image, describing it in detail. Someone reading the description should be able to determine what is being described.

Next, students write a short narrative about the same image they have described. This step fosters higher-level thinking in which the students apply and create. Both fictional and non-fictional narratives should be accepted, as they both force students to use the English vocabulary, including those they have just used, to describe the picture.

Win, Lose or Draw (Writing Style)

This vocabulary teaching method incorporates another classic game with constructed responses. Each student is given an image to describe to their classmates. The goal is for classmates to guess the image based on the student’s description of it. Like the previous, this method can potentially foster higher level thinking as students are challenged to create original sentences and phrases.

First, the teacher provides each student with an image to describe. The type of description should be open: they may use a combination of phrases and sentences. They should be given time to draft their descriptions before either reading them aloud or writing them on the board.

In most cases, an easy guess indicates a thorough, competent description. Less accurate descriptions would generally require more time to decipher.

On a final note, it’s imperative that teachers aren’t sucked into the tunnel of repetition and boredom. In addition to piquing more interest, games and creative constructed response assignments allow students to learn more: Students are more ardent and involved in the classroom when learning does not feel like learning in the traditional, boring sense. As countless studies and experimentation have shown, when the class is memorable, so is the content.

This post was written by Phil from English Lesson Packs – a great site for free to use ESL materials for both students and teachers.

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