Teaching Vocabulary: 3 Fun Methods for ESL Teachers and Students

by | Feb 18, 2018 | Teaching ESL

Teaching vocabulary is rarely easy (or fun for the students), but when you’re an ESL or TEFL teacher there can be an added layer of complication.  In order to make the curriculum as engaging as possible, we’ve put together 3 methods to help teach and reinforce new words and phrases.  While there is no perfect method on how to teach vocabulary, the following games and exercises are a great addition to any teachers’ repertoire! 


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 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 Many studies, published and unpublished can attest to this, as A Framework For the Design And Integration of Collaborative Classroom Games, which utilized the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy.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.

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