If only these walls could speak?
If only these walls could teach!
In fact, they can.
Class walls will not exactly have the same effect as, say, Robin Williams standing on a desk talking about the universe, but they can become a significant part of your students’ journey to fluency in the English language.
How? With English vocabulary posters.
These can be far more than simple lists of words taking up room on your walls. In fact, they can make your classroom attractive and effective while targeting a wide range of vocabulary teaching goals.
Here is how.
Why Use Posters to Teach Vocabulary?
If you are like most people, you like to have decorations on your wall, whether at home or at work. Pictures, paintings, photos all serve to make our rooms look better and in so doing raise our spirits. It is the same for your classroom. Just having things up on the walls makes the space feel more welcoming and more comforting, for both you and your students.
But posters do more than make the room feel better. They can actually teach. That is, if you are strategic about the posters you are displaying. Even in the best classrooms, students’ eyes wander from time to time. They look at their classmates, look out the window, look at the walls! That is where the passive teaching power of posters comes into your English classroom.
When your walls are decorated with words, your students will still receive English input even when their eyes are wandering. They will see key English words throughout the day, learn them and remember them through repeated exposure. And the more words in their lexicons, the better.
Another benefit posters have to offer is they make your classroom more personal and interactive. As you will see below, there are many opportunities to tailor vocabulary posters to your students’ specific needs or even have them contribute to the posters. When students play a part in what goes on the walls in your room, they will feel more connected to it, too.
8 English Vocabulary Poster Ideas for a Wonderfully Word-friendly Classroom
The vocabulary poster ideas below can be used to teach a wide range of vocabulary topics. We will point you to specific vocabulary ideas and resources for each, and you can also mine great poster content from FluentU for any of these options.
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You'll find music videos, musical numbers from cinema and theater, kids' singalongs, commercial jingles and much, much more.
On FluentU, all the videos are sorted by skill level and are carefully annotated for students.
Words come with example sentences and definitions. Students will be able to add them to their own vocabulary lists, and even see how the words are used in other videos.
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Have you “banned” certain words in your classroom? You might want to think about it if you have not.
As I am sure you have seen, it is easy for language students to get comfortable with a particular set of words. In fact, we all do it even in our first language. Unless we are challenged, we will stick to using the same old basic verbs or descriptive adjectives over and over.
Banning certain words can be useful in any language classroom, but particularly for beginners. It forces them to get out of a comfortable set of words and branch out. Think of it like teaching synonyms. You choose a word to ban, for example good, and then give students plenty of other options to use in different contexts: beneficial, positive, tasty, etc.
If you are not sure where to start with banning words, the book of word lists “Banish Boring Words” is a great place to begin.
Once you get the idea of which words are “boring” and the types of synonyms you want your students to use instead, it is time to make your banned words poster.
Divide your poster paper into a small column and a large column. Write your banned word in the small column and the better words to choose in the larger column next to it. Draw lines to separate each entry on the list from every other. If you notice your students using any particular word too often, add it to the list and grab a thesaurus to give them some other options.
With a poster like this in your classroom, you will be encouraging a more diverse vocabulary in your students and making your room more personal as well.
Do you use the “Oxford Picture Dictionary” in your classroom? I know it is a go-to for me, especially when I am teaching beginning level students. You can make an equivalent for your classroom walls when you are teaching a thematic vocabulary unit. This type of poster is good for all level students but especially beginners.
To make one, get a poster that corresponds with a unit you are currently teaching. For example, if you are doing a unit on vacation, put up a poster of a beach scene or even a map of a famous city.
Once your poster is up on the wall, label all the items on the poster that correspond with your vocabulary unit. For a vacation-themed vocabulary poster, you could label the train station, museum, hotel, beach, ocean, towel, etc. As your students enjoy the pictures on your walls, they will also be absorbing the words on the poster. They will see the words in context and will relate to them visually.
You can even find thematic posters with the labeling done for you at English Club.
International Phonetic Alphabet
If you do not use the International Phonetic Alphabet in your classroom, I cannot stress enough how useful it is for ESL students. While English spelling is based somewhat on the sounds the words make, the IPA is a true demarcation of the sounds that make up the English language. Not only that, it is used all over the world, so words in any language can be written using the IPA and then read and pronounced correctly by anyone who knows it.
When you use the IPA with your ESL students, they can learn the correct pronunciation of English words not only by hearing but also by seeing the sounds that make up a word. This extra input helps prevent bad pronunciation habits and also makes things easier for your visual learners. You can use the IPA with any level students.
An English classroom IPA poster is very straightforward—it generally shows IPA symbols and English words that use the sound each symbol refers to. Here is a good reference poster of the IPA, which you can print and put up in your class or use as a template for an IPA poster using words from your own curriculum.
Once your students know the IPA, you might consider marking phonetic pronunciations on other posters around your room.
If you are teaching intermediate to advanced students, a word family poster is a great way to teach synonyms and expand their vocabularies.
This type of poster is similar to that of a banned word poster in that it lists synonyms and related words, but in this case each word has a separate poster and no one word is banned from the list. It is also especially suited to an interactive element that is great for students who already have some English vocabulary under their belts.
When you have picked a word family to focus on (say, personality descriptors) set up your poster with a primary word (say, nice) and then fill in a few synonyms. But be sure to leave plenty of space, since the students will be filling out the rest of the poster. You can do this as a class with students shouting out ideas, or have them mark posters up in small groups.
Do not be afraid to get creative with the design! Word clouds, pyramids, the sky is the limit. For inspiration, check out the word family posters branching from the words big and small here.
One of the most important (and abstract) vocabulary needs for advanced students is learning idioms, and posters are a great way to do this. Idioms are a challenge for ESL students since the words together have a different meaning than the sum of the words themselves. For example, “drinks on the house” has nothing to do with where beverages are placed.
By giving students a picture to associate with idioms, they can make a visual connection between the idioms and their meanings, something they will not get from just words on a page.
To make this kind of poster, print a picture that illustrates any given idiom and post it on your wall with the idiom written at the bottom or top of the page. Here is an example with several illustrated idioms.
If you are good at illustrating, draw your own. Better yet, you can ask your talented students to draw a picture to illustrate the idioms they will encounter when they use English in everyday situations.
My students have always enjoyed listening for unfamiliar words as they use English in the real world, read materials in English or watch TV and movies. This poster gives students a space to share vocabulary discoveries from their English explorations.
Start your poster with a blank sheet and a stack of sticky notes nearby. Tell students the intent of the poster is for them to share with the class new words they encounter outside of class—like when listening to native speakers, watching TV, reading, etc. Invite students to add the new words they encounter to the poster before or after class or during free learning times.
When a student wants to add a word to the poster, they should write the word on the front of the sticky note and the definition of that word on that back (after they look it up) and stick the note to the poster.
You can then encourage other students to read the words and explore the definitions on the back as well as add their own discoveries to the poster.
This kind of poster makes the classroom more personal, and it gives your students a visual indication of how much their English knowledge is progressing. A blank poster that is filled with new words just a few months later will help your students see that they are making measurable progress in developing their vocabularies.
Prefixes, suffixes and root words all carry meaning in English. When ESL students learn the meaning of the pieces of words, they have a better chance of guessing the meaning of additional words that use these same pieces. For example, a student who knows un- means not in English and knows the root palate has to do with the mouth will have a good chance of inferring what unpalatable means.
Here is a poster that gives some good information on prefixes and suffixes in English that you can use for inspiration, but it is easy to make your own.
Divide your poster into three sections, one larger than the other two. In the large section, keep a running collection of the root words your students are learning along with a picture illustrating each one when possible.
In one of the smaller sections, do the same for prefixes and the same in the third for suffixes.
You can then add prefixes, suffixes and root words to the poster by either writing directly on it or using sticky notes. Since students will learn the meanings of the parts, they will have a good chance of gathering the meaning of new words that use these same parts.
Specific Vocabulary Tools
Can you list five different ways to transition from one paragraph to another?
Can your students?
When you include posters in your room with specific vocabulary tools (such as transitions, connectives, subordinating conjunctions, etc.) your students will be more likely to use them.
Students at any level will benefit from posters that give them tools to express their thoughts in more complete ways.
Use this connectives poster for inspiration and then create a poster in your room to teach whatever part of speech or writing tool your students would most benefit from.
You do not have to stand on your desk to expand your students’ vocabularies. In fact, you may not even have to say a word. Making your walls and the posters on them work for you can benefit both your students and their sense of interior design.
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