How to Teach Vocabulary to ESL Students

Vocabulary is the heart of any language, so teaching it well is important.

So why not teach vocabulary the way you learned it as a child? That’s what I’ve started doing and it’s been working super well.

Native speakers learn new words in their youth in context and by immediately using them in a practical way.

By teaching vocabulary words with visual stimuli, in the context of other words, in word clusters and spoken out loud, and by choosing practical words that students actually need to know, you’ll get new vocabulary words to stick in your students’ minds.

Let your ESL students blossom into confident English speakers using a volume of new words with these five effective vocabulary teaching methods, each with their own set of corresponding activities.


1. Present Words with Visual Stimuli

Visual learning has long been a staple of learning.

From the time we’re kids and throughout our entire academic careers, visual learning plays a big role. Presenting new words using visual stimuli is also a great way to step away from more humdrum methods (like those vocab lists) and spice up the classroom.

One way I recruit visuals to join this battle is by using flashcards. Of course, this is a classic teaching and learning method. However, there are plenty of ways to make them into a new, exciting and visual activity.

For example, you won’t simply have your students write the new words and their meanings on flashcards—boring! Rather, you’ll let them build a visual experience that will support comprehension. We’ll show you how to take this even further in the teaching method outlined below.

I had to suggest a top method for how to teach vocabulary to ESL students, this would be it.

How to teach ESL vocabulary with visual stimuli:

  • First, compile a healthy stack of magazines. The material should be appropriate to your students’ ages.
  • Grab stacks of flashcards, glue sticks and scissors. Hopefully you have some of this stuff lying around already. Make a few flashcards yourself. Pick a new vocabulary word and cut out pics from magazines that represent it. These homemade illustrated flashcards will serve as examples for your students.
  • It’s class time. Present a few new words to your class, discussing the definition and usage of each.
  • Show examples of your creative flashcards and let them loose in groups to develop their own using the words you presented at the beginning of the activity. The groups will support communication, a great ESL sub-skill.
  • Once your ESL students have developed their flashcard masterpieces, it’s time to present. Each student will explain their new word, definition and the photos they chose for that specific word. This creates a lasting visual memory, boosting comprehension when opportunities for practical use come knocking.

2. Attach Context to Vocabulary

Attaching context to the vocabulary you present to your students will connect them with those new words in a more meaningful way. It’s how I remember students’ names, so I know the method works well.

Many English teachers place the most emphasis on this vocabulary teaching method due to its efficacy.

There are a few strategies based on teaching with context. For one, you can group words together using context. You’ll want to show how vocabulary words work together in sentences and paragraphs. You’ll want to present words to students with a complete story or a video clip that utilizes all of it.

By teaching vocabulary to ESL students this way, you’re much more likely to get students to remember key words.

How to teach ESL vocabulary with context:

  • Find a subject first. The chosen subject will put everything else in place. For this sample activity, we’ll use the weather as the subject. After all, the weather will sooner or later be a talking point for your students outside of the classroom. Find a weather broadcast from a news channel website or YouTube.
  • Pick five to seven new words you’ll focus on from the weather video. Transcribe how they were used in the video and write down their definitions for your lesson plan material.
  • Present the vocabulary in context to your class. Show them the video. Then present the new words, their definitions and transcriptions. Have a little discussion and answer questions as needed before moving on.
  • Show the weather broadcast video again, but this time have your students raise their hands every time they hear the new target words. You can do this two or three times.
  • Once you have etched the new words into your students’ minds with context, it’s time for contextual action. Break up your eager students into small groups of three or four, then unleash them to develop their own weather scripts using their freshly presented vocabulary. They can work together in their peer groups and simply modify the transcriptions from the video, or they could even create totally new and compelling scripts of their own.
  • Have the groups present their scripts in front of the class in order to build confidence and have them learn that vocabulary once and for all.

3. Build Confidence with Word Clusters

Another exceptional and effective way to keep building vocabulary comprehension is to deploy word clusters in the classroom. I’ve seen from personal experience that students tend to enjoy relating words to other words and this approach often leads to new areas that I hadn’t even planned on.

They also allow you to check in on your students’ comprehension levels quite easily. They could be a bit boring if you simply give your class a worksheet of word clusters to decipher—but you don’t want to be the boring English teacher, now do you?

Word clusters basically map out relationships between words (see here). Students will need to identify which words are closely related and draw it all out.

You may also want to consider using Visual Thesaurus for examples for this activity as well as further activities and learning possibilities. Visual Thesaurus is exactly what it sounds like, a thesaurus that uses word maps to display the relationships between words. Because of its interactive, engaging nature, students may end up using it not just to find the “right” word, but to add new words to their vocabulary without even realizing it!

How to teach ESL vocabulary with word clusters:

  • There’s nothing wrong with a little competition, so pair up your students for this vocabulary building activity. Each pair will be competing for points and cluster champ bragging rights.
  • Browse your previous vocabulary lesson plans in order to find the target words you’ll use for this activity. You’ll want to have lots of descriptive words that are synonyms and antonyms to one another, if possible. Let’s say you decide to utilize the five to seven words you presented in context during the weather-related vocabulary building activity. These words will be the centerpieces for your students’ word clusters.
  • In order to warm your class up a bit, recap the words you’ll be building clusters for. This could be a simple classroom discussion after you present the words again, or you can let the class watch the weather broadcast again and point out the new words.
  • Once the warm-up is complete, let the cluster creation begin. Each student pair will have a blank sheet of paper or you can provide them with a blank template. You’ll say and write the first cluster word, and they’ll write the word in the center of their blank paper.
  • Start the timer. Your students must attempt to get as many words linked via lines to the core word as possible before time runs out. Five minutes is generally a good amount of time per word.
  • Once time is up, your pairs will present the words they have clustered. They get a point for each word, and another point if the word is spelled correctly.
  • You’ll repeat and answer questions as they arise during the activity. Ensure that you’re encouraging communication and collaboration between your students. The classroom should be nowhere near quiet during this activity.

4. Keep New Words Practical

Keeping new words practical will let students know exactly how to use them when they need them the most.

In fact, building ESL skills through practical use is essential to language growth. Plus, it adds excitement to any activity. You can mold your students’ communication skills faster while building quicker response times in a practical setting.

This could prove valuable to ESL students abroad or during English testing. Improvisational activities in the classroom are effective for presenting and learning vocabulary in a practical way.

This is my secret weapon when it comes to how to teach vocabulary to ESL students.

How to teach ESL vocabulary with practical exercises:

  • First, you’ll need to identify five to seven new words to present to your class. Sticking with the practical use theme, it’s a best practice to use vocabulary associated with the time of year or an event currently happening, for example.
  • If a big sporting event is taking place or is about to take place soon, you can utilize it for your practical vocabulary building activity. The Olympics is a fantastic example. You can build plenty of vocabulary using the Olympics as your subject.
  • Choose five to seven words associated with the Olympics. This can be a specific event or a concept like teamwork that’s involved in the happenings of the world-renowned athletic event. Let’s say you want to focus on track and field. You could introduce words related such as marathon, sprinting, high jump, time, teammate and competition, among others.
  • After presenting the new Olympic track and field vocabulary, pair up your students. You’ll give them roles. Student A will be a sprinter and student B will be a marathon runner. You can give them opening lines or a scenario to get them started, but then let them converse naturally after.
  • The use of the new vocabulary in such a practical manner will drive them to think fast by answering questions or coming up with questions to ask. For example, Student A the sprinter placed first in his run, and Student B the marathoner is congratulating his teammate. This will allow your students to develop their vocabulary, confidence and thought processes. And it’s fun to get some improv acting going in any classroom, for you and your students.

5. Let Your Students’ Voices Be Heard

Your students want to build vocabulary and they want to be heard.

So, let them do both with an out-loud activity that will boost their confidence, communication and comprehension. Having your students practice their new vocabulary out loud will also help develop proper pronunciation of their new words. Hearing them use the new words you presented will allow you to make on-the-spot pronunciation fixes while still building momentum within an activity.

You can combine this vocabulary teaching method with the Total Physical Response (TPR) method as well. You’ll be instructing students around the classroom, making the two-method combination an exceptional way to build ESL skills, English response time and language use confidence.

How to teach ESL vocabulary out loud:

  • Once you have shown and presented the new words such as pants, shirt, shoes, etc., you can expand those new words on the spot. Choose the first student and instruct them to move toward another student. Then ask them to describe what that student is wearing. The correct answers would be pants, shirt and so on.
  • Next, you’ll ask the student what type of pants they’re wearing (for example, they might be jeans, slacks, sweatpants, corduroy). Then you’ll ask the color and so on. They’ll answer everything out loud and with a strong, confident voice, even if they’re wrong.
  • Correct pronunciation and any questionable answers on the spot, allowing your students to make real-time corrections.
  • The student who was just described will be the next student to describe a classmate, and so on. They’ll bop around the room with excitement, not even realizing how much they’re learning and comprehending as they go.


Now you’ve got an excellent assortment of ESL vocabulary teaching methods that can boost a variety of language skills.

So, don’t settle for just any old method. Focusing on vocabulary teaching methods that incorporate confidence-boosting activities that touch on other ESL skills is always a best practice.

Learning vocabulary is an ESL cornerstone and sets the tone for future growth.

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