esl vocabulary activities

9 ESL Vocabulary Activities to Build Up Your Students’ Word Stores

Most adult native English speakers possess an active vocabulary of anywhere from 20,000 to 35,000 words.

That means gaining fluency in English requires the accumulation of loads of vocabulary!

In light of this, it stands to reason that helping our students acquire new words is central to our role as English language educators. So, how do we go about tackling this enormous task?


How to Teach English Vocabulary

Three things are crucial in considering an organized approach to teaching vocabulary: Word grouping, context and preferred learning styles.

Word grouping refers to how we select words to teach. Our brain likes categories. From an early stage we tend to group things together, even if it is only into the two camps of “things we like” and “things we don’t like.” Take advantage of this when planning lessons. Group words together thematically, as this, according to EFL lecturer Anne Merritt, “works in tune with your brain’s natural system for classifying information.”

Context refers to the taking of these words out of the vacuum and modeling their use for the students. Words are signifiers of meaning. Be sure to contextualize the words for your students by employing them in your speech and utilizing techniques such as role play. This will help bridge the gap for your students between learning a new English word and confidently using it in their speech and writing.

Preferred learning styles are the ways your students absorb information best. This will usually vary from individual to individual. It is very useful to consider how your students learn so that nobody becomes frustrated or gets left behind their peers. Use a wide variety of vocabulary teaching techniques to ensure that the widest variety of preferred learning styles is covered. Flashcards are excellent for visual learners, but remember to include other activity types that cover those students who are more kinesthetic, aural or tactile learners.

In addition to the activities below, you can use Spelling Classroom to take all of the above into account when teaching vocabulary. With a variety games, activity modules, word lists and more, this site makes it possible for you to customize and track your students’ English learning. Read our complete review of it here.

The activities below are suitable for a diverse range of learning styles, so you will be totally covered.

9 ESL Vocabulary Activities to Teach Nouns, Adjectives, Verbs and More

Some parts of speech lend themselves to certain activities. Below I have separated these activities inro groups of three under the subheadings of nouns, adjectives and verbs for convenience. However, with a little adaptation, many of the activities are flexible enough to be used with other parts of speech.

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1. What’s in the bag?

This is a fun activity for students of any age. One student sits on a chair and with a cloth bag. An item of realia is placed inside the bag. For example, if you are teaching food words, perhaps you might put a banana or some pasta. The student feels the item through the bag and tries to guess what it is. They should make their guesses using the nouns they know for different foods.

This activity is usually preceded by a session teaching the target vocabulary.

In a variation of this game, the student describes the object to the rest of their classmates who then try to guess what it is based on the student’s description. This offers a good opportunity for the student to employ adjectives they already know to describe the item.

2. What’s missing?

This activity is a great way to kick students’ memories into gear and is easily differentiated for various abilities.

Place a series of realia, word cards or pictures on a tray in front of the students. Cover them with a cloth or have students turn their backs momentarily, and then remove one of the items. Can they recall what item is missing? You can increase the number of items for stronger students.

This activity also offers opportunities for the teacher to model correct use of the target vocabulary, for example, if the student suggests the hat is missing, ask questions about the hat. What color is the hat? Are you wearing a hat?

3. Categories

This is a simple sorting game that is useful after teaching a series of different themes. As with the previous activity, you can use pictures, word cards or realia, depending on the level of your students.

To play the game lay out the vocabulary, presented in whatever form you choose (perhaps flashcards, large-sized picture cards or another format), on the floor. You can use labeled hula hoops laid on the ground to designate spaces for each category.

Using a stopwatch to time the activity, have the students sort the words into the appropriate hoops. This can be done by individuals or, with sufficient words and categories, by groups. Including a competitive element can help motivate the students to learn the words.


4. The description thermometer

A thesaurus is a super tool to broaden the scope of a student’s vocabulary, especially when it comes to finding alternatives for the same old adjectives. However, one of the problems ESL students often find when trying to effectively employ this tool is getting to grips with the comparative “feel” for each synonym.

The description thermometer activity is great for way for students to come to terms with degrees of meaning. It works like this: Students cut out and arrange adjectives on a photocopied sketch of a thermometer. They do this in a laddered order of ascending intensity. For example, hot, boiling, warm, tepid will be rearranged from bottom to top as, tepid, warm, hot, boiling.

5. Antonym Snap!

If you are familiar with the popular card game Snap!, then this is pretty self-explanatory.

Print out a list of words you have been working on along with their antonyms. Backing the word cards with cardboard can help preserve their life spans, and you can add to the deck as the students’ word stores grow.

The deck is dealt out among the numbers of players until all cards have been distributed. One by one, players overturn cards into a pile in the center, calling “snap” and slapping their hand down when they see an antonym follow a word. They then claim this pile of cards for their hand.

The game is played out until one player has all the cards.

6. Size, shape and color sort

This is a similar type of sorting activity to Categories for nouns above. However, this time the hoops are labeled according to properties of various adjectives.

This activity easily lends itself to differentiation for the students’ abilities. While beginners can sort adjectives according to the basic criteria of size, shape and color, more advanced students can extend this to include categories such as:

Feelings: happy, sad, elated, distraught

Time: hourly, daily, monthly, annually

Opinions: pretty, ugly, cheap

Other possible categories include quality, origin and age.


7. Movement mime

This has much in common with the Victorian parlor game Charades.

Students sit in a semi-circle. The first player takes a card with a verb they have been working on printed on it. The student then mimes the verb for the rest of the class. No verbal clues should be given. The student who guesses the verb correctly then takes the next card, mimes the verb and so on.

This is a simple and fun way to reinforce vocabulary. It is great for teaching verbs, but can also be used effectively to teach nouns such as occupations, college majors and sports.

8. Word association

This activity can be used with more advanced students. Give the students a simple verb to start with, such as ‘walk.’ They can complete this activity as in groups competing against each other. Their task is to compile a list of synonyms for the given word. For example, for ‘walk’ the list might include the following words: stroll, stride, march, pace, hike, etc.

This activity can also be combined with the Description Thermometer activity above. When they have generated their words, can they rank them in intensity? This is often not an exact science, but helps the students get a feel for the options they have. The list above might look something like: Pace, stroll, stride, hike, march, and so on.

9. What do I like to do?

This is a variant of Twenty Questions. A student chooses a verb, either at random from a set of word cards, or generates one by themselves and records it on a piece of paper. The class is divided into two groups and they take turns asking yes or no questions about the mystery verb.

The first questions will be broad-based, such as, “can this verb be a body movement?” As the focus narrows teams may like to take a guess. If they get the answer wrong they miss a turn, ceding an advantage to the other team.

This activity is suited to intermediate to advanced students, but can be used with weaker students provided questions prompts are provided.


And there we have it: A smorgasbord of vocabulary-building activities to pick and choose from.

Hopefully you’ll find something to whet the appetite of your students!


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