How to Improve Your ESL Students’ Writing: Eliminating Simple Vocabulary

Take a look at these two groups of sentences:

1. I got a good sandwich yesterday from Tina’s. I was so happy!

2. I ate a delicious hummus and eggplant sandwich yesterday from Tina’s. I was overjoyed!

Okay, so which pair of sentences is better?

The second one, right? It’s more descriptive, and doesn’t use flat words like “got” and “good”.

Now consider this: which sentence would you expect to see written by an ESL student? That answer could very well depend on their teacher!

As an ESL writing teacher, it can get frustrating to read multiple student essays that contain simple vocabulary. Whether preparing students to move into regular academic classes or for TOEFL and IELTS, it’s important to remind them to use the academic language that they have learned.

At lower levels of ESL, teachers accept the simple vocabulary because students are just starting to learn to use the language in sentences. When those students reach higher levels, however, it’s important to teach them to improve these elements in order to turn their essays from bland to impressive.

Lower-level students can benefit from the following lessons, but those classes will not be as in-depth as what will be presented here.

Identifying Crutch Words

Teachers must identify the words that they want to eliminate and provide reasons for the elimination.

Crutch words are vocabulary words students learned in earlier classes that students tend to use often. These words are generally vague, abstract terms that students fall back on when they can’t think of what to write. In many cases, this vocabulary is acceptable for conversation, but these students want to improve their essay writing skills.

The most common crutch words I’ve encountered are: good, bad, and get. Students would often write “a good/bad result,” when they could have written something more specific.

You must tell the class why these words make their writing weak. Explaining the difference between abstract and concrete language will aid the process, as will showing the difference between vague and specific terms.

In higher-level classes, you can tell students at the beginning of the course that they should find replacements for such crutch words. In intermediate levels, you can progressively guide students away from the simple vocabulary.

To help students expand their vocabularies, here are some resources of topic-specific vocabulary lists – to be used when:

On Spelling Classroom, you can find tons of pre-made word lists you can use to teach vocabulary, and you can also create your own custom-made word lists. The site also gives you a variety of ways to teach vocabulary, including games and activities for all levels. Check out our review of Spelling Classroom to learn more. You can also find vocabulary lists, or create your own, on FluentU.

Leaving Notes in ESL Essays

The first step to eliminating crutch words and other simple vocabulary words in an ESL class is to make notes in student essays. Teachers don’t need to, and shouldn’t, correct everything in an ESL essay, but making a few notes will help the students understand the problems.

When correcting essays, I would pick out the words I wanted students to avoid – words that my department had identified as weak for that specific level. At the beginning of the semester, I would circle the first instance of such words and write a suggestion for a stronger replacement. After the first two essays in class, I would circle the words in the essays and write WC, which my students understood to mean “word choice.” During revisions, the students were expected to not only correct grammar but also improve the vocabulary throughout the essays.

Vocabulary-building Exercises

Level: Intermediate to advanced
Type: Whole class
Time: 10 – 30 minutes
Materials: Board, handouts if desired

The best method to teach students to eliminate and replace simple vocabulary is through vocabulary-building exercises that reinforce the purpose of the lesson. I usually used this exercise after the second or third essay with much of the same vocabulary as the first. After some brief warm-up exercises, this vocabulary builder can help move the lesson into a larger discussion on improving points in essays.

Begin by telling the class that words, such as “good” and “bad”, aren’t specific enough for their level of writing and will detract from their ideas. Most classes will ask why at this point, and you should be prepared with some example sentences (I used examples from student essays, but that isn’t necessary). It’s usually best to write an example of an ineffective sentence and ask the class to edit it, after which you can write your own improvement.

Example sentence: John wants to get a good job.
Example correction: John wants to obtain a high-paying job with benefits.

Another method of presenting this, which may be more useful when doing this lesson a second time, would be to write both sentences on the board and ask the class which is better. Of course, you would also have to ask the students to explain why one is better than the other.

This may lead to a discussion on improving vocabulary, at which point you can guide the class into the following lesson, or delay the rest of the lesson in favor of steps students can take to improve their vocabulary.

Present the Lesson’s Key Words

On the board, write the words you want to focus on. If you want to use this as a mini-lesson or short exercise, focus on one word; but you can use up to four for an effective lesson.

  • Take one word at a time.
  • Ask students to provide synonyms.
  • Provide your own suggestions if students take too long or run out of ideas.
  • Move on to the next key word.

If you want to focus on words like “get,” you will need to present it in phrases. ESL students tend to learn set phrases, such as “get a job” and “get married,” and often forget about synonyms for other uses. You should reinforce substitutions through other lessons (I changed example sentences for class to include “obtain,” “receive,” “earn,” etc.).

When the lessons avoid using the crutch words you’re looking to eliminate, the students will grow accustomed to the synonyms and will be more likely to use the words in essays.

If you teach a class in which students are reluctant to take notes, print out a worksheet with the key words and a lot of blank space for students to write the synonyms. You may want to include a synonym or two to get them started. This type of worksheet could also work as a homework assignment before or after you present the lesson.

Notes on Using a Thesaurus

Intermediate ESL students should begin learning to use a thesaurus to improve their word choices. If you teach a class that requires timed essays, it’s best to suggest that students don’t rely on the thesaurus while writing. Altering the word choice in such essays can be saved for the final proofreading before the time has expired.

Even at higher levels, I have found students who didn’t understand that all the words listed as synonyms weren’t necessarily interchangeable. You should present a brief lesson on how to use a thesaurus for essay writing at the beginning of the semester.

To make this lesson more engaging, you may want to check out Visual Thesaurus. It allows you and your students to play with word maps, so you can see the connections between similar words. In this way, Visual Thesaurus can be a tool not just for writing, but for learning and enhancing vocabulary.

Long-term Results

Don’t expect students to improve in this aspect of their writing immediately. Some students will struggle to pick up on more effective vocabulary, but others will alter their writing sooner. You will need to reinforce the target vocabulary and possibly present this exercise in an abridged form again. The repetition of using synonyms in their revised essays will also lead to results throughout the semester.

I’ve had ESL students who were frustrated by the constant appearance of the letters “WC” on their essays. By the end of the semester, however, they had learned to avoid those crutch words and were able to write clearer, more concise sentences that added to their ideas rather than obscure the meaning.

Through lessons targeting specific weak vocabulary in essays, students will alter their writing habits and choose more appropriate academic vocabulary in the future, which will improve their performance in subsequent classes.

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