how to teach english vocabulary

The ESL Mosaic: How to Teach Diverse English Vocabulary to Learners of All Levels

Think of English words as the pieces of a mosaic that can be arranged into concrete and interesting patterns.

The more words people have in their vocabularies the more language options they have and the more colorful and complex their mosaics can become.

Fine, but how do you start building vocabulary with ESL students when English has more words than any other language?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, there are about 171,476 current English words, 47, 156 obsolete ones and 9,500 derivatives. Given that at-first-glance-overwhelming number it is important to have a plan in place for how to teach ESL students to develop and build a strong vocabulary.

Find out what topics your ESL students are interested in–no matter what level–and use that as a base. It is no secret that people will put more time and energy into learning words that interest them. This exercise will also let your ESL students know that you are interested in them as individuals.


Building English Vocabulary for Beginners

Everyone who wants to learn another language needs to start somewhere. And while it might sound obvious, the only place to start is with the basics. When building vocabularies adopt the formula of see, hear, say, write.

The other essential element for working with beginners is repetition, repetition, repetition. Think of how many time babies have to repeat “mama” before they get it right.

  • Begin with social words that the ESL students can use immediately. ESL students need to function in social situations, so teach them the must-knows such as “please,” “thank you,” “yes,” “no,” “hello” and goodbye.”
  • Teach students how to “chunk” words. Basically “chunking” is using words that fit together and teaching ESL students phrases. Yes, that’s right—phrases. Returning to the suggestion about social words, expand their vocabulary to include sentences: “How are you?” “It is a nice day today,” “What is your name?” “Where do you live?” Students can do simple role plays to reinforce the concepts.
  • Teach pronouns as they are the first language brick. Use flashcards, pointing, games and mimicking to teach I/me, you, he/she/it, we/us, them/they. Depending on the level you might want to do the singular pronouns one lesson and the plurals the next.
  • Start a vocabulary book with separate sections for each of the types of words. Students can update it every day with the type of word—nouns, verbs, pronouns—they learned. The book is foundational as the students can refer back to it even at the advanced level to measure how much their vocabularies have improved.
  • Teach the most important verbs first. Students need to learn the verbs they will use first: be, have, do. So action words such as “pontificate” can wait for the advanced level. The most common verbs are a touch tricky as 12 of them are irregular. Conjugation can be challenging, so use a mix and match approach with the pronouns. This can be done with flashcards or as a whiteboard brainstorming session.
  • Focus on nouns. Although some people maintain that a noun is a person, place or thing, there are additional considerations such as ideas or concepts. Think of “big bang” as an example. Then there are the rules of common or proper, possessive or not, singular or plural, countable or uncountable. Like verbs, start with the most common nouns and go from there.
  • Put the three together to make simple usable sentences. Print the pronouns, verbs and nouns on separate cards and have a contest to see who can make the most sentences using the three elements. For example, “I have time,” She needs food,” “They want information.”
  • Use games and songs to help with pronunciation. Beginner ESL students have to learn to correctly pronounce the words and phrases in their vocabularies or people won’t understand them as well. One way to reinforce this is to use mirrors. You speak into one and they try to mimic the way your mouth moves while holding another.
  • Maximize your vocabulary teaching with Spelling Classroom. Spelling Classroom offers not only pre-made word lists, but a ton of games, activity modules and other features that you can combine for a great vocab learning experience for your students of any level. Want to know more? Check out our full review here.

Remember that vocabulary journal? Add to it every day and use it to review words and phrases. have the students write sentences with each new word they learn. See if they can string the words together to make a simple paragraph. This can be done as an individual or group activity.

Teaching beginning ESL is done in baby steps, so remember to keep the lessons focused and to review and then build on the last concept before advancing to the next. Check to make sure your students know what the vocabulary words mean and can use them in context. And that is where review, review, review comes into play.

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Expanding Intermediate Level Vocabularies

ESL students with well-developed basic vocabularies are well-placed to build on that knowledge. Now that they can speak, listen, read and write on some level they are ready to take off developing their English vocabulary.

  • Build on their foundation. Do a vocabulary review with your students to test which vocabulary words they understand and identify any that they don’t. One way to check is to have the students use the words in sentences. This can be done orally or as a writing exercise for homework.
  • Develop vocabulary lists: animals, food, items of clothing. Pick a topic and see how many words students know—and can find—to name the animals. Bring in restaurant menus and discuss how food is separated into different sections with salads in one, entrees in another and mains still further on.
  • Introduce adjectives and adverbs. Use photos and have students write or say as many adjectives or adverbs as they can come up with. For an elephant, for example, adjectives could be “big,” “huge,” “massive,” “wrinkled” and so on.
  • Teach ESL students about synonyms, antonyms and homonyms. This is a great way to build vocabulary quickly as students learn opposites, similar in meaning and those that sound the same—they’re, there, their—but are pronounced differently.

By the intermediate stage students should be fully engaged. To get them involved in the class and taking ownership of their learning, use a variety of teaching methods. Try different approaches and see what works best with your particular ESL class.

Fine Tuning Advanced Vocabularies

Now that ESL students understand nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adjectives and phrases it is time to work on the finer points of English vocabularies.

  • Introduce idioms. Humor and idioms are too often the last things understood in a new language. Having a sprinkling of idioms will make students sound like native speakers as they will have joined “the club.” Let them be in the know!
  • Develop vocabularies for specific interests. Some examples are business words, TOEIC must-knows, science and technology lexicon. Each field has its own set of insider words, phrases and jargon. By the advanced level students are ready to move into vocabulary-specific areas.
  • Use films and role-plays to expand vocabulary development. Watch a film as a class and have students take notes about their assigned parts. Then do a classroom production using the vocabulary words they picked up from the movie.
  • Introduce formal presentations. Often students studying at this level will have professional aspirations. So work with them on academic presentations, resumes, job searching, annual reviews and general meeting reports as needed. A classroom is a safe place to begin preparing for a career that involves public speaking.
  • Work on words that are often confused in English, even by native speakers. How many times have you seen mistakes such as “I went too the store” made by English speakers? Often times this involves perfecting the homonyms learned at the intermediate level.

The formula is still as simple as always: see, hear, speak, write. And include activities that cover the four elements every day.

There are many ways to get ESL students involved in expanding their vocabularies: journals, games, songs, presentations. It starts with giving them a basic vocabulary they can use immediately. Then it moves on to building a solid base. Next the process includes adding adjectives, adverbs, synonyms, antonyms and homonyms.

By the time students reach the advanced level it is a matter of tweaking their English to get them to sound like native speakers.

I am sure you are more than up for the job!


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