Practical Suggestions / Tips for Teaching Vocabulary In the past, many teachers have taught

In the past, many teachers have taught vocabulary utilizing the basic principles of memorizing a definition and the word¡¦s spelling; however, the success of this approach has been marginal at best. The trick has been for teachers to find activities and techniques that can better help students learn vocabulary in such a way that it not only becomes part of their passive vocabulary but also their active vocabulary.

The following paper offers first basic techniques and then some activities (by no means conclusive) that teachers can apply into their classrooms whether these classrooms are ESL or other disciplines. Keep in mind that the following techniques and activities vary in nature and in their appropriateness not only for grade level but also ability level. Teachers must consider which of these are most appropriate for their situation. As teachers first get ready to teach vocabulary, they must stay aware of the following questions as suggested by Craig Wealand in his article, Teaching Vocabulary-1, if they want to maximize success with students:

„«¡§Bring it [a vocabulary word] to mind when they need it'

„«Use it in the correct grammatical form' (prefix/suffix/verb inflection/word class)

„«Pronounce it correctly'

„«Spell it correctly'

„«Use it with the words it usually goes with (collocation)'

„«Use it at the appropriate level of formality'

„«Relate it to something' (know its meaning)

„«Be aware of its connotations and associations'

Joseph Pettigrew in his article, Teaching Vocabulary: Two Dozen Tips and Techniques, has done a fairly good job of giving an overview on techniques. The following table lists his suggestions. I will not give examples for all suggestions but only for those that are not easily understood. I have used his titles and explanations almost exactly in his words:


OLDIES BUT GOODIES- Matching synonyms, opposites, fill in the blank



1. Choose all the possible answers He ate lunch in the _____________. cafeteria / restaurant / snack bar / etc.

2. Where would you find¡K' an M.D. a) in a university an Ph.D. b) in a hospital

3. Complete the phrases to achieve a) a secret to reveal b) a goal

4. Correct the mistakes

He felt exhausted after a long nap. possible corrections: ¡¥refresh¡¦ for ¡¥exhausted¡¦ or ¡¥running to school¡¦ for ¡¥a long nap¡¦

5. Label a picture

6. Cross out the word that does not belong. uncle / father / aunt / brother

7. Categories: You give the example; students give the category. Or vice versa. gun, knife, club: weapon weapon: gun, knife, club

- Complete the sentences.¡¨ I was exhausted after ____________.



¡§1. Analogies ¡V good at even low levels easy : hard :: cold : ________ (hot)

2. Choose the two possible answers that can complete each sentence. Semantic

She longed for . . . (a) her freedom. (b) her lover who was far away. (c) some ketchup for French fries.


He pondered . . . (a) his future (b) that he didn¡¦t know what to do (c) the meaning of life

3. Word domains e.g., general category: break, damage He dented the . . . car¡¦s bumper / tree branch / glass of water

4. Which word in each pair is stronger, more forceful, or more intense' _____ to surprise _____ to astound

5. Arrange the words on a scale

hot ¡V warm ¡V luke ¡V warm ¡V cool ¡V cold 6. Which word in each pair is slang' ___ a kid / ___ a child

7. Which word has a more positive connotation' or Which word is more polite when talking about a person' ___ thin / ___ skinny

8. Complete the definitions. How are these actions performed' Thrust = to push __________________ (forcefully, hard)


THINGS TO DO WITH THE VOCABULARY IN A READING PASSAGE cont.1. Guessing the word from context

2. Give students the definitions; let them find the words.

3. Teach students when not to look up a word.

a) Can you get a general sense of the word' e.g., a person' something good/bad' a movement' a way of speaking'

b) Take a magic marker and block out all the words you don¡¦t know. Then read the passage and answer the comprehension questions.


4. Parts of speech Give sentences that require a different part of speech. (dictionary use)

5. Different meanings of familiar Vocabulary


1. Cause & effect: label the sentence C & E, then make a guess.

2. Opposite / contrast: underline the two words or phrases in contrast to one another, then make a guess.

3. General sense: focus on S, V, O, actor & recipient of action. What type of word it is'

If it is a noun' (def. of noun) If it is a verb' (def, of verb) If it is an adjective (def. of adjective) Ex. ¡V Each summer thousands of tourists flock to the beaches of Cape Cod.

4. Synonyms or paraphrases (found elsewhere in the sentence or paragraph)

5. Examples in the text.

6. Recognizing definitions: common in college textbooks, newspapers & magazine articles


MISCELLANEOUS cont.1. Word Sheets practice pronunciation, conduct oral mini-quizzes, answer students¡¦ questions, etc.

2. Look for words that mean . . . words for go up: soar, rise, raise, increase, push up, etc.

Teachers will find Joseph Pettigrew¡¦s techniques for ¡§Things to do with vocabulary from a reading passage¡¨ and ¡§Teaching students how to guess meaning from context¡¨ quite useful especially when students are reading such subject area texts as literature, history and science. Often students get so consumed with wanting to understand every word or with looking up every word that they fall behind on reading, get distracted from basic comprehension of the main ideas, etc. These techniques seem quite practical and can easily be incorporated into the classroom.

At this point, I would like to focus on activities that can be used in the classroom. These activities of course are going to be most successful when they are fun and / or non-threatening for the students. Once again, I will draw from Joseph Pettigrew¡¦s article which suggests ¡§fun & game¡¨ activities that indeed utilize many of his above listed strategies / techniques. Again, the following table gives a brief overview of his suggestions:


FUN & GAMES cont.1. Act out/pantomime Students will try and get other students to guess a word by performing actions without speaking.

2. Crossword Puzzles Several websites such as offer a free service where you can prepare your own puzzles. Clues can be synonyms, opposites, etc.

3. The Category Game Teams are given a card with a category such as ¡§Things that are red.¡¨ Team members take turns giving examples until the person in the ¡§hot seat¡¨ guesses or does not. If not, the next team can confer and try to guess. Clues must be examples not definitions.

4. Password Two persons from two teams sit in front of the class. They receive a word and then each person in a back and forth situation gives clues to their respective teams. The first team to guess wins that round.

5. Drawing Pictures Two persons from two teams take turns drawing pictures on the board until someone from their team can guess the word.

Again, teachers can apply Pettigrew¡¦s suggested activities in either the ¡§study¡¨ or ¡§activity¡¨ phase of a lesson. In addition, teachers can incorporate both a ¡§T-S¡¨ (teacher-student) interaction and / or a ¡§S-S¡¨ (student ¡V student) interaction depending on the phase of lesson and activity used. Lastly, teachers can tailor these activities for differing levels of students.

Craig Wealand (mentioned earlier) also has many practical activities that can assist teachers in vocabulary lessons. I have listed those that I found interesting. He makes references to students and teacher by the following symbols: SS = students and T = teacher:

NOUGHTS AND CROSSESDivide the class into two teams. S from one team must use a word in a correct sentence and show the meaning of the context. With each correct answer, a team will either receive a nought or a cross. The first team to get three correct in a row wins. Note: Words could be a collection of verbs, phrasal verbs, nouns, idioms, etc.

BACK TO THE BOARDDivide the class into two teams. This is similar to ¡§Password¡¨ except the teams give clues to the S (instead of the reverse) sitting with their back to the board. The team with the most correct answers wins.


BOARD RUN cont.Divide the class into teams (3-4 suggested). Have students line up in front of the board. Give a marker to the first student in each line. T describes a word or phrase and the first student to run to the board and write the word legibly wins that round.

CHAIN STORYT writes vocabulary to be revised on the board. T uses the first item of vocabulary to start off a story. SS continue the story using vocabulary on the board (in or out of sequence).

Craig Wealand¡¦s suggested activities would also work well in a ¡§study¡¨ phase but probably best in an ¡§engage¡¨ phase of a lesson simply because they seemed to encourage fluency in English. The main advantage to his activities as well as Pettigrew¡¦s activities is that students should become motivated and interested in the lesson. This, of course, sets an atmosphere that makes it easier to teach a successful lesson.

The Prospect House at Middlemoor has also compiled some interesting and practical activities that a teacher can use to teach vocabulary. I have tried to list those that I thought work best for ESL or EFL teachers:

TENT CARDSHave students pair words from a vocabulary set. They then write those words on tent-shape cards with one word on one side and the other word on the opposite side. Place the cards between pairs of students asking them one at a time to remember the word on the opposite side.

LEARNING BY ASSOCIATIONHave students group a verb from a verb set with a word from a vocabulary set in a memorable way.

e.g., parts of the body + verbs Her hands cried. Her hands laughed. Her eyes sank. Her eyes spoke.


PING-PONG LISTS cont.This activity works best for students in pairs. One word has to be answered with another from the set, if using a verb list, a given tense can be required. A. When did she come' ¡V B She came yesterday. B. Who did you see' ¡V B. I saw the queen.

MEMORY GAMESStart by putting 20 vocabulary words on the board. Then cancel them and let the students recreate the lists. You can also do this with parts of the word to work on spelling.

WORD ASSOCIATIONTake one word and use it like a magnet to brainstorm as many words as possible associated with that word. e.g., foot: toe, ankle, shoe, run, slip, etc. STRING OF WORDSFrom a vocabulary set put together words to make a nonsense poem/song.

e.g., The kettle is complaining the cups are quarreling the butter is slipping away the loaf is looking uncomfortable

GUESSINGThis works best at the end of a vocabulary lesson. The teacher or student says a sentence, substituting the target word with a buzz sound. The other students guess the word. SCRABBLEUse a vocabulary set or verb set. In turn students call out a letter. All the students have to fill a square with a letter. Make words that are multiple.

Again, a teacher can use Prospect House¡¦s activities for both the ¡§study¡¨ or ¡§engage¡¨ phase of a lesson, and tailor the activities for differing levels of students.

Without any doubt, learning a foreign language¡¦s vocabulary is one of the most difficult aspects to learn not only a foreign language but also to expand one¡¦s native language. Success first lies in ensuring that students are motivated and that the learning process is fun. Teachers must choose their activities carefully and be willing to experiment with new activities to keep the learning process fresh for their students.


Preston House, Middlesmoor. Ideas for Using Vocabulary. 20vocabulary.htm

Pettigrew, Joseph. Teaching Vocabulary: Two Dozen Tips and Techniques. bulary.htm.

Wealand, Craig. Teaching Vocabulary-1.