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English as a Second Language (ESL) Teachers: How To Teach Vocabulary to Beginner and Intermediate ESL Students

Updated on March 25, 2010

The Importance of Teaching Vocabulary

Welcome and congratulations! Visiting this page takes you one step closer to becoming an awesome ESL teacher! Let's start by learning the importance of vocabulary. Often times in ESL classrooms, teachers focus a lot of time on basic sentences, grammar structures, and relevant vocabulary that they can use in their grammar exercises.

Though it is useful to learn grammar, a student really can't say much with a grammar rule. Yet if you teach students vocabulary, they suddenly have the power to communicate effectively. If they are in a store they can say "orange" or "chicken" and the clerk can help them find it. If they are sick they can say to the doctor "headache". Hence, building vocabulary is extremely important for communicative effectiveness.

The Oxford Picture Dictionary

Oxford Picture Dictionary, 2nd Edition
Oxford Picture Dictionary, 2nd Edition

Use an Effective ESL Textbook

Now that we've established the importance of vocabulary, let's begin the process of incorporating vocabulary into the classroom. First, it is important to use a good ESL textbook. At Hawaii Literacy's Drop-In Center, we use the Oxford Picture Dictionary, 2nd Edition. This book is truly an amazing achievement for mankind. Sometimes, I spend the whole 3 hour class only teaching from one page out of this book! Let me highlight its amazing features:

1) It has relevant vocabulary for all levels of students (you can check out the table of contents on
2) Students and ESL teachers can begin on any page at any time (so new students will not feel like they are behind the class).
3) Pictures can be understood even if the student has a very minimal level of English.
4) All levels of students find the book useful and engaging.
5) The teacher's manual and workbooks are excellent and make teaching and learning much easier.
6) It is inexpensive for most students (about $17)

Of course, even with these many advantages, the book is a reference book...a picture dictionary. Therefore, in order to make it interesting to students, the ESL teacher will need to integrate it into an effective classroom experience.

Teaching ESL Beginners and Intermediates: Basic Skills 101

With the Oxford Picture Dictionary, teaching vocabulary becomes a breeze. However, it is just a reference book, so as an ESL teacher, we are tasked to make it fun and exciting!

First things first. When teaching anything, it is important to speak slowly and clearly. In addition, keep your lessons simple and to the point. Do not use complicated English to explain simple vocabulary. Keeping students engaged is to make them understand what you are doing and what you are saying. If your students understand your acting or your simple English sentences and explanations, then they will be happy and focused in your classroom.

Keep it Simple

Using Words That are Easy To Understand

Effectively Introducing ESL Vocabulary

Now that we've got the basics covered, it's time to focus on technique! When you teach the vocabulary, follow these steps:

1) Breathe - Breathe and slow your words down
2) Speak slowly and clearly
3) Repetition - Say the words you are teaching - a lot! Say the words at least 3 times, and have the students say the words at least 3 times
4) Feel free to let individual students say the words to check pronunciation
5) Review - When you finish a vocabulary lesson, be sure to review all of the words with the class at least 2 times each, this gives the class closure, brings everyone back to focus.
6) Use drawings
7) Act the words out
8) Write the words on the board (if you need to spend time on it)

If you are a beginner ESL teacher, then here's some more tips. Focus! Remember to take it slow and repeat the words many many times. Stay on the topic. Have the students get lots of practice saying the words, and hearing you say the words!

Teaching Vocabulary to Beginner and Intermediate ESL Students

Get the Book at Amazon

Oxford Picture Dictionary (Monolingual English)
Oxford Picture Dictionary (Monolingual English)

The Oxford Picture Dictionary, 2nd Edition


Easy Yet Effective ESL Vocabulary Practice

Now that we've covered how to introduce, explain and review the vocabulary lesson. It's now time to have students practice the vocabulary. There are many methods for doing this, and they can be found at ESL Teacher ( For now, let's discuss how to use scripted dialogues in the classroom.

The Method

1) Find an appropriate conversation - If your students are beginners, you would use only 2 or 3 sentence conversations. If they are more advanced, then you add more sentences. Be sure the conversation incorporates the vocabulary and the grammar that you are teaching in your class that day.

Here's an example:
A: Excuse me, but do you have the time?
B: Yes, it's half past 2. (3:30 / quarter to / noon)
A: Thanks!

2) Write the conversation on the board with the A's and B's, or with some other tag showing that this is a conversation. You could use names instead of A and B, Jane and John, etc. Also write any variations (in the above example, that would be using different times).

3) Perform the conversation for your class at least 2 times. Then have the class say the conversation with you, again at least 2 times.

4) Pair up the students and have them practice the conversation. Have them switch roles and memorize both parts.

5) Erase the board, and have the students come up and perform the conversation from memory. Be sure that the whole class claps when they finish.

6) If they didn't do well, have them practice again and call them up again. If only one pair didn't do well, have that pair come up and try again.

Have fun with your class and be happy that they are practicing practical and real English conversations.

Using Scripted Conversations for English Practice

Teaching Vocabulary in the ESL Classroom

How many words can your students learn in a week?

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Be Consistent with Vocabulary Lessons

Finally, I would like to end this discussion by discussing the importance of consistency. When an ESL Teacher commits to teaching vocabulary, it is important to follow through. In terms of vocabulary lesson building, it's best to follow an easy pattern for students to understand.

For example, maybe you teach vocabulary on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Or maybe you always spend the first 30 minutes in each class on vocabulary. For our school, we spend some class time teaching the same page out of the Oxford Picture Dictionary on all four of our weekly classes. This gives students a week to absorb the material, and to find the time to study, retain and ask questions.

Be consistent in regards to the times and days you dedicate to teaching vocabulary, and be consistent in spending class time allowing the students themselves to say the words many times together and individually. Know in your heart that every single student in your classroom has the ability and will learn the words.

Congratulations! I have faith that you are going to be an awesome ESL Teacher!


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      Esther 6 years ago

      Wooow. Really helpful information. Thanks so much :D

    • profile image

      Esther 6 years ago

      Wooow. Really helpful information. Thanks so much :D

    • flikabing profile image

      April Gail 6 years ago from Cagayan de Oro

      This is really helpful! hope to find more blogs about ESL...=)


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