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How to Teach Vocabulary To ESL and EFL Students

Updated on April 28, 2020
Paul Kuehn profile image

Paul has spent many years teaching English as a foreign and second language. He has taught EFL in Taiwan and Thailand, and ESL in the U.S.

EFL Students Performing A Role Play


Traditional Teaching Methods

Have you ever taught reading to EFL or ESL students? For six years I was tasked with developing listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills for lower middle school students in Thailand. Vocabulary has always been a concern for all teachers when conducting reading classes. The concern, of course, is how will the children understand the reading text if they don't know the vocabulary. Many teachers agree that vocabulary must be pre-taught before the students read an article. Traditionally, the reading text or teacher has presented the kids with a list of the new English words along with translations of the words in the students' native language. When teaching, many teachers have had the students read and repeat the words after the teacher. Some teachers might even have offered a few examples of how the words are used in sentences. Most teachers then have probably told the kids to memorize the words and meanings for a test the next day. That's it! Nothing else has been done to teach the new vocabulary.

The author as an English teacher at Saint Joseph Bangna School in Thailand in 2009.
The author as an English teacher at Saint Joseph Bangna School in Thailand in 2009. | Source

An Inductive Approach To Teaching Vocabulary to ESL Students And EFL Learners

Vocabulary cannot be learned by looking at words, writing them down, and then writing the translations of words. I have never been able to learn new foreign vocabulary that way and my students haven't either. Most reading experts agree that a person must see and use a new word at least 50-60 times before one can remember and use the word correctly in sentences. That's fine, but how can we do this in reading lessons? I propose an inductive approach to learning vocabulary which includes the following steps:

1. Strategies Before Reading: At the beginning of the reading lesson, the students are presented with pictures of the words that are appearing in the article. Next, the teacher discusses the pictures with the students, trying to activate any pre-knowledge the students might have of the words and ideas expressed in the pictures. The teacher then presents orally any of the new keywords which he or she could not elicit from the students.

2. Grouping Related Words Into Categories: After the students look at the pictures of the reading article again, the teacher guides the students into putting related words into different categories. For example, if the reading is about playing a baseball game, the students look at a picture of a baseball team playing a game on a diamond. The teacher guides the students by pointing to various players on the diamond and saying that they are all playing positions such as pitcher, catcher, shortstop, etc. The teacher might then point to players batting, pitching, and fielding, pointing out that these are activities of the game.

3. Seeing the Vocabulary In Sentences In The Article: The teacher next has the students look and listen while he or she reads the article to the students. The students will then read the article in unison, repeating it after the teacher. Finally, the teacher asks the students for any new words which they might see in the article.

4. Educated Guessing From Sentence Context: After the teacher writes the students' new words on the board, he or she asks the students to guess the meanings of new words from the context of sentences or the nature of the whole article. The teacher might ask if a new word is related to any other words in the article. He or she could also ask if the new word is being used as a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, or another part of speech. The teacher could also ask the students to guess the meaning of the word from any knowledge they have of the prefix, suffix, or stem of vocabulary not previously learned or seen.

5. Explain Vocabulary Through Examples of Synonyms and Antonyms: Next, the teacher explains the meaning of any new words which the student can not guess. The teacher can do this by using words that have the same meaning or opposite meaning of the new vocabulary. For example, a huge house can be explained as a big house which is not small. The teacher might also explain the meaning of "lost" in the sentence "She lost the key ." this way: The key is gone and she doesn't have the key now.

6. Ask Questions Using the New Words: The teacher asks the students questions using the new vocabulary. After the teacher models this activity, students ask each other questions using the new words. A creative teacher can make a game doing this.

7. Dictation of New Vocabulary: Dictation has always been one of my best activities in measuring a student's listening comprehension of new words as well as correct use of the words in sentences. In this activity, the teacher can dictate short sentences and a paragraph that has a new vocabulary in the lesson. If the student can spell the words correctly and write them down correctly, the student has taken one of the first steps in learning the vocabulary.

8. Exercises on Reading Comprehension: The final step will be for the student to answer reading comprehension questions based on the classroom text which has the new vocabulary. Traditional reading methods that employ a list of new vocabulary along with their translations have been used too long without any real benefit to the student. If used effectively, the steps outlined in suggested approaches will aid the student in learning new vocabulary and improving reading comprehension.

How to Teach Vocabulary to ESL Students

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Paul Richard Kuehn


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    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      3 months ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      Thank you, Lewis. I am happy you liked this article.

    • Lewis Mwamba profile image

      Lewis Mwamba 

      3 months ago


    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      5 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      &pstraubie I am very happy that you like my ideas about teaching vocabulary. This was one of the most challenging parts of teaching EFL in Thailand. Immersion with native speakers certainly pays off in the long run. Thanks for the votes, sharing, and sending the angels again!

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 

      5 years ago from North Central Florida

      You have some really important suggestions here, Paul. While living in Japan and teaching for DODS at Yokota Air Base I had many ESL students, many who spoke NO English and that was back in the day when the teacher dreamed up ways to immerse these dolls in the English. One of the ways that worked best was to pair English speakers with a child who did not speak English...learning skyrocketed.

      Thanks for sharing your doubt many will benefit from these suggestions. Voted up and shared

      Sending you many Angels today ps

    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      6 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      Please tell me what you disagree with in this article.

    • profile image


      6 years ago


    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      8 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand


      Thanks for reading and your nice comments. Students have to actively use vocabulary, and using questions with the new words is one way to internalize the vocabulary.

    • Phil Plasma profile image

      Phil Plasma 

      8 years ago from Montreal, Quebec

      It sounds like you really have this figured out. Your method certainly makes sense to me. I think the biggest tip is the asking questions of the new words as that compels the students to think of them.

    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      8 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand


      Thanks for reading and the favorable comments. Good luck in your teaching and at hubpages. I've been here on hubpages for more than a year and still don't know all of the tricks. There is a lot to learn.

    • livingabroad profile image


      8 years ago from Wales, UK

      Very insightful and detailed description on how to teach EFL learners. I wish I'd read this hub previous to coming to work in Thailand my students would have benefited very much. At least now I have new tactics when teaching reading! Voted up and useful. Thanks Paul.

    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      8 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand


      Thanks for reading and the favorable comment.

    • profile image

      Adeem Bindayel 

      8 years ago

      informative and useful article !

      thanks for the tips

    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      8 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      Robert, Thank you very much for the good comments and sharing. Teaching English in Thailand would certainly be a good experience.

    • Robert Erich profile image

      Robert Erich 

      8 years ago from California

      I have considering teaching English in both Thailand and Korea. It may still happen one day! Your teaching tips are absolutely amazing for anyone interested in pursuing such an endeavor. This hub is voted up and shared! Keep writing.

    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      8 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      Thanks for stopping by and the favorable comments. I hope to have more on this topic in the future.

    • freemarketingnow profile image


      8 years ago from California

      This is great! I have a lot of ESL students.

    • Bbudoyono profile image


      8 years ago

      Thanks for the tips.


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