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Strategies for Teaching ESL Vocabulary

Updated on December 17, 2012

Strategies for Teaching Vocabulary

English has close to 200,000 words listed in the Oxford English dictionary, and many of these words are used in more than one sense, for example as a noun and as a verb, or in an expression that has a unique meaning. Moreover, new vocabulary is being added constantly. This makes the task of learning vocabulary for a learner of English as a Second or Additional Language huge. What are some effective strategies for teaching vocabulary to ESL language learners?

How to Teach Vocabulary

It is important to recognize that students at all levels do not simply see or hear a new word, look it up in the dictionary and then know it. The process of learning new words has three stages:

  • Presentation--the teacher shows the word in writing, shows a picture of its meaning, says the word several times before asking the students to say it. A process of listen and repeat helps hone correct pronunciation. It is helpful if students keep a personal vocabulary list and write the new words in it. This should be a small, pocket-sized notebook that easliy fits into a pocket or outside pouch of a purse or backpack where it is accessible for constant review.
  • Recognition--after reading or hearing the new word many times and forgetting what it means, students start to be able to remember it, and recognize when it's the best choice of two or three to use in a context. Activities that practice this second stage are fill-in the blanks, cloze, and multiple choice worksheets. At this stage, students are still listening for how native speakers use the word in live conversations around them, and how native writers use it in articles and stories. Many words have different senses and different forms, and students learn to use the different variations and nuances of the word.
  • Mastery--at this stage, the student can use the word freely in speech and in writing. At first there is an experimental aspect to this, because of uncertainty of the connotations of the word. With much trial and error, the student masters the word.

Strategies to teach and learn vocabulary need to work on words with progressively appropriate activities at all these levels of mastery so students challenge themselves to constantly expand, refine and hone their command of spoken and written language as they become effective communicators in the target language.

Vocabulary Strategies: Personal Vocabulary Lists

Personal Vocabulary Lists are an important tool for cumulative vocabulary development.
Personal Vocabulary Lists are an important tool for cumulative vocabulary development. | Source

Oxford Picture Dictionary for ESL Vocabulary in Multi-Lingual Editions

Oxford Picture Dictionary (Monolingual English)
Oxford Picture Dictionary (Monolingual English)
This great resource for beginners comes in an English monolingual edition

Teaching ESL Vocabulary for Beginners

Beginners start with concrete, tangible words that relate to their life experiences. The easiest words to remember are those with an emotional connection to the student--objects of daily life and problem-solving on topics like housing and furniture, eating, transportation, family life, medical care, banking, shopping, and using the post office or internet. One of the most effective strategies at this introductory level is to teach sentence patterns, and create opportunities in speaking and writing for students to transform the sentence patterns by substituting alternate vocabulary. Structured language practice is what they need, since they don't yet have enough control over the language to talk freely in conversation.

1. Picture cards and labels for beginners are invaluable. Use picture cards and movable labels so students can practice in pairs, teams or as a class matching labels to objects, mixing them up, and doing it again. A useful follow-up activity is to have them write sentences with the target vocabulary.

2. The Oxford Picture Dictionary is really useful at this level for it groups words by themes, and each word is illustrated. Students can see and remember, and refer to the page as they do other classroom tasks using those words. This is available in a monolingual English edition, as well as many bilingual editions with French, Spanish, Haitian Creole, Brazilian Portuguese, Russian, Japanese, Chinese and more. This feature is especially helpful for mixed-culture classes, where students can refer to the word in their own language as they are developing English as common ground.

3. Substitution drills in various spoken and written forms are helpful. It is best to use communicative activities to integrate the four language tasks of listening, speaking, writing and reading into each lesson, so students are learning with a natural, whole language approach. This can be practiced in the classroom or the language lab, using the format listen, change, listen to the correct answer, and repeat correct answer, always working toward native speed.

Substitution Drill for Learning Vocabulary

I want to buy carrots at the grocery store.
I want to buy eggs at the grocery store.
I want to buy bread at the grocery store
He wants to buy bread at the grocery store
he/ carrots
He wants to buy carrots at the grocery store

With substitution drills, students practice basic grammar sentence patterns and replace new vocabulary into the right place to generate a new sentence.

ESL Vocabulary Activities for All Levels

Language teachers use variations of these core activities to develop vocabulary at all levels. If your students are pre-school and elementary school age, look for more suggestions in the article How To Teach Language with Kids' Games.

4. Flashcards and games/contests as icebreakers or wrap-ups

5. Pre-teaching Vocabulary for Reading or Listening Assignments

6. Personal Vocabulary Lists

7. Quizzes/Self-Study Worksheets/ Cloze Activities

8. Contact Assignments

Teaching Vocabulary Activities: Word Families

9. Word family charts are a useful resource for students because they can learn groups of related words around a single idea. As they advance with this, their vocabulary moves from general to specific, and they become more able to say exactly what they mean instead of using omnibus words like "thing," "stuff," and "nice." Examples of this are:

  • verb/noun/adjective/adverb charts
  • singular/irregular plural charts (chair/chairs, but tooth/teeth)
  • individual/ group words ( a flock of birds, but a herd of deer, a school of fish and a pride of lions)
  • male/female/ young words

Word Families: Parts of Speech


Many words in English use a different form depending on their part of speech, or function in the sentence. In some cases, but not always, there are patterns, for example adding -ly to adjectives to form many adverbs, or adding -ize to nouns to form

Word Families: Male/ Female/ Young

bull/ steer
rooster/ cock

Learning words in groups of related ideas helps students expand vocabulary and use words with precision.

Teaching Vocabulary Activities: Advanced and Academic Levels

10. Poster Assignments can be an interesting class assignment, where students need to develop a visual expression of one of their target words in a way that shows its meaning, an illustration, its etymology, examples of expressions it might be used in, and example sentences.

Helpful English Vocabulary Lists

11. Use word lists such as the 1000 and 2000 Most Frequent Words in English, and 528 Most Frequent Academic Words in English. These are available in the back of reading texts such as the Advanced Reading Power series, and online.

How to Learn English Vocabulary at Advanced Levels

  • keep developing your personal vocabulary list, and reviewing it constantly. Aim to use the new words in speaking and writing, and notice when native speakers use them, and how.
  • read in English every day for at least 30 minutes--newspapers, journal articles in your field of business or study, novels, short stories. Use the internet, use the library, subscribe to English magazines, and practice note-taking and vocabulary development skills as you read actively.
  • learn vocabulary roots/prefixes/suffixes, and work at developing your understanding of etymology, and how the English language builds words. These help you figure out the meaning of technical or academic words when you encounter them for the first time.
  • take advantage of on-line sites for learning word prefixes, roots and suffixes. These will expand your vocabulary and develop your reading comprehension. For example, Andrew Davis, of the University of Houston-Victoria, has prepared a study in roots, and Judith Wilde, PhD for Beta Group – Albuquerque, NM and Arlington, VA, has prepared a pdf on Building Vocabulary with Prefixes, Roots and Suffixes.

Using Prefixes, Suffixes and Roots

prefer, prefix, pre-date
in-, im-
in, into
incorporate, invent, imply
in-, il-, im-
invalid, illegal, immovabble

English builds words by putting parts together. Students who recognize about ten common prefixes, ten common suffixes, and fifty common roots have a powerful tool at their fingertips to understand new sight words when they also read the context clue

Helpful ESL Reading Comprehension Texts with Most Frequent Wordlists

Reading Power 2 Student Book
Reading Power 2 Student Book
An excellent text for low-intermediate level academic students, with skills practice in vocabulary in context, skimming, scanning, comprehension and speed drills. In addition, the 1000 Most Frequent Words in English are listed in the back.

Vocabulary Strategies with On-Line Tool

12. is a helpful on-line tool for teaching vocabulary not only for ESL, but also for other languages such as Japanese, French, Spanish and German, and also for technical and academic vocabulary for subjects such as Biology, Organizational Behaviour, and Respiratory Therapy. Developed by entrepreneur Scott Foubister of Kamloops, British Columbia, it is being piloted by several instructors at Thompson Rivers University, Langara University, and Douglas College.

How does it work?

Instructors contact Scott Foubister at to set up word lists for their classes, and have the option of making student participation voluntary or required as part of the course grade. If it is a requirement, teachers receive participation charts for all registered students, to see whether they are doing the required practice and self-quizzing of the target words. In my classes, we use 20 minutes each week and 50 words to get the full participation score. In addition to expecting private practice and review at home, I motivate my students through wrap-up activities and games where teams get points based on how well they know the weeks' target 20 or 50 words. Every three weeks or so, students are tested on groups of 100 words on in-class paper tests, which count as part of their grade.

Students get immediate feedback for their progress, and can practice the vocabulary at their own pace, and at their own time. My daughter loves it for her Japanese vocabulary, as well as for learning the Kanji characters, and my homestay student loves it also for her French course.

Students pay $10 per semester to register, and can then use all the vocabulary lists for any course that is registered. This is a powerful tool for native and non-native speakers alike who need to advance vocabulary, and a great way for academic teachers to structure students' mastery of core subject terminology. Current word lists include: 1000 Most Frequent Words in English, 2000 Most Frequent Words in English, 528 Most Frequent Academic Words and more. Look here to check it out and try a free demo. This new site is actively growing and becoming more useful as more and more teachers world-wide sign on.

Learning English Vocabulary with Vocaba

Self-quizzing lets the students practice at their own pace to master the target word list.  Lists can be filtered into smaller, manageable groups of multiples 10 words at a time by using the Chapter function.
Self-quizzing lets the students practice at their own pace to master the target word list. Lists can be filtered into smaller, manageable groups of multiples 10 words at a time by using the Chapter function. | Source

Learning ESL vocabulary requires being able to say the words clearly in a sentence

Pronunciation Pairs: An Introduction to the Sounds of English (Student's Book & CD)
Pronunciation Pairs: An Introduction to the Sounds of English (Student's Book & CD)
Pronunciation Pairs is a useful, structured program in accent reduction for beginners and low intermediates to improve pronunciation and listening comprehension.

How Do ESL Vocabulary Strategies Help Students Learn English?

Vocabulary gives students the building blocks to express their ideas in speech and in writing in the target language, and to understand what they hear and read. Words are a fundamental part of communicative competence. Applying effort to effective, regular, structured vocabulary development is one of the best investments students in all walks of life can make in their language learning and their ultimate academic and professional success.


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    • profile image


      7 years ago

      what r vocabulary skills and strategies ?

    • sminut13 profile image


      7 years ago from singapore

      i really enjoyed your hub, there's a lot of information and I came across this hub at a time when i'm considering which path to take in the near future.

      i'm not sure if i should go ino getting a diploma for teachers and trainers or for esl, and am not too sure of the difference although there must be.

      until now, i've just been a housewife giving tutoring lessons to students part time and so haven't had an official certificate and was pondering recently which i would be interested in.

      seeing this hub, it has made me interested and i'll be following your similar hubs as it'll allow me to have more understanding on the subject. hope to learn more from you, thanks for sharing.

    • Janis Goad profile imageAUTHOR

      Janis Goad 

      7 years ago

      HI RachelMarie. Glad to hear this is helpful, and thank you for taking the time to comment.

      I suggest a book called Pronunciation Pairs, that helps with pronunciation at the level of sounds. Be sure to remind different language groups that it is important for them to practice hearing English as it is spoken by non-native speakers, since most of the business and academic environments in the world that use English as a global lingua franca have non-native speakers. So both Koreans and Spanish speakers in Mexico should put effort into understanding each other in English at the same time they are working to reduce their own accents and improve pronunciation.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Hello, Janis! Your information is incredibly helpful; I am a US expat in Mexico City, and I have recently begun to offer English tutoring on an individual basis. Do you have any recommendations for improving vocabulary and pronunciation, one-on-one, with adult students who are also studying English at a larger language school? Many of my students are Koreans living in Mexico, and the differences in their accents makes learning English with Mexican students much more difficult.

    • Janis Goad profile imageAUTHOR

      Janis Goad 

      7 years ago

      Hello Hibaail, pictures are great for beginners, since it takes many times to review before learners remember the new vocabulary. Stories are versatile tools at beginner and intermediate levels for verb tense practice, prepositions, and story triggers. I can't think of any disadvantages of using pictures.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      thank you so much for such informatio .Iwould like to ask you ,what is the advantages and disadvantages of using pictyres for biginners . thank you in advance

    • Janis Goad profile imageAUTHOR

      Janis Goad 

      8 years ago

      Miss Olive, do I hear you!! In most of the main Canadian cities, English as a Second Language students make up a large part of mainstream classes. In Vancouver School district, for example, 67 % of students speak a language other than English at home.

      Once these students finish their 3 to five years of ESL instruction, they go into regular classes, but still don't have the reading and writing competence nor the cultural background to really understand, analyze and discuss critically grade twelve level texts and higher. Consequently, there is an impact on the level of curriculum that can be delivered. This is a significant and growing problem.

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment.

    • missolive profile image

      Marisa Hammond Olivares 

      8 years ago from Texas

      Janis Goad, my campus is less than 20 miles from Mexico and our district requires all English Department faculty to be ESL certified. This year I have the most ESL students ever. Incidentally, they now call them ELL's (English Language Learners) in our region. Not sure of the real reason behind the name change. Anyway, it can be a true challenge as my ELL students are intermingled with my regular students. The language barrier is extremely apparent. Vocabulary, context clues and imagery are a big part of my approach to comprehending text. I am also incorporating affixes and describing how a word can change with various prefixes or suffixes. It is a lot to digest. I'm not giving up though and I look forward to seeing their progress. Hubs like this will prove to be helpful for fellow teachers. Thank you for all of your wonderful ideas and tips.

    • Janis Goad profile imageAUTHOR

      Janis Goad 

      8 years ago

      Thank you for reading and commenting, Paul. Have a great day!

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      8 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      Janis, This is an awesome hub and I commend you for the time and effort you have put into writing this great article. Mastery of vocabulary for both ESL and EFL learners is no easy task. Some people say seeing a word 60-70 times will give you a little recognition, but mastery is not really achieved until you can use the vocabulary in speaking and to write sentences. For an EFL learner in a foreign country it will take much longer than an ESL learner who is forced to learn the new word to satisfy needs. Knowledge of the meaning of prefixes, suffixes, and root words will help the advanced learner gain first understanding, and then mastery of a word. As you pointed out, reading a lot will also help you learn more words and see how they are used in speech and writing. Voted up as awesome and sharing.

    • livingabroad profile image


      8 years ago from Wales, UK

      Wow Janis!

      Thank you for such a detailed and in depth reply. I will be teaching children between 5 - 12 (in Thailand) primarily, so the entire elementary stage.

      Your advice is sound and I will endeavour to provide short snappy activities to keep them engaged and active like you have advised. I know attention spans can be very short! Our structured courses will be broken up into 1 and 1/2 or 2 hour blocks depending on level. We already have a good curriculum to follow so I will just have to try to make it interesting for them!

      My problem in the past has been not getting through my entire lesson as planned, feeling I've ran out of time and maybe moving onto the next topic too fast. I believe teaching mixed ability classes of 50 might have had something to do with this?!

      Here we will have maximum classes of 14 to provide facilitate effective learning. Great for pair work and observation like you mentioned. For very young learners (4/5/6 years old) I suppose lessons can based a lot on the use of flashcards, games, repetition and constant demonstration! I look forward to it nervously! :)

    • Janis Goad profile imageAUTHOR

      Janis Goad 

      8 years ago

      Thank you Uninvited Writer! I am happy to find you here today.

    • Uninvited Writer profile image

      Susan Keeping 

      8 years ago from Kitchener, Ontario

      Excellent hub and I like the way you have laid it out.

    • Janis Goad profile imageAUTHOR

      Janis Goad 

      8 years ago

      GoodLady, hello!! Thank you for your comment. Doesn't it make you miss your classroom?

    • Janis Goad profile imageAUTHOR

      Janis Goad 

      8 years ago

      Hello livingabroad. I hope you have a wonderful time teaching the Thai children, perhaps in Thailand, which is such a beautiful country.

      a lot depends on your situation, but I recommend a clear structure to your lessons with segments that the class recognize, so you can move from area to area in 5-20 minute segments depending on their age and their activity.

      For example: 3-5 minutes icebreaker/review (questions are great);

      5-10 minutes reading practice (you read, class reads in chorus, ask individuals to read aloud, ask questions as you go);

      5-10 minutes phonics practice and sightwords and spelling test;

      15-20 minutes grammar practice, and new lesson/ drills/question and answer/ pair work while you circulate and listen and observe;

      10-15 dialogue practice where you say a line, they repeat it, then you say A lines with half the class and B lines with other half the class, then they practice in pairs; After several classes practice, have them do it in front of the class and test them;

      5 minutes teach them a song;

      5 minutes wrap up with a game or contest or race based on a relevant learning activity.

      Keep a structure, keep the pace moving, keep them all engaged, and teach them phonics.

      If there is time, have them do some writing in class, or if the classes are short, get them started on the homework so you make sure they understand what to do, then send it home with them to do.

      Have fun and let them have fun, too.

      Where are you going?

    • GoodLady profile image

      Penelope Hart 

      8 years ago from Rome, Italy

      Thoroughly informative! Very helpful. A superb resource to ESL teachers round the world.

    • livingabroad profile image


      8 years ago from Wales, UK

      Hi Janis,

      Your writing is clear and succinct and easily accessible. I am a EFL teacher in my infancy (1 year) so will be following your hubs closely. You have provided excellent information and great ideas on teaching vocabulary learning strategies, thank you.

      Soon I will be teaching young Thai learners which is a first for me. What would be your main advice to me about this age range? Our school currently has the Thai version of Oxford picture dictionary, so I'm guessing this will be my bible from now on?! Great hub :)


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