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Strategies for Teaching ESL Vocabulary
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
Oxford Picture Dictionary for ESL Vocabulary in Multi-Lingual Editions
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 wants to buy carrots at the grocery store
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
Word Families: Male/ Female/ Young
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
incorporate, invent, imply
in-, il-, im-
invalid, illegal, immovabble
Helpful ESL Reading Comprehension Texts with Most Frequent Wordlists
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.
This reading text is appropriate for intermediate level academic students and continues to build reading, notetaking, summary-writing and critical thinking skills, with useful wordlists in the back.
An advanced level academic reading skills text with word lists in the back: 1000, 2000 Most Frequent Words in English and 528 Most Frequent Academic Words in English.
Vocabulary Strategies with On-Line Tool Vocaba.com
12. Vocaba.com 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 Vocaba.com 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
Learning ESL vocabulary requires being able to say the words clearly in a sentence
Pronunciation Pairs is a useful, structured program in accent reduction for beginners and low intermediates to improve pronunciation and listening comprehension.
Clear Speech is helpful for intermediate students who benefit from exercises in voicing, vowel length, and blended sounds.
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.