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Vocabulary Lesson Plans for Advanced Language Students

Updated on October 24, 2013
One of my English Writing classes in China.
One of my English Writing classes in China.

Whether you are teaching English as a second language or teaching native English speakers a foreign language, vocabulary is one of the biggest hurdles for many teachers to overcome. With beginning students, it’s fairly easy: “Hello”, “Goodbye”, “My name is…” However, once your students are more advanced, vocabulary becomes trickier. Your students may know their grammar backwards and forwards. They may be comfortable giving a ten-minute speech or writing an essay in their second language. But you’ve noticed their vocabulary is still—even with all their experience—very basic. They say “nice” instead of “amiable” or “kind”; they say “interesting” instead of “intriguing” or “fascinating.” Their language is correct, but boring. What can you do?

I struggled with this exact problem while teaching English abroad in China. Most of my students were third-year English majors and could easily make it through an entire class speaking only English. But when they did speak—or write—they used the exact same words over and over again. None of them could get past the basics of “good,” “bad,” and other beginner vocabulary words. So, I came up with a few lesson plans to address the problem.

1. Ban their crutch words

If your students are using the same adjectives over and over again, give them an assignment that forbids them from using them. For example, you might assign them a short essay with the prompt: “Describe your best friend. Do not use the words ‘good’, ‘nice’, or ‘fun’”. Your students will be forced to search through their dictionaries or thesauruses to find another word.

2. Try a synonym project

Depending on the size of your class, you can stick students in pairs or let your students work alone. Assign each student or group one of the words that you see used far too often. Their job is to come up with five synonyms for that word and present them all to the class. They will need to present the exact definition of each word (important for nuances of meaning or multiple meanings) as well as use it correctly in a sentence. Have your students take notes on each presentation and give surprise pop quizzes on what they’ve learned.

Encourage your students to consult outside sources in order to improve their vocabulary.
Encourage your students to consult outside sources in order to improve their vocabulary.

3. Give assignments that require new words.

This is the opposite of Number 1, and can go hand in hand with Number 2. Assign students a writing or speaking topic and require them to include certain words that are either new to them or that they have just learned. This will give your students a chance to use their new vocabulary, which is a much better way to learn it than simply memorizing definitions.

4. Turn it into a game

This is an especially good assignment if you’re approaching exam time and your students are worn out. After you’ve done a few classes on vocabulary or synonyms, test your students with a little friendly competition. Divide your class into small teams with nothing but a pen and paper—no dictionaries, thesauruses, or iphones. Call out a word (like “happy” or “angry”) and give each team one minute. Whichever team comes up with the most synonyms in the minute given wins the round. You can mix it up a little and make it more fun by adding another twist, like “synonyms for ‘bad’ that begin with the letter ‘D’”. Give the winning team a coveted prize, like bonus points on their final exam.

5. Ask your students what they need

In my opinion, this is an incredibly important part of teaching that far too many instructors ignore. Many language students have gaps in their knowledge for one reason or another: they were out sick for a week, their previous teacher left out something important, etc. Plan a class, or even a week, when your students get a chance to ask questions about vocabulary they’re weak on. This is very helpful once you get past the basics of conversation and many students are looking for more personalized vocabulary. Maybe one of them will be traveling abroad soon and wants to know phrases for an emergency in case he lands in a hospital. Perhaps someone else has an unusual hobby, like bungee jumping or cooking with exotic foods. Some students may just feel behind on certain things and need to catch up.

Have any other ideas on ways to help your students boost their vocabulary? Share them below!

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