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ESL Vocabulary Activities

Updated on August 5, 2015

Are you looking for ideas to help your students learn English Vocabulary?

Studies show that if you know 1000 words in a language, you can function in about 90% of oral communication. And usually, this is the main goal of many of our ESL students. So teaching Vocabulary Words is key to helping our ESL and EFL students speak English well. However, this is sometimes hard to do in an interesting, and most importantly memorable way. This site has lots of ideas for Vocab games and Vocab activities you can do to help your students pick up vocabulary naturally, and remember it years down the road.

Matching Words and Definitions

A very effective vocab learning activity

I use this game to either review vocab that we've studied in class that day, or to start off a new class to review stuff from the previous week. I make a grid on my computer. Maybe 4x5. Then, I fill in the chart with half words and half definitions. Examples from this week: Exhausted/very tired. It's between my head and shoulders/neck. If I drink too much soju/stomachache.

Make a few copies and cut them out. Put the students in groups of 4 or 5 and have them put them face down on the desk. They go around, one at a time trying to make a match. If you make a match, you get to go again.

Gradable Opposites for ESL Students

ESL Bingo for Vocabulary Learning

Your students can have fun AND learn vocab as well!

We all know and love Bingo. I remember back when I was a kid and I just couldn't get enough of it. Well, believe it not, even adults seem to enjoy it as well. Except if I did it where I just called out the words, and they crossed them off I probably couldn't really consider myself a real teacher. So, instead I modify it to make it more more educational. It's actually a fabulous way to get students to review a large amount of vocab.

I make up a grid, and at the bottom list all the possible words they can choose from. They take a few minutes to write in the words that they want. Then, I just give hints about the words and they need to figure out what I'm taking about.

Examples: "I have many of them in my mouth" =teeth

"It's something difficult, not easy to do" =achievement

Another way to do it with more advanced students is to go around the room, and let each student pick one word and give hints about it to their classmates.

Writing it on the Board Race

It makes Vocab Learning more exciting!

There are many ways to do it, but here's one idea that works for me. This past week, I was teaching about places: department store, drugstore, electronics store, etc and talking about what you can buy at which place.

So I wrote all the words up on the board, and made sure they understood each one. I erased them, leaving only the first letter. Then, I got them to say the words a few times, by memory. At the end, I got them to spell the words for me and then I erased them all.

I made them into 4 or 5 teams and one person from each team came up to the board, in their alloted space. I asked...."Where can I buy a_____?" They had to write the place on the board. The first person to write it, got a point and then they would go sit back down and change writers for their team.

This actually helps students remember vocab and it has the novelty factor. What student doesn't like writing on the board and playing a game?

39 ESL Speaking Activities for Teenagers and Adults

Rote Memorization for Vocab Acquisition

A Necessary Evil for learning English Vocab

At a recent conference I attended, I went to a couple sessions with Paul Nation, who is generally considered to be the expert on vocabulary acquisition. The one thing that resonated with me deeply was his emphasis on rote memorization of vocab as an essential part of learning another language. It's quick, easy and effective.

From my own experience in studying Korean and Greek, I understood intuitively what he was saying. I've picked up some Korean words simply by being exposed to it to such an extent that it'd be impossible to not remember it. Hello, here, thank you, it's okay. I knew the Korean word by sound even before I knew the meaning of it. But, most of my vocab acquisition in Korea came through flashcards. And what I know of Greek was exclusively through flashcards. And it's actually the stuff that I still remember. The videos I watch or the books I study seem like grains of sand slipping through my fingers. It's there, somewhere, but not in a place that I can easily access it when I need or want to. Vocab that I've studied with flashcards is there, right in front of me, and comes to me almost instantly with little recall effort.

And so I tell my students, especially the ones that actually want to learn English but are quite weak on vocab this but they don't seem that excited by the idea. For some reason they love to write out the word over and over and make lists with them. I'm not sure this is so helpful because it's usually not random, which is a much greater challenge for the brain to accomplish.

Anyway, time for me to study! Where are those flashcards I made?!

Just a Minute: Get your students using what they know

How to Introduce Vocab, Chart-Style

Some textbooks seem to be big on charts. The current unit I'm doing in World Link Book 1 has a unit about cities and compares LA and Juneau in terms of cost of living, population, pollution, etc.

A strategy I use to ensure that students actually take in the information and get accustomed to the vocab is to give them 3 or 4 minutes to study the chart. I tell them that they'll have to close their books at the end and answer some questions. Then, while they're looking, I'll draw up the chart on the whiteboard. I ask them to close their books and I help them to fill in the chart on the board. I add extra vocab and grammar because the book just has $, $$, or $$$ for cost of living. I'll add the words, "cheap, affordable, expensive. Or pollution just has a certain number of smokestacks and I'll add, "a lot of pollution/a little pollution."

It's not exactly rocket science gimmick, but the students seem genuinely interested in being able to answer my questions and fill in the chart. It's like a game if they have to close their books. And my theory about vocab is that you need to take it in, in more than one way. In this case, they read it first and then saw it on the board again. Then, they heard me say it out loud. I'm sure they heard me say "cost of living" 5 or 6 times during the class.

This can be adapted to anywhere where you need to introduce vocab.

EFL Vocab Review Activity

...a fun one to get some thinking juices going. It's called odd one out. For example, I'll have 7 or 8 sets of them on the board. You can make it into a review game in some cases. Body part, shapes and foods work very well.

1. apple/orange/onion/banana


3. Tv/cup/credit card/table

and on it goes.

Which one is different and why?

1. onion, because not a fruit

2. Mouth, because upper 1/2 of body.

3. Cup, because it's a round shape.

I usually put them in teams of 2 and they have to write down their answers. The first 2 teams get a prize of some sort.

2 Quick ESL Vocab Activities

A fun review game to get some energy up at the end of the class is the memory circle. Get all the students to stand in a circle. The first person says one of the target vocab words. The next student lists the first word and then adds a new one. And so on it goes. When a student can't remember, they must sit down and are out of that round. The last student standing is the winner.

Another activity is writing all the target words on the board. This will work if the target words are not completely new but at least some of them are familiar. Give the students hints until they can guess which word you're talking about. Write down a brief description next to it. Then, erase the descriptions at the end and get the students in the class to describe the word, without using the word and their classmates guess what it is.


Graded Readers for learning English Vocabulary

Graded readers are an excellent way to help your students learn more vocabulary. If you see a new word, but don't encounter if again for a few more months, the chances that you'll remember it are quite slim. However, if you see it frequently, such as almost on a daily basis over a period of a couple weeks, it will probably be stored in your memory forever. A good way to do this is by having your students do intensive reading. Perhaps they could read for 10 or 15 minutes at the beginning of every class. You just need to have a small bookshelf of suitable books that they can pick from. Graded readers are good because they use limited vocabulary and they recycle certain words over and over again.

Board Games: the Ultimate Vocab Review

secret word game, esl game, efl game, teaching abroad, vocabulary learning game
secret word game, esl game, efl game, teaching abroad, vocabulary learning game

The Secret Word ESL Vocab Game

Write the vocab words on a flip chart of some sort. I use an old notebook and write one word/page. Divide the class up into teams. I find that 5-8 people/team works well. One student from the team comes and sits at the front of the class facing his or her teammates. I show one word at a time to the team but not the person sitting at the front. The team has to give hints about the word, in English only, using no body language. An example: EYE. Hints students give: 2, on face, I can see.

I do 2 or 3 rounds of 1 minute each and the goal is to get as many words as possible in that 1 minute. If the team uses body language or their first language, I discount that point. This game is very, very fun. Lots of laughs and happy times.

Role Plays: Students Can Use New Vocabulary

Paul Nation on Vocab Acquisition

Topical Learning to help Student Learn English Vocab

I particularly like the idea of topical learning. As in, if you're interested in a topic, read about it, watch movies or documentaries about it and talk about it with people. You'll learn new words by doing this and you should write them down in a notebook that you take with you everywhere. If you are studying words about something that interests you, and you talk about it a lot, chances are you'll actually remember the words you are studying. This can perhaps take the form of a guided study that you make as part of the final grade in your class. Students have to choose a topic and then do various tasks related to this topic. They need to read some online articles about it, and watch some videos on youtube about it. Have them write a log and short report about each thing. Then, they need to interview others, in English about the topic. Finally, they have to do a short presentation in class about it.

What Vocab activities do you use in your ESL Lesson Planning?

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    • jamjar919 lm profile image

      jamjar919 lm 

      6 years ago

      Wow, this is a great lens. You must have spent a lot of time on it - you make ESL fuN

    • WriterJanis2 profile image


      6 years ago

      I like the way you are making learning fun.

    • Jogalog profile image


      6 years ago

      Great ideas. I'm an ESL teacher and I love teaching vocab.

    • audrey07 profile image


      6 years ago

      I think if the method is fun, the learning process will be easier and you will remember the words better.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Great ideas! I used to teach EFL and your lens will be valuable to many.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Wonderful lens! Visiting from the 92% thread

    • GilWarzecha profile image


      8 years ago

      WOW! I'm impressed with MANY of your lenses! I'm still going through them but am adding many of them to my lensroll. Thanks for all of the helpful resources and information!!!!!

    • JanieceTobey profile image


      8 years ago

      You've got some wonderful ideas for making learning both fun and educational for your ESL students!

    • JeffreyTymczak LM profile image

      JeffreyTymczak LM 

      8 years ago

      Great Job!!! Lots of top notch information here! Thanks!


    • profile image


      8 years ago

      So many good ideas. Thank you.


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