How to Teach ESL Vocabulary and Make it Stick

Put yourself in your students’ shoes and imagine yourself sitting at an exam table. When you need to recall a word learned in class, what would make the word stick when it counts?

Teaching vocabulary is an overlooked area of TEFL. Assigning lists of vocabulary words isn’t the ideal way to help students remember new words; they are forgotten too quickly and students become easily bored. Put yourself in your students’ shoes and imagine yourself sitting at an exam table. When you need to recall a word learned in class, what would make the word stick when it counts? It isn’t as simple as memorizing a word on a list and its definition.  

So, here are 8 tips that I practice when I teach vocabulary to make sure new words will not be forgotten. 

Tip 1: Understand the tier system of vocab 

All words are not learned with the same effort as some are more complex or used less frequently. Extra time will be needed to teach words of higher complexity that are heard less often. Categorizing words can help simplify the learning process when building vocabulary. Here is an explanation of the 3 tiers of words.  

Tier 1: common words 

Tier 1 vocabulary words are words that are used for everyday language. Words such as walk, look, computer, book, paper are tier 1 words. Because these words are used in high frequency, they are easier to remember and easier to explain.

Tier 2: complex words 

Tier 2 words are more complex words, such as grumpy, negative, data, drowsy, climate. Tier 2 words reflect a higher level of English comprehension. They are still frequently used, but with less frequency than tier 1 words. Acquiring and understanding tier 2 words in speech can be challenging. Teachers should be aware that getting these words to stick will take more time and explanation than tier 1 words.  

Tier 3: specialized words 

Tier 3 words are specific words that are not used very often. These words often belong to a specialized area of study, such as misappropriated, or tachycardia. Only for specialized courses will these words be taught. 

It is good to be aware that guiding students through the 3 tiers requires different skills and approaches. 

Tip 2: Make it fun!   

Is playing games during class a sign of a lazy teacher? Not if the games reinforce targeted vocabulary for the lesson. Having fun games, puzzles, stories, idioms and sounds about a specific theme will all help to motivate students.  

Theme-based games and activities are a great way to reinforce vocabulary. 

The links below have everything you need in a vocabulary lesson with fun theme-based activities to save you preparation time. 

For younger learners, here are some fun theme-based lessons with plenty of vocabulary: 
https://www.englishclub.com/teach/teacher-themes.htm

For more mature students, I would recommend these reading articles on EnglishClub. The link contains lessons based on engaging themes such as movies, music and sports, with many readings within that theme. These lessons also have vocabulary checkers and quizzes to quickly organize and reinforce the vocabulary you are targeting: 
https://www.englishclub.com/reading/

  • Ensure that you use reinforcement activities  

Reinforcement activities are essential when teaching vocabulary. A student needs to repeat the words multiple times to remember them. 

  • Fun games around target vocabulary can also be useful reinforcement 

Here is a link to fun games also from EnglishClub to give you even more fun ideas on how to teach vocabulary:
ESL Games | EnglishClub 

Tip 3: Model the new vocabulary  

Say, write, define, give examples, offer different contexts, don’t just give one example but offer many easy-to-understand sentences with new words. This will help your students relate to the words. All these examples can help each student connect to the word differently, and help them remember these words in different contexts.   

Also, ask students to make their own examples. This time can be used to clarify any confusion with word sounds, or meaning and get in extra practice. Practicing a new word a dozen times is needed to make the word really stick. 

Model the pronunciation of the new words. “a”- apple, “a” again, “a” awesome – each words’ “a” sound is different. Since English is not phonetic, the sound of the word must be heard to be remembered.    

Tip 4: Build vocabulary mind maps  

Make things visual with mind maps. Mind mapping is an easy and creative way to expand vocabulary. The topic word will be in the center, and related words can be connected to it and expanded out to form other clusters – creating a visual web of words on paper. This lesson uses both current vocabulary as well as prior words they have learned.  

Clusters of words can be connected by:  

  • words from the same word family, eg: consume, consumption, consumerism
  • words that connect to a topic  
  • synonyms (similar words) / antonyms (opposite words)  

Pairing students or working in groups works best for this activity. 

Tip 5: Use a variety of skill sets and assignment types

Using a variety of exercises is another way to keep the class engaged. Don’t forget that you can also use listening activities, presentations, research projects, team projects and writing practice while incorporating the words and themes you have taught. This will further enhance meaning and connection with new vocabulary.  

Tip 6: Display learned vocab in the classroom   

Display the words you have previously taught by putting up posters of past work on classroom walls.  By decorating the classroom with illustrations, posters and mind maps, students will be reminded visually of what they have learned just by being in the classroom. Even when your students are daydreaming in class, it will be hard to avoid past lessons with this simple idea.  

Tip 7: Give (and check!) homework  

Make sure that you not only assign vocabulary homework but also check it. Vocabulary homework, and homework in general, promotes all of the following:  

  • motivation   
  • engagement during class discussion
  • self-learning skills  
  • class structure  
  • responsibility  
  • time management   

Please do not overlook the importance of homework when teaching vocabulary. 

And, If the students put in the time to do it, you must put in the time to check it. Too often, homework is assigned but because it is time-consuming to grade, teachers neglect to check it. When homework is unchecked, students lose motivation. So, it’s very important to check. Your students will appreciate it.  

Tip 8: Teaching vocabulary online with easily accessible online resources 

If you are teaching vocabulary online, use easily accessible online vocabulary lessons. Teaching English online requires engaging material that is as easily accessible as paper-based material. Being tech-savvy isn’t everyone’s specialty. Using websites like EnglishClub.com will greatly reduce your prep time and all students can access these lessons with a simple mouse click. EnglishClub is not only a time-saver but also very effective in building vocabulary. Check out the site for more great ideas.

To conclude, making words stick requires effort, but with the right approach you will quickly see results in your students’ speaking! 

Thanks for reading these tips and stay tuned for more TEFL classroom ideas! Feel free to leave comments below and try out some of these tips in your next vocabulary lessons. 

Written by Armando Pannacci for TEFL.net May 2021
Arm is a Canadian ESL teacher with over ten years' experience teaching English in Thailand, Korea and Canada. He has a bachelor's of social work degree and received his certificate in TESOL from TESOL Canada.

5 Comments

  • Alhadar Ahmed toure says:

    ood sound advice. Mind maps are great as words are stored in the memory as networks not lists. Also, the more decisions made with a word, the faster it is transferred to the long-term memory (Thornbury, 2002). Decisions can be categorising words (eg types of sports or things you like/dislike, matching meanings to synonyms or definitions, parts of speech). Matching tasks can be graded in mixed ability classes. And of course, we mustn’t forget formulaic language. Hoey showed that showing someone one half of a collocation primed the learner to remember the other half – lexical priming.

  • Alhadar Ahmed toure says:

    OK

  • Alison says:

    I always get students to put the word into a sentence to give context. I get them to use 2 or 3 words in one sentence even if the sentence is a bit weird it makes us laugh and so we remember the vocab better.

  • Armando Pannacci says:

    Excellent points backed up by research! They do work very well!

  • Marcus Gohar says:

    Good sound advice. Mind maps are great as words are stored in the memory as networks not lists. Also, the more decisions made with a word, the faster it is transferred to the long-term memory (Thornbury, 2002). Decisions can be categorising words (eg types of sports or things you like/dislike, matching meanings to synonyms or definitions, parts of speech). Matching tasks can be graded in mixed ability classes. And of course, we mustn’t forget formulaic language. Hoey showed that showing someone one half of a collocation primed the learner to remember the other half – lexical priming.

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