Top tips for teaching Vocabulary

How can I improve my vocabulary?

This must be one of the questions I am asked most commonly by my students – and the truth is there is not one simple answer. The techniques that work for some will not work for others because of the different learning styles, levels of understanding and resources available to each individual.

Studying lists of unrelated words rarely helps in expanding vocabulary, whereas making associations between words and people – or situations – provides a much higher success rate for the acquisition of new vocabulary. Teachers learn over time that the ability to be creative and adaptable are key qualities to engaging well with their class, therefore if students show a particular interest in certain topics, then preparing material related specifically to that area will ensure they have more chance of remembering and reusing certain vocabulary than if the topic is of no interest.

Similarly, recommending that students read more books will help some but not all. Many simply do not enjoy the process of reading, and being forced to read a novel that is largely considered to be a literary classic will not necessarily appeal to every group of students. Subsequently, it is important to have a dialogue with students about the various methods they could try.

Firstly, there is a wide range of graded readers available that contain abridged versions of classic literature, or even famous Hollywood films that have been adapted into short novels of 50 pages, where vocabulary is repeated regularly within a specific context. These kinds of publications often contain comprehension questions related to the story, which can be expanded on in the classroom. However, the efficacy of this more conventional method of teaching vocabulary will always vary depending on the size of the class, and whether all students have the same level of interest in the topic or not.

On to more interactive methods, it is widely accepted that vocabulary acquisition generally occurs through repetition, and it is the teacher’s responsibility to provide the opportunity for this repetition to occur. Just like the process of developing the necessary skills to be proficient at any activity, our brains will not absorb every new detail immediately, and much of what is learnt in each lesson will be forgotten, especially when it is not related to a specific context.

However, compiling a weekly list of the most important new words taught to students, and then regularly using different methods to recycle this vocabulary is an effective and resourceful way to ensure they are more likely to remember certain words. One way of doing this is by dividing the class into two or more groups and having the students describe to each other the vocabulary that you have compiled, either through Charades, Pictionary or by simply using other vocabulary that they have already acquired. These types of activities are especially effective with young learners or lower level students.

One final point to keep in mind is that any activity will become tedious if repeated constantly, so a dynamic approach is often a way to ensure against boredom. An entire lesson teaching new vocabulary is rarely successful – keep it short and fast paced.

Martin Wilson has been working as a teacher of English to non-native speakers for over 13 years, since qualifying from St. Giles International College, London, in 2004. His Trinity Tesol Certificate was followed shortly after with a Masters Degree in Linguistics and Philosophy from The University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Martin’s experience within the various fields of ELT has been plentiful, and has involved teaching children and teenagers in Thailand, as well as asylum seekers and refugees throughout Europe, and university students and business professionals in London, UK. In this series of blogs, Martin aims to share his insights into the world of ELT, including tips and tricks for students and teachers alike, in addition to observations and reviews regarding current available material and resources. Martin can be contacted at

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