ESL Vocabulary Activities

Here are ideas for ESL vocabulary activities which make teaching English vocabulary more interesting and effective. Read Teaching English Vocabularyif you are interested in practical principles for teaching English vocabulary. Here I focus on examples of ESL vocabulary activities.

Almost any ESL activity can be used to practice vocabulary - the same can be said for grammar practice. However, the activities here give a greater emphasis to practicing vocabulary.

The first section of ESL vocabulary activities - those for practicing individual words - works best for children. The second and third sections have activities which work well with both adults and children.



ESL Vocabulary Activities - For Individual Words

Draw, label and color is an easy and enjoyable activity for children, especially younger ones. After you have taught a new vocabulary set. For example: transport or fruit. Have the students copy the pictures you have on the board into their notebooks. Then have them copy the labels from the board. If you want they can finish off by coloring the pictures.

Copying from a list also works well with children. Write: "apple dog banana lemon ____" on the board. The students must copy the list, then write the odd one out.

Putting words into lexical groups Mix vocabulary randomly on a piece of paper. The students must copy them into lexical groups: animals, musical instruments, adjectives describing food etc

Word Tennis is described in my Top 10 TEFL Games but it's worth mentioning here as well, as it's an excellent way of quickly reviewing vocabulary, and works well as a warmer. Divide the class into 2 halves. Write a category on the board, for example jobs. Then the first student in one team gives you a job. Quickly move to the other team. The first student there should give you another job, then the second person in team A, and so on.

Continue until one side cannot give a new job. I usually count down on my fingers - giving a maximum of about 3 or 4 seconds for an answer before awarding a point to the opposite team. This activity should be done briskly. Writing the category names on the board will help the students remember these as well. It's a shame to have students who know lots of countries, but don't know the word country, for example.

Dice drill is a basic drilling activity which is enjoyable for children and can help them get their mouths round difficult vocabulary items. You will need a large soft dice. After you have presented the new vocabulary have a child throw the dice on the floor. If it lands on one, all the children say "eggplant" once. If it lands on two, they say it twice, and so on. For fun, if it lands on six, all the students stand up, turn around and sit down. The last one to sit must say the word six times.

Guess the flashcard Very simple, but fun for young children. Cover a flashcard, then slowly expose it to them. The children have to guess what the word is.

Memory games There are many variations. Here I'll give two. The one with least preparation time is a board memory game Simply write words on the board, the children close their eyes and you erase one. They open their eyes and guess which word is missing. You can make it easier at beginner level by drawing a line between one and 1, or red and a red flashcard stuck on the board.

Pelmanism is an activity which requires more preparation. Prepare sets of cards. This can be 'dress' 'dress' or 'dress' 'dresses,' using whichever vocabulary you want. Turn the cards face down and mix them around. The backs of the cards must be unmarked. The students then choose two. If the two are the same they keep them and try again. The object is to collect the most sets of cards. As the students turn over the words they must say them aloud. Matching the picture with the word is also fun.

Everybody wearing blue pants stand up! A good ESL activity for practicing clothes. Have the students sit in a circle. There must be one less chair than the number of students. Say "everybody wearing blue pants stand up!" All the students wearing blue pants must stand and change chairs. The student who remains standing continues: "everybody wearing white socks stand up!" (or whatever color and vocabulary item they choose).

This activity is perfect for practicing clothes, but it can be adapted for other vocabulary sets, although this is never as convenient, and will often involve the students having to hold (and perhaps change) flashcards: "everybody holding a car/pizza/potato stand up."

If you have a large group size, you won't be able to do this as described. However, you could have about eight students sit at the front and have the whole class chant, "everybody wearing," and then the student standing must complete the sentence.


ESL Vocabulary Activities - Sentence Level

20 Questions TEFL Game is described with its variants in this article on TEFL Games and Activities and is a useful way - and fun way - to practice vocabulary sets at the sentence level. The version called 'many knowers' is especially good. What's my line? is useful for practicing vocabulary related to work.

Call My Bluff This is another one of the ESL vocabulary activities in the Top 10 TEFL Games article that works very well for teaching English vocabulary. Although I've described the this activity in the games article, I'll give a brief description here, focussing on its potential for teaching ESL vocabulary.

In this activity the students choose an obscure word from bilingual dictionaries in groups. They then write 4 descriptions of the word; only one of which is true. Other students must then guess the true definition.



However, it's possible that the teacher may wish to practice particular ESL vocabulary. This could be vocabulary they will encounter in a reading, for example. It's important that the students do not know this particular vocabulary.

In looking up the new vocabulary in dictionaries and thinking up definitions, then by sharing with other students, the new words can be remembered more deeply. Of course, this activity practices many aspects of English, not only vocabulary. One point to remember, is to make it clear to the students that they must not just copy definitions out of the dictionary, but must make up original sentences. This activity can take up to 40 minutes to complete.

Quizzes can be created by the students. This works well with superlatives, but doesn't have to be limited to them.

DOCF method is a well tried method. I'm not sure if it has a name, but Drill - Open Pairs - Closed Pairs - Feedback describes it well enough. It's not as flashy as some ESL vocabulary activities, but it's one of the strongest, particularly when you become adept at choosing good questions. Incidentally, it's also an excellent ESL grammar activity.

This method works well when teaching new vocabulary from a reading or reader. Choose the new words you want to practice and create an interesting question which is relevant to your students. For example, if 'inspire' is a new word for the students, you could write 'What inspires you to work?' or perhaps the word is 'fitness.' Your question may be 'What are your favorite ways to increase your fitness?'

The 'D' part of the activity is having the students chorally ask you the question. This allows them to practice pronouncing the word, and it allows you to model different possible answers. The 'O' part is having students ask each other across the class. It's not necessary - nor advisable - to have every student do this. Choose stronger students to model for others and weaker ones to check they can do it.

The 'C' part is to place the students in closed pairs. They both ask and answer the questions. The 'F' part is when the students provide feedback on their partner's response. "Matt, what does Sarah think is the best way to increase her fitness?' etc.


ESL Vocabulary Activities - Beyond the Sentence Level

Video can be used in class to help with learning vocabulary. If you have a class reader which has been made into a film, it can work very well to play the DVD in 15 minute episodes every week. This can stimulate interest in the book. Important vocabulary can be pre-taught, and the video can be stopped at important places - although this should be kept to a minimum, as it will spoil the flow of the story. Your students will need to be intermediate level or above to make use of this activity.

Stories, songs, poems, aphorisms can help with learning vocabulary. This is especially true when the students become involved in writing their own poems or ESL stories

Desert island Many ESL vocabulary activities are also good discussion activities. Here students discuss '5' things they would take if they were to be marooned on a desert island. See the experiment described in the articleTeaching English Vocabulary to see the effectiveness of this type of activity. It doesn't have to be a desert island. A moon base, a desert, an urban area, anywhere you wish...

Create your own reading activity based on the vocabulary of your choice. This requires some work on the part of the teacher, but if the article [from the internet or newspaper] is focussed on a specific topic, there is a good chance that the vocabulary will be too.

Create your own warmer questions or activities based on the particular text. Photocopy the article and create a gap-fill. Think of some questions or tasks related to the text. Create some interesting discussion questions, and you have a class. The example of using a gap-fill is, of course, just one possiblility. Be careful of copyright when you do this activity.


ESL Vocabulary Activities - Some General Ideas

When teaching English vocabulary it's always a good idea to encourage the students to use a dedicated vocabulary notebook. When teaching English to children, you will need to tell them to write down new vocabulary and give them the time to write sentences containing the new vocabulary. Having adults do the same is recommended.

Encourage your students to read a lot and listen a lot. These last two are true ESL vocabulary activities that, if done regularly, will be of more benefit than all other ESL vocabulary activities put together.



vocabulary games for esl students

Top 10 Activities for Teaching Vocabulary - Part 1

Top 10 Vocabulary Activities - Part 2

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