Mix it up by introducing new vocabulary with these fun techniques!

Vocabulary…it’s a double-edged sword. Students universally recognize the need to expand their vocabulary in order to improve their fluency, but it’s difficult — and often boring — to memorize word after word. Varying the types of vocabulary exercises used will engage your students and enable them to retain the new words more effectively. Remember: your goal as a teacher is to get the students to be able to use the new words when they speak or write. As such, repetition is key…but using the same technique over and over will cause the students to lose interest. Using a combination of the following methods will hopefully get your students excited about vocabulary again.

1. Vocabulary Board Game:

  • Write all of the new words in a long list on the left side of the board.
  • Divide students into two teams, and explain that you’ll be reading out a definition to one team at a time.
  • If that team can correctly guess the corresponding word, they get $100 (pretend money, of course!). If they guess the wrong word, the other team can “steal” the money by guessing the correct word for $50. If the second team still can’t guess correctly, it goes back to the first team for $50, and so on until one team gets it right. Play then resumes with the next definition getting read to the second team, for $100 if correct.
  • You can provide students with a copy of a word-definition list after the game to save them from having to stop and write down the definitions as you go. Or, to save trees, write the definitions next to the words as they are guessed correctly, and students can copy them down.
  • The winning team is the one who has the most money once all the definitions are filled in! For the last definition (since it will obviously correspond to the only word left on the board), I often make it more challenging by making the team tell me what they think the definition is. If correct, they get $100; if not, the other team can try for $50, and so on.

2. Matchup:

  • Have one page of words and definitions for each pair or small group of students. Cut each word and definition into strips (a paper cutter works wonders here). Don’t forget that you can keep the strips for vocabulary review later, or review for a test.
  • Circulate, pointing out where students have made an incorrect guess so that they can make another attempt with that particular word. Don’t forget to keep a master list for yourself; it helps to refer to it as you circulate.
  • When all the students are finished, you can go over the answers as a class. To make it more exciting, you can turn it into a competition by naming the first group to correctly match everything up the winner.

3. Mini-Presentations:

  • Assign one new word to each student. Have them look up the definition in their dictionaries (preferably English-English).
  • Tell them to write down the definition in their own words. They can ask you for help, if necessary. Circulate to check that their definitions are clear.
  • Also, get them to write down an example sentence, so that their classmates will be able to better understand the meaning of the new word. Circulate to check that the example sentences make sense.
  • When all of the students are done, have them come up to the front of the class one by one. Get each student to write the word and definition on the board, and while the other students are copying it down, have that student read the example sentence. You can add additional clarification at this time, if need be.

4. Context:

  • Being able to use the context (the sentences or paragraphs that surround the word) to figure out the meanings of new words is an essential skill that you want all of your students to be able to master one day. Because it is difficult to do, try it as a class activity once in a while to get students used to it.
  • Have students read through the text first. You can have them do it silently or out loud. Reading out loud enables you to correct their pronunciation and intonation, which is a good use of time since you’re practicing several skills at once.
  • Once you’ve gone through the text, point out the new words one by one, and have students guess at each word’s possible meaning as a class. After a few guesses, you can give students the answer if they are unable to come up with it. Point out the contextual clues that could help them figure out the meaning for next time.
  • This exercise is especially helpful in preparing for examinations like TOEIC, TOEFL, IELTS, etc.

It’s important to note that going over vocabulary only once will rarely result in retention. I plan to write my next post on fun vocabulary review activities, so check back soon! You can also check out Flashcard Ideas on our website for ways to use flashcards for vocabulary practice and review. Our Simple Sentences lesson plans have lots of vocabulary activities for beginners, too.

I hope your students will find learning vocabulary to be more engaging after employing these techniques!


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Tanya Trusler

Tanya is a freelance editor and writer with an extensive background as an ESL teacher. She edits lesson plans, creates new materials, and writes weekly blog posts for ESL-Library and Sprout English. Her company is Editing to a T. Follow her on Twitter (@tanyatrusler) and Google Plus.   Website: http://editingtoat.com   Twitter: @tanyatrusler