Six Ways to Make Vocabulary Instruction Fun and Effective

On the surface, teaching new vocabulary to English language learners is relatively straightforward. You can follow the pattern of MFP—teach a word’s meaning, form, and pronunciation, then have students practice using it. 

But with a little more thought and preparation, teaching vocabulary is an opportunity to bring your own creativity and personality into the classroom. Here are some tips that are sure to get students engaged and learning, with examples from the third edition of Pathways Reading, Writing, and Critical Thinking

1. Provide visuals to illustrate the new words whenever possible.

If students have an image to tie the new word to, they are more likely to remember it. In the vocabulary activity below, you could display a picture of a bridge to illustrate #2—even better if it’s personalized, e.g., a bridge from their hometown.  

A matching activity for teaching vocabulary.
A vocabulary activity from Pathways Reading and Writing, Level 1

Point to the image, model the word for students, and have the class repeat. Be sure to correct any errors in pronunciation. Write the word below the image, and then move onto the next word. Essentially these are Do-It-Yourself flashcards. These flashcards can be used with students of all levels, not just in lower-level classes. Furthermore, by choosing the image yourself, you can tailor it to the needs of your cultural and classroom context. 

Photo from Modestas Urbonas on Unsplash

The above procedure is easy when the word is a concrete noun, but what about the more abstract words, such as allow or necessary? This is where you can bring some creativity into the lesson. For example, you could display the picture below. Ask students, “Why is coffee important?” and try to elicit “It’s necessary to increase energy levels.”  

Photo from Nolan Isaac on Unsplash

Or in the case of allow, you could display the image below and try to elicit something like “Texting during class is not allowed!” 

Photo from Jae Park on Unsplash

2. Use the new words to tell a story.

If you really want to go the extra mile, you can expand on the previous strategy by incorporating the words and images into a story. For example, after teaching each word with the visuals, you could then use them in a story, pausing for the class to say each target word.  

Using the words from this vocabulary activity, you could set up your board as follows:  

An activity for teaching vocabulary.
Left to right: Modestas Urbonas, Corina Rainer, Jae Park/Unsplash; Tima Miroshnichenko/Pexels 

The story might go something like this (with the teacher pausing on each blank to elicit the target word):  

My friend and I decided to watch a movie, but the theater is on the other side of the river. We had to cross a ______ to get there. When we arrived, we immediately bought popcorn. In my opinion, popcorn is ______ to enjoy a good movie! Before the movie started, we put our phones on silent mode. Using your phone during a movie is not only rude, it’s not ______ in most theaters. Unfortunately, the people sitting next to us were so annoying. First, they threw their trash on the _______. Then, they kept talking loudly and making ________. Thankfully, the staff made them leave. Everyone in the theater clapped when they left!

3. Avoid “overteaching” new words.

Although students might appear to have a voracious appetite for vocabulary, it’s important to keep new words to a reasonable number. Otherwise, students might “feel” like they’re learning, but not actually be retaining anything. Most academic research suggests aiming for 10–20 new words in a single lesson, assuming students put effort into memorizing and using those words inside and outside of class. 

At least one study has shown that gap-fill exercises are the most effective in vocabulary retention (Hashemzadeh 2012), but this doesn’t mean that we should only use gap-fill activities. Using a variety of activity types is important to keep students engaged and introduce different levels of cognitive load. Word recognition activities, such as matching activities and gap fills, can be useful in getting students familiar with new words, especially those that might be more difficult to grasp conceptually.

Pathways keeps students engaged by having them practice the words in many activity types, sometimes requiring them to change word forms. The words are sometimes split up into two separate activity types, as shown below: 

Two activities for teaching vocabulary.
Vocabulary activities from Pathways Reading and Writing, Level 2

The new words might also be shown in a single, cohesive passage. This not only gives students extra reading practice, but also lets them see the words in context.  

An activity for teaching vocabulary.
A vocabulary activity from Pathways Reading and Writing, Level 3

Whatever method you choose, maintain a handle on students’ understanding by regularly asking concept-checking questions. For example, to concept-check the word official above, you could ask:

  • Which of the adjectives could also be a noun?
  • What is usually required before a contract is made “official”? (a signature and/or stamp)

4. Play games using the new words.

Vocabulary games allow students to think outside the box, put the new words they’ve learned to use, and create fun experiences with their classmates. In Pathways, ideas for fun and effective vocabulary games are provided in the Teacher’s Book. Here’s an example from Level 2 of Pathways (the text in blue is scripted language that teachers can use):  

A game for teaching vocabulary.

There are many other vocabulary games you could play in class. You could try one of these: 

  •  Create a matching game using vocabulary flashcards.  
  • Have a word scavenger hunt in authentic reading texts like magazines and newspapers.
  • Organize a game of charades (have students act out the words for their classmates to guess).   

By incorporating a variety of activities and games in class, you can keep learning fresh for students so that they don’t get bored or tired of working with vocabulary. 

5. Build students’ confidence by expanding word knowledge.

In order to expand students’ understanding of new words, it’s a good idea to not only use the words from the vocabulary list but to also teach students about word roots, prefixes, and suffixes. For example, if the verbs predict and adapt are on the vocabulary list, you could also teach students that the suffix –able turns these verbs into adjectives (predictable, adaptable).  

An activity for teaching vocabulary.
A skill box and vocabulary activity from Pathways Reading and Writing, Level 1

When practicing new words, make sure students remember not only the word itself but also its usual collocations. Try this: When teaching Business English, don’t just teach words like “contract” or “meeting”; instead, teach useful phrases like “sign a contract” or “cancel a meeting”. Ask students to create mind maps that link new vocabulary with other words.  

Another way to expand word knowledge is by teaching antonyms and synonyms. This gives students the opportunity to learn twice as many words. The following is a vocabulary extension activity from Pathways that teaches higher-level learners how to use business words and antonyms: 

An activity for teaching vocabulary.
A skill box and vocabulary activity from Pathways Reading and Writing, Level 4

In Pathways, each unit of the Student’s Book contains a Vocabulary Extension page, which expands on some of the target words with useful activities like those shown above. Expanding word knowledge can be a helpful strategy for reinforcing learning and increasing students’ confidence.  

6. Encourage vocabulary journaling.

Vocabulary notebooks, or journals, are a great way for students to build and improve their vocabulary. Students can write down new words and phrases they encounter, along with their definitions and examples of how they can be used. Encourage your students to personalize their notebooks with pictures, synonyms, antonyms, and sentences that are useful to them. 

These notebooks can be organized by theme (such as the environment) or alphabetically. Some learners may prefer to organize their notebooks by Student’s Book unit, allowing them to more easily review vocabulary before assessments.  

By using a combination of these strategies, you can effectively teach vocabulary to your students, help them improve their overall grasp of the English language…and make vocabulary lessons fun!    

  With carefully guided lessons and explicit reading and writing practice, Pathways develops the language skills, critical thinking, and learning strategies required for academic success.

Author: National Geographic Learning

National Geographic Learning’s mission is to bring the world to the classroom and the classroom to life. With our English language programs, students learn about their world by experiencing it. Through our partnerships with National Geographic and TED, they develop the language and skills they need to be successful global citizens and leaders.

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