Pump up the Vocabs: 5 Simple Techniques to Increase Student Vocabularies

Pump up the Vocabs
5 Simple Techniques to Increase Student Vocabularies

Susan Verner
by Susan Verner 13,803 views |

Your ESL students can know all the grammar in the world but not be able to speak a word of English if their vocabularies are not developed enough.

Knowing a large number of words is key for being able to communicate in any language. That’s why it’s every ESL teacher’s responsibility, at least in part, to make sure their students develop and expand their vocabularies on a regular basis. It’s not as hard as it might seem, either. Here are some strategies you can use to make sure your students have an ever growing lexicon.

5 Techniques for Increasing Student Vocabularies

  1. 1

    Set Up a Word Wall

    Invite your students to take a role in increasing their own vocabularies with a word wall. When students encounter an unfamiliar word outside of class, whether while reading, watching television, or talking to a native speaker, have them write down the word. At the next class, ask your student to write down that word on an index card in large letters and then check an English dictionary for the definition. The student should write the definition on the back of the card. Then post that card on your vocabulary wall where all of your students can see it. They should feel free to check the definition any time they want to learn one of the words. But you can make your word wall more than just a word bank. Use some of the words posted there to supplement your next vocabulary unit, or take your entire unit from the wall. Students will love that they had a hand in creating their next set of words to learn. And they may even have a leg up learning that unit if they were the ones who posted the words to begin with.

  2. 2

    Play Games

    Do you know that there are many games you can use to increase student vocabulary? Scrabble is perhaps the most common. When you play along with your students, you will undoubtedly use words they are not familiar with. They’ll also learn words when they use the dictionary to try and figure out how to use up all of their letters.

    Another great game for vocabulary learning is Scattergories. The point of the game is to think of a word that fits one of several categories, and all of those words must begin with the same letter. For ESL students you might want to limit the letters you choose from since they will have a huge struggle with letters like J or V.

    Another DIY game you can play is to display a picture with many little objects in it, such as a picture from an I Spy book. Have students label their paper from A to Z and then try to find an object in the picture that begins with each of those letters. It’s unlikely anyone will get all twenty-six, but they will still encounter new words and synonyms when you review the words everyone has written down.

  3. 3

    Teach Word Families

    If you could teach your students five words or one word, which would you choose? Naturally, we want our students to learn as much as they can, especially when it comes to vocabulary. Teaching word families is one way to accomplish that. Instead of simply teaching one word, such as run, teach five words with similar meanings such as dash, race, sprint, rush, and surge. Then have students use a dictionary to determine the nuances of each word. Now they will have five words they can use instead of one.

    You can let your students be a part of this process, too, by inviting them to find synonyms of the words you put on your next vocabulary list. As homework, ask each student to find one synonym of each of your vocabulary words. The next day, compare notes and make a list of each of the words your students found related to your original one. Then make sure students learn these words as well as the originals on your list.

  4. 4

    Use the Right Tools

    A thesaurus is one of the best tools for increasing ESL student vocabulary. I make sure each of my students can use one and that I have several on hand in class. Though similar to a dictionary, a thesaurus is better for finding synonyms and related words. Often, too, an entry will contain one or more antonyms. I teach my students to navigate a thesaurus and then encourage them to use one whenever they are writing.

    Thesauruses don’t have to be musty old books, either. Did you know you can highlight a word in your word processing program, right click on it, and bring up synonyms for that word? Make sure your students know how to do this and they will have a digital thesaurus at their fingertips whenever they are typing.

  5. 5

    Make a Banned Word List

    You can only encourage your students so much to expand their vocabularies. Sometimes you just have to put the cheerleading aside and get tough. I’m not talking about going crazy with the red pen. I am talking about designating banned words. Banned words are just what they sound like – words students are not allowed to use. You should come up with your banned word list by noting what simple words your students use over and over when they could be using more complex words (for example, big, nice, good, etc.) You can also ask your students to identify one or more words that are boring or common and add them to your list.

    For each banned word, take a moment in class to talk about alternatives your students could use. For example, if you were to ban the word big, write it at the top of a large piece of paper or a poster board. Then ask students for synonyms of the word big and write them underneath it. (Huge, gigantic, enormous, massive, etc.) Post the paper in class and declare that “big” is now banned. Students will not be allowed to use it in their writing or speech. They can however use any of the words listed beneath it. This will encourage your students to expand their vocabularies without putting an undue burden on them to do so.

Whether your students know fifty words or five hundred, increasing their vocabularies should be on their to do list and yours as well.

Try these techniques and see if your students’ vocabularies don’t go from poor to POW before you know it!


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