Vocabulary learning is more than copying words and definitions. Students need to be actively involved in the process. Students may have a good vocabulary for getting around town and chatting with friends from the host country, but they may have difficulty with academic and course-specific vocabulary.

Students often struggle with academic vocabulary, especially if their L1 is a non-European language. Vocabulary development is critical and should be integrated into all parts of the curriculum (Magrath, D., March 16, 2020).

Reading and vocabulary development

Reading is essential for developing vocabulary (Henderson, D.& Kerns, G., December 6, 2019). Students need to read high interest selections that are applicable to their daily lives. Thus, making the vocabulary a more “natural” approach that they will be more likely to remember.

Learners do not practice reading. The authors compare reading practice to football practice or practicing with a musical instrument. Without intense practice, students will not master the skill.

This lack of practice translates to lower vocabulary acquisition, lower reading growth, and, eventually, students who are not ready for college or their careers (All you need is read).

Extensive reading opens up new areas of knowledge to the students. They can branch out into other fields beyond the classroom and make new discoveries for themselves.

The literature is quite clear: reading is a powerful form of student self-teaching. It creates a rhythm that allows students to teach themselves all types of things, but it requires time. (All you need is read).

Vocabulary and syntax should be simplified to be accessible to all. High frequency words, such as money, are used rather than lower frequency words such as currency (Kalivoda, 1987).

For their part, teachers can plan moderately challenging activities, specifically suggest strategies to the students and use peer models where students observe others doing a task while hearing an explanation. (Robinson, 184)

Teaching hint No. 1

Avoid lists as much as possible. Teach vocabulary in context or words related to a central theme; getting a driver’s license, for example.

As reading instructors, why are we forced to choose from textbooks that often seem to exclude fiction and focus mainly on reading strategies and skills that include countless lists of vocabulary words which students have difficulty retaining? (Singhal, M., November 9, 2020)

Cultural connections

Culture and language are tied together. In one’s vocabulary the words carry a cultural load as well as a linguistic one. The teacher must remember that there are no exact synonyms across languages.

For example, the English word "brush" as a noun can refer to different types of brushes such as a toothbrush, a clothes brush or a paint brush in addition to being a verb. The home language may have different words. In Spanish, a hairbrush is "un cepillo" and a paintbrush is "una brocha."

Similarly, a word in the home language may have several different translations into English depending on the context. Words must be taught in a meaningful context by teachers using linguistic strategies. These include using concrete object and pictures grouping words semantically and using the words in meaningful contexts. Learners are encouraged to tie words to their underlying concepts (Ventriglia, 1982).

Teaching hint No. 2

Listening to stories on a variety of topics provides students with exposure to a wide range of academic language. It has been shown that incidental exposure to vocabulary through listening to stories helps students learn the meaning of unknown words. And presenting listening activities within the context of a content area is a more efficient way to promote second-language acquisition. The instructor can play an audio recording, if available, or read the story aloud and even have students take turns reading portions.

Teaching hint No. 3

Vocabulary sweep-up: Students lay out all the cards on a table or other large surface and then take 30- to 45-second turns picking them up after using a card’s word in a sentence that shows they understand the meaning of it. They use, or sweep up, as many words as they can during the allotted time. This activity can be done with groups each working on their own or as a competition between groups.

In order to get students to speak spontaneously in this activity, I may call on them randomly. If I do this, I work to reduce students’ anxiety by making it clear that any inaccuracies carry little consequence as long as speakers manage to produce meaningful stretches of language.

Seeing which words are the last to be swept up shows me which vocabulary words may need to be reviewed. For students, it’s often empowering to see how many words they’re able to sweep up in just a few minutes(Otero, A., January 24, 2020).

Teaching hint No. 4: Vocabulary building

Enable students to create concept maps to define and better understand key vocabulary terms. Students can access videos, text, and images to learn about a term and then build a map that visually links the term to its various meanings, uses, related words, synonyms, and more. This allows students to personalize their connections to the vocabulary words, improving their recall and comprehension. The map provided in this post is an example of this approach (Oronzio, M., June 15, 2017).

Vocabulary is one of the major problems for L2 learners especially if the target language is not a cognate language or a member of the same family as the home language, as in the case of Arabs or Chinese learning English. The same holds true for English speakers learning Arabic or Chinese.

More teaching hints

Here are some teaching hints to help the learners build their English vocabulary.

There are also other methods requiring more awareness on the part of the student and more detailed presentation on the part of the ESL teacher, such as:

  • using examples
  • using illustrations in the form of pictures or objects
  • demonstrating the word through acting or miming
  • putting the word in a meaningful context in a story or appropriate sentence
  • using opposites
  • translating the word into the students’ native language
  • using associated ideas (Piccolo, L., 2020)


Henderson, D.& Kerns, G. (December 6, 2019) All you need is read, Language Magazine, https://www.languagemagazine.com/2019/12/06/all-you-need-is-read/

Kalivoda, T. (1986) Listening skill development through massive comprehensible input, Planning for Proficiency Dimension Language ’86. Eds. T. Bruce Fryer and Frank W. Medley, Jr. SCOLT, Atlanta, 111-116

Magrath, D. (March 16, 2020) 4 vocabulary hints for English learners, TESOLMultibriefs, TESOL https://exclusive.multibriefs.com/content/4-vocabulary-hints-for-english-learners/education

Otero, A. (January 24, 2020) Edutopia, 4 Activities to Boost Target Language Vocabulary Acquisition, https://www.edutopia.org/article/4-activities-boost-target-language-vocabulary-acquisition

Oronzio, M. (June 15, 2017) Drawing on Ideas for Language Learners, Language Magazine, https://www.languagemagazine.com/2017/06/drawing-ideas-language-learners/

Piccolo, L. (2020) Popular Methods, Brighthub Education, https://www.brighthubeducation.com/esl-lesson-plans/73147-ways-to-teach-vocabulary-to-esl-students/

Robinson, A. H. (2011) Differentiating instruction in higher education Selected Papers from the 22nd International Conference on College Teaching and Learning, Ed Jack A. Chambers. Florida State College, Jacksonville (2011) (pp. 181-201)

Singhal, M. (November 9, 2020) Connecting Reading with Writing, Language Magazine, https://www.languagemagazine.com/2020/11/09/connecting-reading-with-writing/

Ventriglia, L. (1982) Conversations of Miguel and Maria: How Children Learn English as a Second Language-Implications for Classroom Teaching, Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA.