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 by Sapna Sehgal

Have you ever wondered how you can make vocabulary learning more fun for ESL students? Whether you’re teaching kids or adults, you may find students get frustrated when they can’t remember vocabulary words or can’t get the message they want to across.

Sometimes, adults and teens feel incompetent if they struggle to grasp the vocab they need for a conversation. When it’s for school or work, learning to speak is even more frustrating and students panic under pressure.

Sound familiar?

Today’s post is here to help! We’ll provide you with 5 teaching ideas to make vocabulary learning easier for your students, no matter what age they are.

1. Vocabulary Games

If you’ve read any of my blog posts over on The Teaching Cove before, you know I love teaching with games! Vocabulary Games are especially useful.

(If you use any of these ideas, please drop a comment at the end of the post and let us know how it went!)

Here are three of my favourites:

Game 1  Phrasal Verbs and Story Games

If you’ve taught intermediate or advanced ESL before, you know the look of dread and panic on your students’ faces when you mention these two words:

Phrasal Verbs

The looks of bewilderment are impressive, right? Phrasal verbs like “come up” or “give up” are often difficult for students to grasp as they can have multiple meanings. While teaching a university class one year I came up with an easy to prepare phrasal verbs game that students love. It helped them for their exams, too!

Here’s how to play:

  • Get students into groups of 3 or 4 depending on class size
  • Have a deck of small, blank game cards, each with one phrasal verb written on it
  • Put the cards in a bag and have each group draw out 10 phrasal verbs
  • Students should then create a coherent story from the 10 phrasal verbs, using a definition of their choice when there are multiple definitions.
  • You’ll be surprised at how creative they get! Memorable stories make phrasal verbs easier to remember.
  • Creating game cards for this one is easy. (To save time, head to the printables library and print off a sample deck there)
  • **Challenge for advanced classes – give each group a deck of 60 cards and challenge them to make a coherent story using as many phrasal verbs as possible.

Stories from other resources such as BBC English Phrasal Verbs are also useful to help students gain context when they learn phrasal verbs.

Game 2  Memory Style Games

Another game with cards that’s a surprise hit is Memory.  I’m not just referring to kids, either! Beginner adults often benefit from matching photos of items, and intermediate students benefit from matching words with definitions.

Be sure to teach game-playing vocabulary to beginner students before beginning, too. For example: “your turn”, “flip the card”, “it’s a match!”, etc. are often necessary.

There are two ways to play:

  • A traditional memory game where you lay out a deck of memory cards and students must pick up two cards. If they match, they keep the pair.  If not, they try to remember where the cards are and find a matching pair on their next turn. *Tip: Have students describe the picture before moving on to increase the speaking time
  • Prepare cards to match a word with its definition, instead. Not only do the players have to remember where cards area, but they need to know the definitions of the words!


Game 3 Treasure Chest

Recently, I’ve started using a fun, new vocabulary treasure chest for kids I teach.

What’s that, you say?

It’s simply a small box where kids can collect “treasure” (small pieces of paper with new vocabulary words), and show them off to their friends.  Every time you do an activity when a private tutoring student doesn’t know a word, have them write it on little cards and store it in their “treasure chest”.   After a few weeks, you’ll have a pile of personally relevant words to make a quiz or play a game with.

Teaching in an ESL classroom instead?  Simply have students work on the treasure chest as an at-home, or individual work project. Then, have one or two English classes per month when students can play games with their partner’s unknown words or quiz their partner on what they’ve learned. They’ll have a blast!

If you’d like more game ideas, check out 3 more fun ways to teach vocab.

2. Short Stories

As an English teacher who loves literature, I’m a bit biased on this one. However, I truly believe that exposing ESL students to short stories in their target language is beneficial to both vocabulary development and cultural awareness.

One main advantage of short stories is – well, they’re short!  Remember, short does not always mean easy! Working with the level of your students, choose a couple stories for them to choose from.  Yes, that may be a bit more work when doing activities or marking exercises –but knowing students like the story is so important. You can even take the opportunity to introduce your ESL students to literary terms.

If you’re looking for 5 short stories to start you off, check out this post.






3. Novels

Novel Studies are one of my favourite ways to introduce students to culture and literature of the language they’re studying. Creating your own novel study packs with worksheets can be a great way to use authentic materials.

Here are a few key tips to ensure successful vocabulary learning from novels:

  • Let students choose the novel, as much as possible
  • Create crossword puzzles and other fun vocabulary games throughout the novel study process
  • Keep note of any cultural differences, such as foods eaten in the UK or North America that ESL students are not familiar with. This is a great way to introduce both vocabulary and foreign language culture to your students.

4. Speaking

Of course, you can’t master vocabulary without using it! Don’t forget to take the time to develop speaking prompts that use the vocabulary you have covered, and speaking activities your students will love. Sometimes, a prompt on its own can be daunting!

If you are working in a classroom, have students form pairs or groups, and set a goal for their conversation. For example, the goal could be to use three idioms you’ve just learned, or use at least 5 vocabulary words from the last unit you covered.

You’ll be surprised how much fun students have when they have a target to focus on! Sometimes, they start to forget their initial shyness and begin to have fun.

5. Film Studies

Now, we can’t forget about film studies! Private tutoring students often marvel at the fact that we’ll be using a film in class.

You may think documentaries are the only films it’s fair to use in an English class, but think again! Some teachers shy away from using feature films because parents complain about the length of video in class. Other teachers have told me they feel guilty “using up” class time with a film. However, watching short films (or even parts of feature films) with your students can be beneficial.

Of course, films can be given for homework.  However, having students write down any vocabulary they don’t understand, or viewing confusing scenes with them again is always a good idea. Be sure to pick a film with content your students are interested in.

Documentaries can often serve a double purpose. Not only do students learn English, but they learn about a particular topic or global problem, which is often completely new to them. It’s a great way to learn to speak about new topics with novel vocabulary!

If you haven’t visited The Teaching Cove before, it’s full of free resources you can use to help you plan lessons. There will be more novel study and film studies available for purchase in the future, too.

How do you teach vocabulary in your classroom or private tutoring sessions? If you’re based in Barcelona, are there any particular difficulties you have with students who have Spanish or Catalan as a native language?

I’d love to hear from you! Drop me a line at sapna [at] teachingcove.com or head to Twitter or Pinterest to get in touch!

Happy Teaching!


Author Bio

Sapna Sehgal is a blogger, English teacher and linguist who runs The Teaching Cove, an educational blog with free English teaching, motivational and organizational resources. She has been teaching English and ESL classes and tutoring privately for over 15 years. Originally from Canada, Sapna now lives in Barcelona, Spain. Sapna released her first e-book for English teachers containing 25 TED Talk Lesson Plans last year, and plans to release more educational resources for teachers soon.