12 tips to teach vocabulary

Tips to teach vocabulary

Tips to teach vocabulary

This article presents 12 tips to teach vocabulary to English language learners. Before starting, it is worthwhile mentioning that vocabulary teaching is of paramount importance and that acquiring a certain amount of vocabulary items can be crucial. According to research, so that intermediate (B1 level for the European Framework of Reference for Languages) students can communicate appropriately, the amount of vocabulary required is at least 3000 words.

12 Teaching vocabulary tips

Here are 12 tips to teach vocabulary effectively. The tips include techniques and ideas to help teachers of English train their students to develop their vocabulary inventory.

1. Use a context

One of the most important tips to teach vocabulary is to make sure to present vocabulary items in a context. Knowing how vocabulary is actually used is helpful. This can be done using texts, videos, audio files, etc.

Vocabulary lesson plans should always start with a context where the target vocabulary is used. Here is how you can proceed:

  • In the lead-in, the teacher starts by introducing the topic through Q/As, a picture, a quote, a diagram, etc.
  • Then, the teacher assigns focus questions to be answered before, while, and after they read the text, watch the video, or listen to the audio.
  • Awareness-raising starts by asking the students to identify the target vocabulary items.
  • Vocabulary teaching proceeds by teaching the form, pronunciation, and meaning of those words.
  • Finally, the students are invited to do practice and production activities.

The following simple tips and ideas are helpful in the preparation of your vocabulary lesson plan.

2. Pronunciation

One major problem about English vocabulary teaching is that there is no correlation between the spelling of words and their pronunciation. One spelling can be pronounced differently. Here are some examples:

knead, bread, read, dear, wear, and great

The grapheme ‘ea’ in the above examples is pronounced differently.

Word stress is also important. Sometimes, the way we pronounce some words can change the meaning:

  • The word aural is an adjective. It refers to sounds perceived by the ear. The term comes from Latin auris (ear) + -al.
  • The word oral is an adjective and it is related to speaking.

Other times, moving stress from the first syllable to the second syllable results in a change of the part of speech, from a noun to a verb:

  • CONtest vs conTEST
  • DEcrease vs deCREASE

So, one way to help learners acquire new vocabulary is by helping them pronounce the words correctly (or at least approximately) so that they can be understood when they speak.

3. Guessing meaning from context

Guessing meaning from context refers to the ability to infer the meaning of an expression using contextual clues. These clues may be purely linguistic or situational. A word of caution, though. Teachers have to be careful about asking students to guess the meaning of vocabulary from the linguistic context. Sometimes it is almost an impossible mission. The meaning of words is not always inferable only from the linguistic context. Other extra-linguistic elements have to be taken into consideration in the construction of meaning. That being said, let’s look at some factors that help students deal with difficult words using context.

Situational context:

While the linguistic context refers to information that was formerly written or spoken, situational context is the general knowledge that a person has of the world.
Some extra-linguistic elements contribute to the construction of meaning. This may involve background knowledge of the subject, also called shared knowledge. Because meaning is context-bound, the meaning of some vocabulary items can be pretty easy to infer if the reader or listener has sufficient knowledge about the topic.

Linguistic context

The linguistic context – the linguistic environment in which a word is used within a text – can be helpful. Students have to be trained to use this context not only to get the meaning but also to form new words.

Getting the meaning of vocabulary items, using linguistic context relies on syntactic and morphological interpretation of the elements within a text. Put differently, to understand the meaning of a word, it is necessary to know whether that is a noun, a verb, an adjective or an adverb, functioning as a subject, a predicate, or a complement. This linguistic information gives crucial elements that contribute to the meaning construction.

Being aware of the form of a word (e.g., word root, suffixes, prefixes, grammatical inflections, etc.), provides important morphological information. For example, it is pretty easy to guess that the word unhappy is the opposite of happy once you know that the morpheme “un” means the opposite of something.

Likewise, the morpheme “ed” following a word tells us that that word is a verb and this verb is conjugated in the simple past.

Co-text can be also of great help to understand and internalize vocabulary. Co-text refers to the words adjacent to a particular word within a text. It provides linguistic elements that are helpful in determining word meaning.

For example, words rarely stand alone. They often collocate with other words. For this reason, students have to be trained to identify the words that collocate with each other by doing, for example, matching or gap-filling exercises. Here are examples of collocation:

  • Make tea;
  • Do me a favor;
  • Have lunch;
  • Get bored.
  • community service
  • formal education
  • digital divide.

These collocations are examples of how words are partner together to form almost fixed phrases.

Collocations are examples of chunks. These are blocks of language that are stored and can be easily retrieved from memory, contributing to the automatization of language production and fluency.

In addition to fixed collocations, chunks also include:

  • Polywords like by the way, upside down, all things considered, etc.
  • Institutionalized utterances like
    • I’ll get it;
    • We’ll see;
    • That’ll do;
    • If I were you;
  • Sentence frames and heads
    • That is not as…as you think;
    • The fact/suggestion/problem/danger was
  • Text frames:
    • This study explores
    • Firstly
    • Secondly
    • Finally

4. Realia

Any real objects we use in the classroom to teach vocabulary are called realia. They are effective because the target word can be directly seen and touched. This technique is particularly useful for concrete things. These objects make the vocabulary learning experience more memorable. They create relations between real-world objects and vocabulary.

Examples of realia include:

  • Classroom objects such as desk, board, ruler, pen, etc
  • Students belongings to teach clothes, colors, school things, etc.
  • Documents such as brochures, ads, restaurant menus, etc.

5. Pictures

A picture is worth a thousand words. Some words are better taught using pictures.


Provide pictures to show the meaning of the words you want to present. A picture of an accident can help you present words like:

  • Drive carelessly;
  • Collision;
  • Car crash;
  • Drunk driver;
  • Injured.

6. Definitions

If you decide to give your students definitions of key vocabulary, they have to be concise. Preferably, definition activities have to be engaging.

For example, you may try the following activities:

  • Ask students to find in a text the words of each definition provided.
  • Or alternatively, ask them to match words with their definitions.

7. Translations

Sometimes translation can be of great help. If the teacher is bilingual, the translation of key words can be implemented seamlessly in well-designed activities.

For example, before inviting students to read a text, you may ask your students to work in groups to translate a set of vocabulary items and predict what the topic of the text will be about.

Or you may ask different groups of students to translate different sections of a text. They have to be regrouped to agree on the final version of the whole text.

Although translation is an old activity, it is still used in today’s classrooms and can be implemented creatively in English language classrooms.

8. Sorting out words

Sorting out words in terms of their parts of speech or their semantic field is also very helpful.

To illustrate, you may want to ask your students to classify words according to whether they are verbs, nouns, adjectives, or adverbs.

Another way to proceed is to invite your students to sort out words according to whether they are related to home, work, or free-time activities.

Categorizing words provides some cognitive depth to vocabulary learning.

9. Meaning relationships

Words are not mutually exclusive. They are used with other words to produce meaning. In addition to the words that they collocate with, they have meaningful relationships with other words:

Synonyms and antonyms

This is a straightforward technique.

Ask your students to use a monolingual dictionary to find synonyms and antonyms of a set of words. This will help your learners to further enrich their vocabulary by associating words together in their mental semantic network.

Alternatively, you may want to ask them to:

  • Match words with their synonyms or antonyms;
  • Find in the text words that have the same meaning or the opposite meaning of certain words.
  • Choosing from a list of opposites the appropriate word in a certain context.

Hyponyms and superordinate terms

While synonyms have fairly the same meaning and antonyms have the opposite meanings, hyponyms are examples of more general words called superordinate terms.


  • Black, white, and blue are all colors.
  • Cats, dogs, and parrots are all domestic animals
HyponymsSuperordinate term
red, white, blue, etccolors
cats, dogs, parrots, etc.domestic animals
desk, couch, table, carpetfurniture
apples, bananas, pear, etc.fruits

One way to enhance learners’ acquisition of the target vocabulary is to ask them to categorize hyponyms according to their superordinate terms.

10. Personalizing vocabulary

Learned vocabulary becomes useful only if students use it to talk about themselves. One way to do it is by asking students to use the newly learned vocabulary to talk about personal experiences. If the lesson was about home vocabulary, teachers mustn’t miss the opportunity to invite their students to describe their homes:

  • Do they live in a house or an apartment?
  • How many rooms are there?
  • Do they have a garage, a swimming pool, a garden?

Other techniques to personalize language:

  • Ask students to react to a text using learned vocabulary. This can be done in written or spoken forms or both.
  • Ask students to personalize their vocabulary lists. They have to pick the words they think important and put them in their lists where they may translate them, draw their meanings or provide their own definitions and examples

11. Graphic organizers

For visual learners, graphic organizers provide visual presentations of the newly acquired vocabulary items. They are effective in helping students to review consolidate their vocabulary knowledge.

Vocabulary graphic organizerVocabulary graphic organizer

11. Review vocabulary

Reviewing is one of the crucial tips to teach vocabulary.

To transfer learned vocabulary items to long-term memory, students must encounter these items multiple times. It is difficult to recall a word that you have encountered just once.

That is why it is not enough to teach it once or twice. “Multiple Encounter of the target language” is a technique that is key to long-term retention.

Ways to help students meet words many times can be done through:

Reviewing vocabulary

This consists of guiding learners to talk about the vocabulary so far. This can be done at the beginning of a lesson. The learners relate new content to things they already know (i.e., their prior knowledge.)

Recycling learned vocabulary

This consists of practicing vocabulary so that learners may extend their range of use of the new item. The recycled vocabulary can be re-introduced in a different context, or through a different skill (i.e., reading, listening, speaking, writing).


Reminding students at the end of the lesson of the vocabulary learned during that session.

The above tips to teach vocabulary are not exhaustive. There are other ideas that can be implemented to design effective lesson plans. But these tips will undoubtedly contribute to better vocabulary learning.

For more tips and ideas to teach vocabulary check Scott Thornbury’s article:

V is for vocabulary

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