8 Great Ways to Elicit Vocabulary from ESL Students

8 Great Ways to Elicit Vocabulary from ESL Students

Don’t you feel that sometimes getting your students to say what you need them to say is like pulling teeth?

This is often the case when we elicit vocabulary – that is, when we try to get them to say certain words instead of providing them for them. Here are some strategies that will make it a little less like teeth-pulling and a little more like conversation.

When should we elicit vocabulary?

Eliciting vocabulary and introducing vocabulary is not the same thing. You introduce vocabulary when it’s completely new, and you may use some of the techniques outlined below to help you present it, but you will be the one providing the new word.

On the other hand, we elicit vocabulary when we want the student to come up with the word on their own, either because they may already be familiar with it, or it is something you have previously taught, and you want them to remember. In this case, the student provides the word you seek.

8 Great Ways to Elicit Vocabulary

  1. 1


    There are words with very clear opposites, which is why they are so useful when we want to draw out a word from a student. But try to avoid the direct question, “What is the opposite of…? Use context instead:
    T: Are you usually awake at 3 am?
    S: No, I’m asleep.

  2. 2


    Use synonyms to elicit vocabulary, but similar to the case above try to avoid asking, “What is the synonym of …? Try an activity like paraphrasing. You make a statement and the student must paraphrase it by using a synonym:
    T: I can type quickly.
    S: You mean you can type fast.

  3. 3


    Definitions are a very easy way to elicit vocabulary, especially when it is taught in context and in batches. Say you are practicing words related to office supplies. You provide the definitions and students supply the right words:

    T: I’m going to the stationary store to buy some supplies. I need one of those things you use to cut paper. What is that called?
    S1: A pair of scissors!
    T: That’s right! And I need one of those things you use to draw a straight line or measure them.
    S2: A ruler!
    T: Yes! I also need that device we use to fasten papers together with staples.
    S3: A stapler!

    Use a dictionary to get the definitions if it’s too hard to come up with them on your own.

  4. 4


    There are some words that are best understood in a scale. Here’s one example:

    cold – cool – warm – hot

    Draw a scale and omit the words you want to elicit from students.

    <- cold ------ ------ hot ->

    Ask students:
    T: What do we say about the weather when it’s not so hot, but nice and pleasant?
    S: It’s warm.
    T: What do we say about the weather when we have to wear a sweater but it’s not that cold?
    S: It’s cool.

    This also works great with adverbs of frequency:

    never – seldom – sometimes – usually – often – always

    In this case, establish the frequency by asking the student questions:
    T: How often do you go to the movies?
    S: Once a year
    T: So you can’t say you “never” go to the movies.
    S: No, not “never”. I seldom go to the movies.

  5. 5

    “I’m drawing a blank…”

    Another great way to elicit vocabulary in natural-sounding conversation is to pretend that there’s something you can’t remember: Remember that for Halloween you talked about the costumes you wanted to wear? What was that monster you told me about? The one that turns into a wolf when there’s a full moon?

    You can have great fun with this and elicit as many words as you want during any class.

  6. 6

    Visual Clues

    This is clearly the best strategy for visual learners and young learners in general. Simply point out something in an illustration or flashcard to elicit the vocabulary from your students: So, Sarah went shopping, and we can see here she bought lots of things. What did she buy?

  7. 7

    Word Clusters

    Word clusters or mind maps are the ideal graphic organizer to elicit vocabulary from students. You start by placing a general topic in the center of the cluster and students add words that relate to that topic.

  8. 8

    “Do you remember?”

    Elicit vocabulary and test your students’ memory. Listen to or read a dialogue and ask detailed questions later: What did the boy want for Christmas? What did he get?

Students are often quick to grasp new words and will remember them for some time.

And that is the problem – for some time. If they are not given the opportunity to use the words they’ve learned, rest assured, they will forget them. If students are not using all of the vocabulary they’ve learned, try to find ways to draw them out from them and use them in contexts that will help them remember them. They won’t be at a loss for words again.

If you have some other great techniques to elicit vocabulary, by all means, share them below!

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