ESL Teachers Ask: How Do I Help Students Learn More Vocabulary?

ESL Teachers Ask: How Do I Help Students Learn More Vocabulary?

"My ESL students can communicate clearly and make few mistakes. The problem is they always use the same words and stay within a 'safe zone'. How can I help them expand their vocabulary so they don’t use the same words again and again?" *

We’ve all been there. You ask your ESL students about a city they visited, and they say it was “nice”. Every single sight was “beautiful”. The food was “good”. And while these are perfectly acceptable adjectives, you start noticing that they rarely stray from the usual choices. We have to understand our ESL students here. Once they find words they can use correctly, they will hold on to them for dear life. Using new words is a risk; they could make a major blunder, and naturally nobody likes to feel embarrassed when they’re speaking a foreign language. This means that soon enough, ESL students reach a “language plateau” – they don’t expand their vocabulary and tend to resort to the same words time and time again. How can we help them get past this plateau and reach new vocabulary learning heights? Here’s how!

Try These 6 Ways to Help Your ESL Students Learn More Vocabulary

  1. 1

    Test It!

    You might think that testing only helps you assess how much your students have learned. But when it comes to learning new words, it also happens to be more effective than simply sitting down to study them. Think about it. Students take a multiple-choice vocabulary quiz. They see which words they got right and wrong. They increase their chances of learning the words they got wrong. So, design your own quizzes or use some handy online tests. The more you test them, the more they’ll learn.

  2. 2

    Chunk It!

    Teach new words in chunks that make sense. Teach words clustered around topics, but also don’t forget the most common collocations. It’s a lot easier for students to remember new words if they have a phrase they can remember and use. This is the case, for example, when we describe symptoms/health problems. I need to say I “have a stomachache” or that my “stomach hurts”. Teaching isolated words like stomach or stomachache doesn’t make sense.

  3. 3

    Read It!

    As an avid reader since age six, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of extensive reading, and by “extensive” I mean every day for at least 30 to 60 minutes. What should ESL students read to increase their vocabulary? Your students’ safest bet is reading graded readers. Students may progress through levels that are increasingly more difficult, with the ideal vocabulary-building approach. On the plus side, graded readers often come with vocabulary lists and exercises to test students. Not sure which graded reader would be best? Check out this handy little chart created by the Extensive Reading Foundation. Cambridge English offers an online placement test, plus lots of resources like worksheets and lesson plans. Macmillan also offers a level test, and Penguin has an amazing students’ area that is chock-full of resources and activities that were specifically designed for vocabulary building.

  4. 4

    Organize It!

    You’ve got to give your students some way to organize the massive jumble of new words they learn every week. You can use:

    • Mind Maps, Word Clusters or Vocabulary Trees (whatever you choose to call them, they look like this)
    • A Word Book (students have a different page for each topic and simply add new words as they learn them)

    It doesn’t matter which tool you use. You can even have each student pick whichever one they like best. The important thing is that they have a system that works for them.

  5. 5

    Play It!

    Words games are excellent for learning new words. If the New York Times crossword puzzle is a little too difficult, design your own (and don’t forget there are plenty of crossword puzzles available from! There is a variety of word puzzles you can create. You may also suggest online word games like’s Word Dynamo.

  6. 6

    Download It!

    Vocabulary building apps are awesome tools because students can use them while they wait for the train, on their way to work – or anywhere! Here are a few you can recommend:

The key to acquiring vocabulary lies in being methodical.

Students may learn lots of new words through extensive reading, but they must also employ specific strategies and be consistent in their use. For example, they may choose to add the new words they pick in their reading to their Word Books or create a Vocabulary Tree for each book they read. Whatever they choose to do, they must stick to it, and soon enough their “trees” will bear fruit.

* This question was sent in from a real ESL teacher, just like you! If you have a question you’d like to have answered, share it in the comments below. Or tweet your question to @busyteacher_org with the hashtag #ESLTeachersAsk. Your question might get picked and featured in an article!

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