Teaching Vocabulary to ESL Students

Language acquisition requires the acquisition of thousands of words for fluent communication. This is a daunting task for the most talented and eager student. Fortunately, there are some basic concepts to keep in mind when teaching students vocabulary. This post will share some suggestion and help students to develop their vocabulary in the target language.

Learn Vocabulary in Context

A common technique for teaching vocabulary in language classrooms is out of context memorization. Students are given a long and often boring list of words to memorize. There is little immediate use of these words and they are quickly forgotten after the quiz.

Instead, it is better to teach new words within a framework in which they will be used. For example, students learn business terms through role play at a bank or store rather than through a stack of index cards. The context of the bank connects the words to a real-world setting, which is critical for retention in the long-term memory.

Reduce Reliance on Bilingual Dictionaries

This may seem like a surprise, however, the proliferation of bilingual dictionaries provides the definition to a word but does not normally help with memorization and the future use of the word. If the goal is communication then bilingual dictionaries will slow a student’s ability to achieve mastery.

Children learn a language much faster due in part to the immense effort it takes to learn what new words mean without the easy answer of a dictionary. The effort leads to memorization which allows for the use of the language. This serves as a valuable lesson for adults who prefer the easy route of bilingual dictionaries.

Set Aside Class Time to Deal with Vocabulary

The teacher should have a systematic plan for helping students to develop relevant vocabulary. This can be done through activities as well as the teaching of context clues. Vocabulary development needs to be intentional, which means there must be a systematic plan for supporting students in this.

However, there are also times were unplanned vocabulary teaching can take place. For example, while the students are reading together they become puzzled over a word you thought they knew (this is common). When this happens a break with explanation can be helpful. This is especially true if you let the students work together without dictionaries to try and determining the meaning of the word.


Vocabulary is a necessary element of language learning. It would be nice to ignore this but normally this is impossible.  As such, teachers need to support students in their vocabulary development.

1 thought on “Teaching Vocabulary to ESL Students

  1. Arkady Zilberman

    Your advice to Learn Vocabulary in Context is a powerful tool. However, your statement that language acquisition requires the acquisition of thousands of words for fluent communication – is not accurate.

    The number of words which you know has no correlation with your ability to speak fluently. The ability to speak fluently depends on your ability to think in English. If you continue thinking in your native language and know 4000 thousand words as translations into your native language, you wouldn’t be able to communicate freely in English. So, increasing your vocabulary of this type (as translations) is a wrong objective and leads nowhere. Run away from teachers or schools that promise you that you will remember thousands of words fast; they could not be used for natural speech since the latter is a subconscious process and there is no time for translation in your head before you can produce a sentence or understand the spoken language.
    Conventional methods of learning English don’t teach how to stop thinking in the native language and that is why they have a very high failure rate.

    However, one unconventional method, called Active Training of English skills will stop thinking in your native language and train your mind to think in English from the very first lesson. The patented Active Training of English skills achieves this goal by introducing simultaneous repetition that was never used before in learning languages. Active Learning is defined as the activity in which all skills – reading, listening and speaking – are learned simultaneously; it is in a sharp contrast with learning a foreign language as information to be remembered. For the sake of brevity, we would call concurrent triple activity of reading, listening and speaking as simultaneous repetition. This tool allows adult learners to automatically form the direct wiring between English words and the images or symbols, they describe. Learners start thinking in English from the first lesson. If you create this type of active vocabulary, you may start communicating in English knowing only 2000 words. You need to enhance this vocabulary to 4000 words to be able to speak fluent English an academic environment.

    To stop thinking in the native language and become fluent in English in about a year, the learners need learning the fundamentals of Active Learning of English skills. This method teaches how to think in English and how to acquire intuitive grammar and active vocabulary and ability to speak fluently.


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