Words, words, words

Teaching ideas and books

The English language has a huge vocabulary and may have more than any other language. This presents students with a huge challenge. Arguably vocabulary is going to be significantly more important to most students than grammar.

On very short courses however the focus is often on activating the students passive vocabulary and advising on correct usage rather than helping them learn hundreds of new words. In addition there are areas that often need to be worked on, such as prepositional and phrasal verbs eg ‘look forward to’, ‘get by’, ‘put off’. One invaluable thing you can do is help students with the way they learn and organise their vocabulary so that after their course they are in a better position to progress.


What may be suitable or an email or SMS text message may not be suitable for a letter of application. What you say to your friends may not be appropriate when negotiating a contract. Because many students have learnt most of their English through reading and writing, it is common for their linguistic ‘register’ to be inapproprate. When teaching new items of vocabulary it is important to indicate the level of formality and situation that is usually associated with its use.

Vocabulary Teaching Ideas

Using what is in the home

It makes sense to take advantage of what you have in your house. Seeing a real object helps students to remember its name and usage.

Grouping countable and uncountable kitchen items together eg sugar, flour, tea bag, spaghetti, tin of beans.

I spy  

Mind maps

You can use vocabulary mind maps to help students organise and build their vocabulary.

Banana, apple, pear, pineapple etc can be connected to the concept ‘fruit’.

Full time, part time, temporary, salary, wage, payslip, overtime etc can be connected to the concept ‘job’.

Prescription, GP, surgery, chemist, appointment etc can be connected to the concept of ‘primary health care’.

Tell, reply, shout, whisper, proclaim etc can be connected to the concept of ‘say’

Word building

Take the opportunity to teach more than one word at a time and encourage student to guess connections where appropriate. Add to the learners knowledge of prefixes and suffixes.

From the root ‘happy’, you can teach ‘unhappy’, ‘happiness’ and ‘unhappiness’

From ‘play’, you can teach ‘playful’ and ‘playfulness’

Using a word box

New words and expression can be written on a card and kept in a small box. These words can be used to:

Review vocabulary (student guesses word from teacher’s description)

Build stories by challenging the student to use some of the new words. You can take turns in doing so and repeat the exercise as required.

Practise structures such a comparatives and superlatives eg X is more useful than Y because …  

Time sequencing

Students often have problems with words or expressions such as ‘by the time’, ‘as soon as’, ‘afterwards’ and ‘throughout’

Use pictures or household objects to develop, with the student, a story where the sequence of events is clear. From this show how the above words can be used. A collection of picture cards or photographs is helpful. 

Phrasal verb practice

Make 2 sets of domino cards. One set has two main verbs on each card. The other set has two particles eg in, up, out, on them. In turns you make phrasal verbs with the cards.

Student can experiment with new combinations!

Also you can develop an awarenes of register by discussing more formal alternatives to phrasal verbs

Eg put off  v. postpone


R Gairns and S Redman, Oxford Word Skills (Oxford University Press). At Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced level.

J Flower, Build Your Vocabulary (Heinle). At 3 levels. Also has business vocabulary edition.

M McCarthy and F O’Dell, English Vocabulary in Use (Cambridge University Press). Elementary and Upper Intermediate and Advanced.

S Redman, English Vocabulary in Use (Cambridge University Press). Intermediate.

M McCarthy and F O’Dell, English Collocations in Use (Cambridge University Press).

M McCarthy and F O’Dell, English Phrasal Verbs in Use (Cambridge University Press).

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