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Top Five Tips for Teaching Vocabulary
January 22, 2012

Top 5 Tips for Teaching Vocabulary

By: Kristibeth Kelly

What is the most important aspect of learning a language?  That’s right, the big V word – vocabulary.  When I ask students what they think they need to become better at English, the #1 answer I get is learning more vocabulary.  My immediate thought was whether I, as a teacher, could help students learn vocabulary or whether it was something they had to do entirely on their own.  After hearing this response from students year after year, and wondering what the best approach was to help students learn vocabulary, I decided to do some research on this for my Masters degree.  This is my little disclaimer -- I am by no means an expert on the subject, but I am continually learning and trying to figure out how to best help my students, and vocabulary acquisition is certainly an area that I am interested in and passionate about. These are by no means original ideas.

According to Rivers (1983), “vocabulary cannot be taught. It can be presented, explained, included in all kinds of activities, and experienced in all manner of associations,… but ultimately it is learned by the individual” (p. 127).  Here is my top 5 list of ways teachers can present, explain, and guide students toward learning new vocabulary.

5.  Teach the word in context.  Guide the student towards seeing how the word is used, and point out other words and phrases around the new word.  Also have students try to find if the word is repeated somewhere else in the text and take note of how it is used. 

4.  Use collocations and/or online concordances.  Look up collocations and/or an online concordance to see how the vocabulary word is most commonly used and which words are typically used with it.  Have the students look for patterns with prepositions or adjectives, etc. used in conjunction with the new word.  I recommend or  

3.  Create a question.  Ask students to create a question that is associated with the new vocabulary word rather than just simply writing a sentence using the word.  You use a different thinking process to create questions than you do for creating sentences, and this will help students remember the vocabulary better.  Example:  Who is the most competitive student in the class?

2.  Find/create a picture to associate with the word.  Visual learners will especially benefit by associating a picture with the vocabulary, whether it is an abstract word or not.        

(Photo Source:    

1.  Focus on teaching high frequency words.  Depending on the language level of your student, you should focus your time and energy on making sure students know the words from the General Service List (GSL) and/or the Academic Word List (AWL).  Paul Nation (2005) is an advocate for the use of word lists and states that “high frequency words deserve a lot of attention from teachers” (p. 5).  My favourite GSL and AWL websites are as follows:

a) GSL and AWL Exercises & Pronunciation -
b) Practice your knowledge of AWL words -
c) AWL Highlighter -
d) Prefixes & Suffixes -

 This is by no means an all-encompassing list, but perhaps it has given you a few more tools to add to your teaching toolbox. I would love to hear your ideas about vocabulary teaching strategies as well.


 Nation, P. 2005.  Ten Best Ideas for Teaching Vocabulary.  The Language Teachers: 29:07. July 2005. DOI:

Rivers, W. 1983. Communicating Naturally in a Second Language: Theory and Practice in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kristibeth Kelly teaches high-intermediate and advanced ESL/EAP levels at Fanshawe College.  As is true with most ESL teachers, she has a passion for traveling.  After recently completing her M.Ed, she celebrated by traveling the east coast of Canada and then to China and Korea and met up with former students.

Filed under: Teaching Tips


On Monday, March 26, 2012, Brandy Allen said
I recently finished an upper year French course, centred around informal vocabulary acquisition in which I learned, and have been able to retain over the long term, around 350 new vocabulary words. In just 12 weeks!!!The course was based on a selection of music by Renaud, the French singer/songwriter. By listening to the songs repeatedly while doing other things, completing the vocab exercises in the text, and using the vocab in class as reinforcement, I achieved what I thought was impossible .....I aced the course and I will never forget what I learned! I'm definitely going to use this approach when I return to work in a few weeks.

On Tuesday, March 6, 2012, Shari White said

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. As a new teacher, I'm puzzled by how to use "themed" materials along with teaching specific skills, thereby reinforcing the vocabulary. I'll take a look at your sites. Thank you!


On Wednesday, February 1, 2012, James said
Thank you for these tips! I agree with you, in fact I often use the number 3 :)


On Monday, January 23, 2012, Tyson Seburn said
This is a very good post, Kristibeth. Increasing vocabulary does tend to be a common question among students to teachers to which many teachers don't have a clear answer for.

I love the websites you've provided!


On Monday, January 23, 2012, anne said
Thanks Kristibeth. This is timely as I'm teaching my Friday morning women about how they can go about learning vocabulary. I will be using some of these tips!


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