How to Teach Vocabulary to ESL Students

As an English teacher, you know that it’s essential to introduce new vocabulary to your ESL students. But maybe you’re a new teacher and you’re looking for ways to help your students improve their vocabulary. Or if you’ve been teaching for a while, then maybe you’re looking for inspiration and some new ways to teach vocabulary.

So what’s the best strategy to help students improve their vocabulary skills? It’s an important question that pops up frequently, and it may cause some frustration along the way. 

I’ve browsed ESL websites countless times looking for new and effective techniques, and if you’ve landed on this post for the same reason, then here are my tried and true tips for teaching vocabulary to ESL students:

  • Brainstorming on a topic is a great way to get started

  • Context makes learning easier and better

  • Teach relevant vocabulary

  • Encourage your students to keep a notebook 

  • What’s another way to say?

  • It’s not only about the content but also the way you teach

  • Make content more appealing

So, let’s discuss some techniques that will help your students expand their vocabulary in fun and interesting ways!


Brainstorming on a topic is a great way to get started

Before digging deeper into a topic, you may want to introduce it and ask students to list all the words related to that particular topic. This is a great warm-up exercise. 

It helps students to self-assess their knowledge, which is a good starting point. Plus, it gives plenty of room for creativity and collaboration. 

Online tools for brainstorming

If you need an online tool for brainstorming, I highly recommend Padlet. A padlet is a collaborative board that you can style and personalize as you prefer.  

You can start discussions by sharing a padlet with your class and asking questions about a topic. Or you can simply post a title, let’s say “Food & Drinks” and ask your students to comment with all the words and expressions they know about that topic. 

You can set categories based on parts of speech or types of food, cooking methods, utensils, etc. 

The possibilities are endless. 

Context makes learning English easier and better

No man is an island … and neither are words!

How much value would a student get from just listing unrelated English words and memorizing them by heart? This is never a good idea. 

Instead, getting your students to read a short story, an article or a comic can be a helpful and fun way to teach new English vocabulary. 

As you probably know, reading is key for vocabulary learning. Even when not paying attention, our brains make subtle connections between language and storytelling.

My advice is to let your students speculate on the meanings of unknown words. There’s a good chance they can infer it just by understanding the overall text. Once they do this, there’s a better chance they’ll retain those words. That’s the whole point of teaching new vocabulary in context.

Useful websites and resources for teaching vocabulary 

Ideally, when students get involved with the content, they’ll come up with their own list of new words. If you are on the lookout for a dictionary, check out What I like about it are the friendly explanations that are easier to remember and the relevant examples it provides. 

Sometimes, reading definitions isn’t enough. To find relevant sentences, you should consult a corpus. Websites like The iWeb Corpus or Sentence Dict, provide collections of real world language examples for your classes. Corpora are valuable resources for teaching authentic English. When doing a search by word, you’ll receive frequency lists, typical contexts and collocations among others. 

Ideas for practicing new vocabulary 

Now that you have introduced the vocabulary with the appropriate tools, what can you do to ensure that your learners have successfully added words to their lexicon? 

Well, if you’re reading a short story, students can write about it in a few paragraphs. If it’s a poem, why not encourage them to come up with their own pieces of poetry?

Writing allows them to make connections and evoke feelings which will have a positive impact on their vocabulary retention.  

Need ideas? We have recently posted an article with some interesting ways to learn vocabulary, where Marta gives great tips with recommended resources too. It’s worth checking out if you need some inspiration.


Teach relevant vocabulary

Have you ever tried teaching vocabulary with YouTube videos, movies and TV shows? 

Using scripts as a teaching resource is a wonderful way to show students how people actually talk. They’re usually written to reflect plausible conversations and dialogues and that’s great for our purpose. 

You’ll give your students the opportunity to learn slang, phrasal verbs, and short forms that are not typically found in coursebooks but are inherent features of casual communication. 

If you’re looking for a site to help you with this, you can find inspiration right here. You can save YouTube transcripts or download movie or TV scripts and highlight the vocabulary that you want to teach in your classes.

You can also check out our English Worksheets which we design to make your lessons stress-free, fun and relevant. We’ve created these worksheets to help our students boost their vocabulary on varying topics like travel or food.

We also create worksheets based on fun and popular YouTube videos such as Why You Always Have Room for Dessert or Apartment Jazz in New York. The worksheet include: vocabulary development exercises, speaking and listening activities, a transcript for the video, and an answer key.

Encourage your students to keep a notebook 

When I was still learning English, I used to sit in front of the TV to watch series and listen carefully to the dialogues just to take notes of new words and expressions. I would look up the definitions, search for sentence examples and finally come up with my own.

When I reflect on this, I acknowledge that the whole process boosted my retention. I could tell I was making progress because I was able to express myself better. 

No matter where I went, I would always have my notebook with me. I must say that it was actually a great way to kill time during my long bus rides to university. 

It’s been ten years and I still resort to those old notebooks every time I fall short on vocabulary. 

What I’m trying to say is that keeping a notebook for new words is a habit you can foster in your students. And I don’t mean the notebook they use in class, but an extra one. 

Needless to say, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a paper journal. 

Whether it is a note on their phone, an email draft or a document on their google drive, the goal is to help them keep track of newly learned words and review them regularly. 


What’s another way to say…?

Encourage your students to use a thesaurus regularly so they don’t keep using the same words.

I love exercises that involve synonyms and antonyms. They’re wonderful to improve students’ handling of the language.  Something I find particularly useful is teaching formal and informal variants of words and expressions. The majority of the time, students are not aware of this distinction and the different ways in which they can use a word depending on the context. 

By the same token, include activities that require them to paraphrase. 

Paraphrasing is such a difficult skill to teach but it also allows learners to put into test their understanding of what they read or watch using their own repertoire of words. 

That’s great practice. Besides, you can make use of these activities to refresh their memory on words they have learned before. 

If you need some help to get started, you’ll find great examples of What’s another way to say? on our Instagram and Facebook accounts.


It’s not only about the content but also the way you teach

First things first: whenever you can, inspire and be relatable. These are some principles that have always guided my teaching. 

I find that when the lesson is relatable, it’s more enjoyable for the students.

From my perspective, it’s valuable to state clearly why something is useful to them. Mention the benefits they can get out of expanding vocabulary, such as:

  1. Greater sentence variety: the more words you know the richer your sentences will be. 

  2. Better communication: ideas flow smoothly when we don’t have to struggle to find words. 

  3. Fluency: having a robust vocabulary translates to less stumbling or getting stuck in conversations.

Feels like a win, doesn’t it? 

You’ll be surprised to know how much of a difference it makes if your students understand the advantages of a topic you’re trying to teach. 

Remember, we were all students once, and at times we needed a little push and some encouraging words to help keep us motivated. 

Make content appealing

Creativity goes a long way! Visually appealing resources help with memory retention and are received better by students. 

I’ve always struggled with being creative. It’s definitely not my thing.  So, if you’re like me, you may find this channel useful The New EdTech Classroom. It provides education technology tutorials, tips and ideas on how to use technology efficiently in the classroom. Having the right tools makes the entire process easier!

Tools for designing ESL content and lessons

A few years ago, I came across Canva and it was a game changer! With hundreds of templates and designs, it’s easy to style banners, announcements and catch-up boards. Recently, I’ve taken it one step further and started creating video lessons as well. I’ve been using Powtoon ever since but there are plenty of video making apps to choose from. 

And close at hand with creativity, comes the huge issue of engaging students. 

When looking for alternatives, I’ve found great value in interactive presentations. 

You can prepare yours by using Pear Deck, google slides add-on. There are plenty of templates to help you get started.

Since I like being prepared, a backup plan is always a good idea. For interactive slides I like Mentimeter. Questions, polls, quizzes, images, and gifs can be easily added to these presentations to create fun and engaging content.

How do these work? Once you're ready to start, your students can use their smartphones to connect to the presentation where they can answer questions and exercises. Real-time answers will show up on your screen, and by the end of the class, an individual assessment report will be available to download and share. 

Pretty useful, right?  

Speaking of engagement, live games were very popular among my students. Generally, I use them to wrap-up classes to reinforce what we’ve learned or as a warm-up activity to revise a topic. Right now, my favorite site is Quizizz. You can prepare a quiz to play live or assign it as homework.

It goes without saying, there’s no magic formula. I would suggest getting to know your students to find out what’s appealing to them. 


Bonus: Setting the foundation for a vocabulary lifelong-learning mindset

Before you go, I wanted to share with you what I call: My ultimate teaching goal. 

While researching this topic, I came across hundreds of resources online about vocabulary teaching techniques.  Some of them were quite useful for sure but as I was going through all this information, I wondered: ‘What about the foundation of learning the language?’

Focusing on methods is fine, but it’s also important to make sure that we’re doing much more than teaching a few vocabulary words within a 40-minute class. 

In other words, it’s important to help students understand why it is relevant to acquire vocabulary and why they can’t settle with just a few words.

Straightforward teaching is inspiring. I’m all for it. I intend to be honest and clear and to stick as much as possible to what’s relevant to the students’ needs.

I frequently work with self-taught students who have reached impressive levels of fluency in English by:

  • playing video-games

  • listening to their favorite songs

  • browsing social media features such posts, lives or groups. 

What have I learned from that? A student can pick up new words from an endless variety of sources if they’re paying attention. So, it might help to encourage students to see everything as an opportunity to enhance their repertoire of words. 

Final thoughts

Learning is a lifelong endeavor, isn’t it? No matter how hard you try, you’ll never pass all the knowledge you want on to your students. I’m convinced that this has a lot to do with the student’s attitude towards the language. Achieving higher levels cannot be done without developing vocabulary. It’s as simple as that. But as a teacher you can contribute a lot by encouraging that mindset.

What I’m trying to say is: it’s impossible for the student to grasp everything they need to know within the context of the classroom. So nurturing a sense of curiosity and encouraging students to be involved in their learning process is crucial to their progress.

The key to a successful student? Nurturing a never-stop learning mindset!

English Worksheets for Adults

About the Writer

Sol is an English teacher and a self-professed grammar geek. As a writer for In English With Love, her mission is to create content that will help encourage and inspire English learners.

Read More


Save your time and effort with our English worksheets!

Designed to help adult learners build fluency and confidence in English.

Perfect for learning online or offline.