How to Teach Vocabulary in ESL Lessons like a Pro

Building a strong vocabulary is a key component of language learning, and it plays a crucial role in effective communication. For ESL students, learning new words can be challenging yet exciting. In this article, we will explore how to teach vocabulary in ESL lessons. By contextualizing words, utilizing visual aids, encouraging word associations, using context clues, incorporating games and activities, promoting contextualized writing and speaking tasks, and emphasizing regular review, we can create a dynamic and effective vocabulary learning experience for our students

How To Teach Vocabulary: Teaching Techniques

A father using flashcards with his child to teach vocabulary

I found teaching vocabulary to be fun, and an easy lesson to get students engaged with. However, I did also find that lessons could quickly go off-course if I didn’t have some useful techniques to deliver my lesson plan effectively. Here are seven easy techniques that I used myself and should work for almost every age group and level. If you want to learn how to teach vocabulary effectively, these will give you a great start!

1. Contextualize and Relate

If you want to understand better how to teach vocabulary you need to bear one important point in mind. The key to effective vocabulary instruction lies in making words meaningful and relevant to students’ lives. Begin by introducing vocabulary in context, using real-life scenarios or authentic materials. For example, if the topic is “food,” create a mini restaurant scene where students play different roles and use food-related vocabulary in their interactions. Relating vocabulary to their personal experiences helps students connect with the words on a deeper level.

2. Visual Aids and Realia

Visual aids are powerful tools in vocabulary teaching. Use flashcards, pictures, or objects (realia) to illustrate new words. This multisensory approach enhances comprehension and retention. When introducing a new word, display a related image or hold up an actual object to provide a visual reference. For instance, if teaching the word “apple,” show a picture or bring in a real apple to captivate students’ attention and stimulate their senses.

3. Word Associations and Mind Maps

Help students make connections between new words and their existing knowledge by encouraging word associations. Provide a stimulus word and ask students to brainstorm related words or concepts. This activity promotes critical thinking, vocabulary expansion, and strengthens semantic networks. Additionally, using mind maps or concept webs can visually organize vocabulary themes and reinforce connections between words, making learning more meaningful and memorable.

4. Context Clues and Guessing Games

Teach students strategies for deciphering the meanings of unfamiliar words within context. Encourage the use of context clues, such as surrounding words, illustrations, or tone. Engage students in guessing games, where they infer word meanings based on contextual information. By fostering their problem-solving skills, students become independent learners capable of understanding new vocabulary beyond the classroom.

5. Vocabulary Games and Activities

Injecting a dose of fun into vocabulary lessons can significantly enhance engagement and motivation. Incorporate vocabulary games and interactive activities, such as word puzzles, charades, or board games. These games promote friendly competition, collaboration, and active participation while reinforcing vocabulary retention. Online resources and mobile apps dedicated to vocabulary learning can also provide an interactive and gamified learning experience.

6. Contextualized Writing and Speaking Tasks

Encourage students to use newly acquired vocabulary in practical ways through contextualized writing and speaking tasks. Assign writing prompts or role-play activities that require the integration of target words. This approach enables students to practice vocabulary in authentic situations, reinforcing their understanding and encouraging active usage. Providing constructive feedback on their language usage will further enhance their progress.

7. Regular Review and Vocabulary Journals

Consistent review is vital to consolidate vocabulary learning. Dedicate regular class time for vocabulary review activities, such as quizzes, flashcard drills, or matching exercises. Encourage students to maintain personal vocabulary journals, where they can write down new words, their definitions, and example sentences. This practice promotes independent learning, reflection, and revision beyond the classroom.

Vocabulary Lesson Plan Example

A stack of books with Gorillas

Topic: Animals

Objective: By the end of the lesson, students will be able to identify and use vocabulary related to animals.


  • Flashcards or pictures of different animals
  • Word cards with animal names
  • Whiteboard or chart paper
  • Marker or chalk
  • Animal-related storybook (optional)
  • Worksheet or coloring pages (optional)

Warm-up (5 minutes):

  1. Greet the students and have a brief discussion about animals. Ask questions like “What is your favorite animal?” or “Have you seen any interesting animals recently?”

Introduction (10 minutes):

  1. Show flashcards or pictures of different animals to the students.
  2. Elicit the names of the animals and have the students repeat after you.
  3. Write the names of the animals on the whiteboard or chart paper.

Vocabulary Presentation (15 minutes):

  1. Introduce new animal vocabulary words one by one using flashcards or pictures.
  2. Pronounce the words clearly and have the students repeat after you.
  3. Provide simple definitions or descriptions of each animal.
  4. Show the word cards with animal names and match them to the corresponding flashcards or pictures.
  5. Review the vocabulary words and pronunciation several times.

Target LanguagePractice (15 minutes):

  1. Play a game of “Guess the Animal.” Describe an animal without saying its name, and have the students guess which animal you are talking about.
  2. Divide the class into small groups or pairs.
  3. Give each group a set of flashcards or pictures and ask them to categorize the animals into different groups (e.g., farm animals, wild animals, pets).
  4. Have each group present their categories and explain their choices to the class.

Practical Application (15 minutes):

  1. Read an animal-related storybook or show pictures of animals in their natural habitats.
  2. Pause during the story or after showing each picture and ask questions related to the animals, using the newly learned vocabulary.
  3. Encourage students to answer the questions using the vocabulary words.
  4. Allow students to ask their own questions about the animals or share any interesting facts they know.

Wrap-up (5 minutes):

  1. Review the animal vocabulary words and ask the students to say a sentence using one of the words.
  2. Provide positive feedback and praise for their participation and effort.
  3. Assign optional worksheets or coloring pages related to animals as a follow-up activity.

Extension Activity (optional):

  1. Divide the class into pairs or small groups.
  2. Provide a worksheet with pictures of different animals and ask students to write sentences describing the animals using the vocabulary words.
  3. Encourage students to share their sentences with the class or their group members.

Note: Adjust the timing and activities based on the level and needs of your students. Make the lesson interactive and engaging by incorporating games, visuals, and real-life examples as much as possible. Monitor students’ progress and provide support and feedback throughout the lesson.

Final Thoughts on How To Teach Vocabulary

Learning how to teach vocabulary in ESL lessons requires a dynamic and student-centered approach that fosters meaningful connections and active engagement. By contextualizing, visualizing, associating, and providing interactive opportunities, educators can empower ESL learners to expand their vocabulary, enhance communication skills, and unlock new opportunities for personal and professional growth. Remember, teaching vocabulary doesn’t have to be dull; it can be an exciting journey that opens doors to a world of linguistic

Tom Bogues

Tom is the Director of ESL Job Center. He has been working in the TEFL industry in one form or another since 2016 and is now using that experience to match quality teachers with quality schools across China.

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