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Vocabulary Teaching Tips for English as a Second Language

by Suzy Kerr, studioD

Even native English speakers can find the language complicated to master, so second language learners certainly face a daunting task. Consider how we borrow words from other languages and often break our own grammatical rules. If you’re teaching English as a second language and you’ve noticed that your students struggle with vocabulary acquisition, consider revising your lesson plans with a few vocabulary teaching tips.

Choose Your Words Carefully

When assigning your students homework, be aware of how you word your instructions. You could write a wonderful lesson, but if your students haven’t yet learned the words in your prompt, they could miss the point altogether. When writing out questions, choose simple, common words they’ve likely come across before, so the emphasis of the lesson will remain on your intended vocabulary words. For example, phrases like “next page,” “look at” and “begin” will be more familiar than phrases like “adjacent page,” “focus on” and “commence.” By reducing the number of words that could cause confusion or distraction, your students will be able to move quickly through the instructions and into the lesson itself.

Make Associations With Pictures

Particularly with younger ESL students or visual learners, picture associations can be an effective way of reinforcing new vocabulary words. Much in the same way native English speakers learn new words by seeing the word used in context, those learning English as a second language can benefit from the association of the sound of a word in English with the object it represents. This can cut down on the time needed to integrate a new word into the student’s vocabulary since it removes the need for translation from one language to another and instead focuses on the object itself. For example, if you were working on the names of animals, students may find it easier to associate the word “cow” with the image of a cow than with the word for cow in their native language.

Integrate New Vocabulary Into Other Subjects

Similarly, contextualization through other subjects can help ESL students comprehend a new word’s meaning. Students could learn the dictionary definition of every word in the English language, but until they can use each one in a sentence, the definition won’t do them much good. Try to pair word categories with relevant subjects. For example, if you’re working on a unit introducing your students to activity-related vocabulary words, use the words in gym class. The difference between “run,” “jump,” “hop” and “skip” will be clearer if they can connect the sound of the word with the actual activity.

Talk to Students One at a Time

Shy students are just as common in an ESL classroom as they are in any school across the country. To ensure that all of your students, not just the eager ones, are progressing in their understanding of new vocabulary words, schedule one-on-one time. Individual attention creates a safe space for students to ask questions away from the judgment of their peers. This is particularly helpful for students who don’t want to waste their classmates’ time with personal confusion over things like connotative differences. By working with each person one-on-one, you can help to explain how connotation differs between “house” and “home” without sacrificing valuable class time.

About the Author

Suzy Kerr graduated from Grady School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Georgia. She completed her Master's degree in Nutrition Sciences, also at the University of Georgia. Suzy has been a successful health, fitness and nutrition writer for more than 10 years, and has been published in various print and online publications.