Experiences of an English Language Teacher

Episode 3: Six Ways to Teach Vocabulary Effectively

In today’s episode of TEFL Tips, we are going to look at what to include when teaching vocabulary with students. The key to communicating in any language is having vocabulary to assist in expressing meaning. Watch this video below to learn how I teach vocabulary in the EFL classroom.

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Tip Number 1: Show Word Stress

It’s important that students are aware of how to pronounce correctly and the best way to do this is to show the pattern of word stress. Illustrate word stress with little circles above each syllable. It’s a simple technique but will provide confidence for students to use vocabulary when speaking.

Tip Number 2: Show Vocabulary In Context

It’s invaluable that students know how vocabulary is used. Demonstrate this with showing words in a sentence and how they can use it. Try to include the grammar with the key vocabulary, so if you’ve been looking at the present perfect and the key word is ‘raw’ then you could write the sentence: “I have never eaten raw food. I prefer my food to be cooked.” You show the key word in a grammar form that students have studied but you also embed in context what ‘raw’ means.

Tip Number 3: Teach Synonyms

It is a simple technique but teaching other associated words will help students improve their vocabulary awareness and will also aid them. So if you’ve introduced the word ‘hungry’, shown word stress and written the word in context you could also add other words to mean ‘hungry’. For example, you could write up ‘starving’ or ‘famished’. Students will feel content that they are learning more vocabulary rather than just the necessary words for the lesson.

Tip Number 4: Use Pictures

Many students learn new vocabulary in a range of different ways. Some students learn by listening, some learn by touch and others visually. It is vital to support students learning through many ways and one important way is to use images whenever possible. If you can project the image on the whiteboard, that is great but if you are not then you can make your own flashcards. You can use these to introduce new words with pictures to accommodate different learning styles.

Tip Number 5: Guess The Translation

Don’t allow your students to automatically translate the new word as this is neither useful nor will help your students remember the word. Try to explain the word as described above and then rather than letting your learners translate, get them to guess the translation. If students are correct with their guess, then they will gain the confidence to guess the meaning of the word from context and then will rely less on automatic translation. This will obviously help in other ways such as reading larger passages of text and being able to read at a quicker rate.

Tip Number 6: Teach Phrases & Collocations

The final tip is for students to be aware of natural collocations and being able to use them effectively. If you are teaching words such as ‘meeting’, ‘responsibility’ or ‘promise’, then you could teach common phrases or verbs which collocate with these nouns. For example, you could teach ‘to have a meeting’, ‘to take responsibility’ or ‘to keep a promise’. These phrases are more effective for learners to remember what verbs go with what nouns and will sound more appropriate when learners want to use them in the future.

Those are my six tips for effectively teaching vocabulary to students. Which one do you think is the most important and which do you think is the least important? Let me know if the comments below. I love to read your comments.

Happy Teaching

Further Resources

Here are some more links for additional reading should you wish to learn more about the teaching of vocabulary.


  1. Marek Kiczkowiak

    Thanks for the post and the video. I wanted to comment on two things you mentioned.

    First, your tip about using pictures refers to accommodating to different learning styles. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you shouldn’t use pictures. They can help convey meaning. They can also be used as mnemonic devices. However, the idea that catering to different learning styles improves learning has been debunked so many times that we should probably leave it resting in peace. There is absolutely no research evidence that it holds any water.

    Second, you discourage translation and instead suggest guessing meaning from context. The problem is that most studies show that learners memorise new words significantly better when they are given a translation (in comparison with a definition, example sentence, etc.). In addition, studies also clearly demonstrate that both learners and ‘native speakers’ are very bad at guessing meaning from context. In some studies they’re able to guess only well below 50% of the words. What happens when they guess the wrong meaning is that a connection between the word and the wrong meaning is formed. It might not be a strong one if the teacher reacts quickly, but the student will still have to unlearn it. So while guessing from context might be a good reading strategy to teach, it’s certainly not beneficial for vocabulary learning.

    Highly recommend reading Vocabulary Myths by Folse, and How Vocabulary is Learned by Webb and Nation ?

    • Martin Sketchley

      You raise an interesting few points Marek. I was taught to offer a range of learning practises to accommodate learning styles or preferences.

      I guess what I suppose we should focus on is the idea that a preference is evident for particular learners. I know personally (for Korean) that I like to hear the word and then see the spelling. Then I like to see a visualisation with common collocations but that is my preference and other students may have differing preferences. Thus, what quickly is assumed a preference quickly becomes established as a learning style. But then again, I may be completely wrong and I will have to look at some sources that debunk learning styles or preferences.

      With regards to the second point, I would add that I am not dismissing translation completely but I am suggesting a step before the student considers translating automatically and then even before grabbing the translation on the smartphone to guess the equivalent translation. One step before guessing the translated word is to assume in context.

      Before we had the tools to conveniently translate whenever we desired, we had to refer to a dictionary. I remember (in a personal situation) where I used to pass the same road sign every day in Korea when I went to work or returned home. I had no clue what it meant and it took me about three months to figure out what it meant. Do I say to students “Wait”? Sure I do. Should they wait three months until they discover the meaning? Of course not. However, there is a place for translating but if something is not so immediate, the struggle makes it so much more rewarding and memorable. Then again, I could be misinformed and my personal experience could is very different to my students.

      Anyhow, I really appreciate your comment and I will look at the two books that you have recommended. Thank you. ?

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