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ESL/EFL: Teaching Word Families

Andrew is a TEFL graduate and has recently taught classes in the UK. A keen traveller and article writer, he has also tutored 1:1 abroad.

Learning about word families can be fun.

Learning about word families can be fun.

ESL/EFL Classes and Teaching the Word Family

When I teach word families to my ESL classes I usually start with a simple word and build up from there, showing them clearly how the 'family' can grow. Word families are groups of words formed from a base or root word, so I think it is best to begin with fundamentals.

Let me show you an example using the word ease:

  • noun: ease
  • adjective: easy
  • verb: to ease
  • adverb: easily

There are thousands more, ranging from the obvious to the obscure. This article will concentrate on form-based word families as opposed to meaning-based.

Why study word families?

A recent study has shown that the 2,000 most frequently used form-based words account for more than 80% of an average text (Dr Prudent Injeeli, Mind Your Words: Master the Art of Learning and Teaching Vocabulary, Trafford Publishing, 2013).

So their importance cannot be ignored.

Learning about word families can also help with:

  • extending vocabulary
  • the use of dictionaries
  • studying texts
  • the meaning of words
  • reading
  • conversation.

I've outlined eight tried and trusted ways for teaching word families but don't forget that the needs of your students come first so be prepared to adapt each method accordingly if you need to.

1. Create Sentences

These five verbs are some of the most frequently used in English ( and are more likely to turn up in conversation than written text. Working in pairs or small groups, get your students to create sentences using these verbs.Once they've written them down, ask each person to say them out loud. Try and build on this exercise.

Create sentences using one or more of the following word families:

  • think thinking thinks thought thoughts thoughtful thoughtfully thoughtfulness
  • get gets getting got gotten
  • go goes going gone went
  • know knew knowing knowledge known knows unknown knowledgeable knowingly
  • mean meaning means mean meanest meaningful

2. Build Up the Root Word

Take the root word, for example appear, and build up the word family.

  • appear
  • appearance
  • appeared
  • appearing
  • appears
  • appearances
  • disappearances
  • disappear
  • disappearance
  • disappeared
  • disappearing
  • disappears

Handy Tip

In my class I like to start this exercise by asking the group as a whole to think of new words. I then write them down on the whiteboard as the answers are given. This could take the form of a spidergram or bubble cloud. I then write down a second example for the students to work on quietly by themselves or in pairs.

3. Introduce Idioms

Introducing idioms to the class creates added interest and helps with speaking and conversation, for example:

  • You'll end up unemployed if you say that to the boss!
  • Hopefully, you won't end up with egg on your face!
  • I hope you don't end up jobless!
  • I'll deal with any employment issues in the next meeting.

Use idioms in connection with the word family.

  • employ
  • employed
  • employee
  • employees
  • employer
  • employers
  • employing
  • employment
  • employs
  • unemployed
  • unemployment

Some Common Word Families












































laze (about/around)






















4. Specific Topics: Numeracy

If you run a specialist class, say in business or science, focus on topics that your students really need. You could go for academic lists, or educational language. Basic numeracy is always popular.

Ask your students to create a word family based on other numbers.

Take a look at this word family based on the number five:

  • five
  • fives
  • fifteen
  • fifteenth
  • fifth
  • fifthly
  • fifties
  • fiftieth
  • fifty

5. Dictionary Research

This exercise will encourage your students to become independent in their research as well as boost their knowledge of working with dictionaries.

Create a list of nouns and have them find the verb and adverb for each, together with meanings.

For example, choose the word boredom and ask your students to look up family words. Then get them to create sentences once they've researched meanings.

  • The subject was boring.
  • The subject bored me.
  • The subject was a total bore.

6. Read a Set Text

Have your students read through a set text—it could be taken from a book or other source, or created by you—and ask them to highlight any word families they come across. Focus on a verb and get them to determine the adjective, noun and adverb in the same family.

Create small groups, give them different texts. Have them read out loud and/or write down their findings so the whole class can comment and interact.

7. Fill in the Blanks

Create some short passages for your students with blanks. Have them fill the blanks in with the correct word.

For example:

If you want to have a ................ career you have to work hard. To be certain of ........... make sure you plan ahead and create goals for yourself. Achieve these goals and you will more than likely ............

The word family: success, succeed, successful.

8. Exceptional Word Families

There are unusual words in English which are used quite frequently by native speakers and yet can prove a challenge for the EFL student.

For instance, the word right can turn up in many guises:

  • It includes the right to reply.
  • She injured her right hand.
  • Right way up if you don't mind!
  • He got right to the end of the tunnel.

Ask your students to come up with a word of their own which is spelt the same but has different meanings. Can they create a sentence/s using this word?

What's Next?

  • In other recent research it is known that up to 60% of information is forgotten just an hour after we first learn it! (Canada Education
  • This is why it's important for your students to repeat course work to help reinforce learning. Get them to repeat word families out loud occasionally, have recall and retrieve sessions, give them progress tests.

Word families are really important. They allow students to see how different words from the same root are used in the daily flow of the English language.

© 2014 Andrew Spacey


Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on August 29, 2015:

Sarah, thank you for the visit and comment. So glad you got some inspiration for your Sicilian EFL classes.

Sarah Galli from Sicily on August 29, 2015:

Chef, I love this article. It gave me some good ideas for lessons, and how to implement word family exercises into mine. I am interested as I have a lot of interest in this type of English lesson and it is very interesting! Keep up the good work.

Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on June 15, 2015:

Thanks for the visit EdTecher, much appreciated. The classes I taught all loved learning about word families.

Heidi Reina from USA on June 15, 2015:

Very helpful, especially the use of word families for commonly used words, such as the five verbs you mention.

Andrew Spacey (author) from Sheffield, UK on June 07, 2014:

Thank you in return! I really appreciate you dropping by and commenting.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on June 07, 2014:

This is really interesting and presented well. Thank you..