Skip to main content

How to Teach Vocabulary by Word Associations to ESL Learners

Paul has spent many years teaching English as a foreign and second language. He has taught EFL in Taiwan and Thailand, and ESL in the U.S.

Word Associations


Vocabulary With Word Associations

Vocabulary is one of the most difficult things for EFL and ESL students to learn. Why? The fact is most learners are only searching for the unfamiliar English word's equivalent in their native language. They are not associating a mental image of anything to go with the new vocabulary.

We acquire our native language through word associations. That is, we get mental pictures of concrete and abstract words through our senses which are associated with new words. For example, when we hear and see the word "sweet," we see, smell, and taste such things as cookies, candy, cake, and ice cream, completely getting an understanding of the meaning of "sweet." This article will detail my experiences of teaching vocabulary by teaching word associations to EFL and ESL learners.

The author as an English teacher at Saint Joseph Bangna School in Thailand in 2009.

The author as an English teacher at Saint Joseph Bangna School in Thailand in 2009.

Process of Teaching Vocabulary by Word Associations

For more than six years, I taught my fifth and sixth-grade EFL students new vocabulary with word associations. The students enjoyed my teaching and learning method, and I honestly believe they made more progress in learning, using, and retaining vocabulary than before. In all of my classes I taught vocabulary using the following sequence of steps:

1. Oral Presentation of New Words

Before the students even see the word, I say it to them numerous times. Then, I instruct my kids to listen and repeat the word after me. As they do this, I make sure that they are pronouncing the word correctly. While I am saying the word, I show the students a picture representing the meaning. If I don't have a picture or can't draw one on the board, I will dramatically act out the purpose.

2. Written Presentation of New Words

After my class can hear and pronounce the word reasonably well, I will introduce it in its written form. As the students see the word on the whiteboard, I have them repeat it after me two or three times until the pronunciation is correct. If my kids are still unsure about the exact meaning of the word, I will try to explain it with simpler English words. If this fails, I will ask a student who knows the meaning of the word to provide the translation to the class in the student's native language. If no student can do this, I will tell the students to look up the meaning in their bilingual dictionaries. At this time, the students all should have copied the word and its meaning into their notebooks.

3. Using New Words With Associations

Explaining how to use new words with associations is the heart of my lesson. I am a firm believer that if you can't actively use a new word, it is not a part of your vocabulary. How do I do this? Let me give you some examples. First, let's consider the new word "tasty" which is being introduced to the students. After I explain in simpler English words that "tasty" means good to eat or delicious, I will ask the students to think of any words or things they know that are associated with "tasty." That is when students hear or see the word "tasty," what do they think of or see in their minds? Most students will offer words such as "French fries," "steak," "ice cream," and "fried chicken." For abstract words such as "ambitious," I include the associations of "best student in the class," "Bill Gates," "Microsoft," and "United States" as examples of people, companies, and countries that have worked extremely hard to achieve success. I also tell the students to think of other words to add to their lists of associations which they copy into the notebooks.

4. Testing the Use of New Words with Associations

I have made up exercises and tests to measure how well my students have learned how to use new words with associations. My favorite test or exercise has students match new vocabulary with its corresponding associations. For example, I might include the new words tasty, bitter, sweet, and vanilla in bold on one line, and have my students match these words with the following associations by writing the words in the blanks.

Medicine, coffee, and tea __________

Cake, ice cream, and cookies ______

French fries, steak, and cake _______

Seasoning, plant, and pudding ______

5. Using New Words in Sentences

If students have mastered the use of new words with associations, they should be ready to use words in sentences. To test students' ability to do this, I make up multiple-choice or matching exercises where students have to choose the correct word to use in a sentence. For instance, in testing the student's mastery of the words tasty, bitter, and sweet, I would use the following multiple-choice questions:

1. Cake, ice cream, and cookies all taste _________.

a. salty

b. bitter

c. sweet

d. vanilla

2. French fries, steak, and cake are all _______ food.

a. tasty

b. bitter

c. sweet

d. vanilla

3. She thinks medicine, coffee, and tea are ________.

a. sweet

b. tasty

c. bitter

d. vanilla

6. Making Sentences Using New Words

This is the final step in gaining mastery of the use of new vocabulary. After my students can correctly use new vocabulary in sentences, I will have them make sentences using the new words. For example, in making sentences with the newly acquired vocabulary of tasty, bitter, and sweet, the students should be able to generate sentences such as:

The cookies are sweet.

Medicine tastes bitter.

This steak is very tasty.

Teaching vocabulary with associations was very influential in my classroom, and most of my students enjoyed this teaching and learning experience. Unless students have a mental image of the word they are learning, they will never be able to acquire its meaning and use the word effectively in speaking and writing. Also, as students increase their vocabulary, they must be aware of connotations as opposed to the denotations which they find in dictionaries.

Teaching Vocabulary by Word Associations

Teaching Vocabulary Through Word Associations

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Paul Richard Kuehn


Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on May 09, 2018:

I am happy you found this article useful. I know very little about ASL but I think it can be used as a tool of association for teaching sight vocabulary. Good luck with your efforts in using it.

DiegoOrdonez on May 08, 2018:

Thanks! I found this article very useful. I would like to use ASL as a tool of association for teaching sight vocabulary. What do you think about it?

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on January 19, 2017:

I really appreciate your comments and hope this article helps your granddaughter learn some Spanish.

RoadMonkey on January 19, 2017:

Very useful. I will use this to help my granddaughter learn some Spanish for her holiday.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on February 23, 2015:

Bardia, Thanks for your comments. I don't have any published articles on this, but you do see similarities in words in Spanish, French, and other Romance languages. It probably would be a good idea to write a hub on this subject.

Bardia on February 21, 2015:

Hi. Paul

some word associations between L1 and L2 are in this way. e.g., abandon : means give up ..... also in L1 fore example there is a word that is similar to abandon in L2 .. and pronounciation in both is almost the same . Do you have any article srelated to this?

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on February 14, 2015:

Hi Nansy,

I'm pleased that you found this hub both useful and helpful. All of the articles which I have written about teaching vocabulary appear only on Hubpages. You may use this article and others for reference as long as you give due credit to me.

Nansy on February 11, 2015:

Hello . thanks for this helpful post . it was really useful for me.

I'm a master student in the major of English Teaching. I'm working on my final thesis about " Teaching Vocabulary Based on Word Association" I have found a few article about learning vocabulary through word association and they are not enough . is it possible for you to share some articles about this topic so that i can use them as some resources?

thanks in advance

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on May 17, 2012:


Thanks once again for reading and the good comments. Also, thank you very much for sharing.

Emmanuel Kariuki from Nairobi, Kenya on May 17, 2012:

Hi Paul,

This tells me I should illustrate my Kikuyu language hubs so learners can associate words with pictures. Thanks for sharing - voted up 'shared'!

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on May 04, 2012:


I appreciate your interest in my ESL/EFL hubs and I thank you for linking to them.

Sharilee Swaity from Canada on May 04, 2012:

Paul, I just wanted you to know that I have linked to your hubs on my latest hub on teaching ESL. I value your teaching ESL/EFL hubs very much. Have a wonderful day and happy teaching!

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on April 30, 2012:

Hanaa, Thank you very much for the favorable comment.

Hanaa Elsayed99 on April 30, 2012:

these steps are very useful for teaching vocabulary .If vocabulary is taught in an uninteresting way such as by drilling, simple repetition and learning lists, then the words are likely to be forgotten. if teachers use these steps , vocabulary will stick in the memory of the student.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on April 07, 2012:

Thank you very much for reading my article and sharing it. I have taught both ESL and EFL and found EFL the most challenging here in Thailand. I wish you the best of luck in teaching ESL. If you are interested in EFL, there are so many opportunities in Thailand, Taiwan, and other countries in East Asia and Southeast Asia.

Sharilee Swaity from Canada on April 07, 2012:

This is a very thorough explanation. Thank you so much for this. Right now I am tutoring ESL, and would like to eventually get into teaching it. So, I will be sharing this. Thanks!

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on March 18, 2012:

gift, spelling is one of the hardest parts of learning English. In the future I will have a hub on this.

gift on March 18, 2012:

am not good in writing spelling how can u help me thank

gift on March 18, 2012:

am not good in writing spelling how can u help me thank

gift on March 18, 2012:

am not good in writing spelling how can u help me thank

Jen Pearson from Alabama on December 28, 2011:

Thanks, Paul. Maybe kids and adults aren't so different! :)

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on December 28, 2011:

Thanks for the comments Jen. For me it has varied in going from the first to last step. On the average it has taken about 4-5 months for average retention results, and this is for 5th and 6th graders

Jen Pearson from Alabama on December 28, 2011:

I like the repetition and progressive tasks incorporated into this series of exercises. How long does it take to go from the first step to the last? Also, what kind of retention results? (In my adult classes, retention is a huge problem.)

maddot from Northern NSW, Australia on December 18, 2011:

Very good.. thanks for that.I'll be using it.

Kymberly Fergusson from Germany on December 18, 2011:

A good technique for ESL learners!

SpecialKids from Miami Beach and Jerusalem, Israel on December 18, 2011:

This was very useful. I've taught English to second language speakers, and this technique sounds very sound. Thanks for sharing.