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Tips for Teaching Vocabulary to Young Learners

Emma enjoys sharing tips and tricks for teaching young children.

Engaging, fun lessons lead to happy students. Happy students learn quickly and remember more!

Engaging, fun lessons lead to happy students. Happy students learn quickly and remember more!

The Importance of Teaching Vocabulary

One of the beauties of the English language is the diversity of the vocabulary available to its users. It is also one of the things that can make English hard to get to grips with.

Misused vocabulary can make even the most fluent speakers seem inexperienced; on the other hand, getting it right gives the speaker confidence and an increased ability to express themselves. Furthermore, a good vocabulary range increases reading comprehension, ability in technical subjects and written ability.

These are all good reasons to make sure that your vocabulary teaching is interesting, useful and effective, don't you think?

The Not-so-Secret Secrets to Good Vocabulary Teaching

Make it interesting: This is often the hardest part of teaching vocab. See below for some fun activities to make the lessons engaging for students of all levels.

Keep it relevant: Don't teach words your students cannot or will not use - you're only going to put them off and make them think that learning vocabulary is a pointless exercise.

If you're following a particular curriculum or book, use your common sense. I've seen a book for three-year-old students which wanted them to learn the word 'syringe'. These were students who were new to learning English, and it was not a relevant or achievable word, so the teacher quite rightly cut it from the vocabulary target words for the week.

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Set achievable goals: This applies to three main areas:

  • The words you are targeting: Are they suitable for the student's ability?
  • The amount of time you give students to learn them: Don't expect your class of 7–8-year-old students to learn their words overnight; by the same token, if you give them too long, it won't be a priority. Generally, you want to introduce the words on Monday, practice through the week, and test on Friday (or some variation of this based on your class schedule).
  • The number of words you set: Avoid giving long lists of words; it's better to learn five words well and be able to use them effectively in a sentence; than to try to learn 25 words which are then confused, misspelt and forgotten.

Teach words in context: I never have students write definitions of words; I much prefer that they use the words in a sentence they made on their own. They are more likely to remember the word and are better at using it, and it's a great chance to sneak in extra writing practice.

Make It Interesting: Ways to Make Vocab Fun

Below are just a few suggestions for activities to make vocabulary practice fun. These are primarily aimed at young learners.

Teaching Spelling

  • Sparkle: An old game but a good one. Have all members of the class stand up, choose a spelling word and have each student say one letter to spell out the word. After the last letter has been said, the word 'Sparkle' is called out, and the next student in line is out of the game! For example: Word = Cat, Student 1 - 'C', Student 2 - 'A', Student 3 'T', Student 4 - ' Sparkle', Student 5 is out!
  • Spelling Bullseye: Particularly good fun with an energetic class! Split your class into two teams. Students go head to head to spell target words; the winner uses a soft ball (or scrunched-up paper) to aim at a bulls-eye (circular target) and score points for their team. Pick your teams carefully so students are paired against those of similar ability.
  • Spelling Battleships: Loosely based on the traditional board game, words take the place of the ships. Assign students into pairs. Each student has two copies of a battleships grid (10 x 10 square, labeled A-J across and 1-10 down). They put each of their words into the grid without their partner seeing. Then you play like regular battleships. Guess a square (e.g. B7), and the partner calls out 'hit' (and tells you the letter) or 'miss'). Students can try to guess the place of words if they feel confident, but it costs them one turn. It helps them to become familiar with the words and recognize patterns.

Teaching Meaning

  • Word Ladder: Write the target words on large cards (laminate if you intend to use them again) and place them on the floor in a line to make the ladder. Split your students into two teams who line up at opposing ends of the 'ladder'. One student from each team starts (at the same time) before they can go forward one step on the ladder, they must tell you the meaning of the word or use it in a sentence. If they get it right, they step forward. They both keep going until they meet in the middle. Then it's rock, scissors, paper (or some variation) to decide who can stay on the ladder. The winner continues, the loser has to go to the back of their team's line, and a new team member starts from the beginning of the ladder. The first team to the end of the ladder claims a point. (Warning: This game can get very, very excitable)
  • Guess the Word: Place students back to back on chairs. Give each one a list of words; student A gives a definition or sentence but does not say the target word. Student B has to guess what the word is. Once they get it right, Student B makes a new sentence with a different word.
  • Vocabulary Puzzle: Download a printable puzzle template. Take a marker and write the definition or a sentence across the whole puzzle. Then cut it up. Repeat for as many words as you want. Mix the pieces up. Students have to reassemble the puzzle and then match it to the correct vocabulary word. This is a great hands-on activity for students who finish their classwork quickly.

What Works for You?

There are so many great techniques out there—do you have one to share?

If so, I'd love to hear from you—feel free to leave a comment below!

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