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Teaching Vocabulary

Page history last edited by Joseph Pettigrew 12 years, 8 months ago

Teaching Vocabulary:  Two Dozen Tips & Techniques


Handout from a presentation at TESOL 1995 (Chicago)


copyright Joseph Pettigrew


Center for English Language and Orientation Programs

Boston University

890 Commonwealth Ave.

Boston, MA 02215


Permission is freely given for personal use by any teacher.

Permission for use on an institutional level is also given provided

the author's name and university affiliation remain with the materials.


Here is a downloadable pdf version of this page:  Teaching Vocabulary 



You may also be interested in two other presentations I have given:



I. Oldies but goodies


1. Matching synonyms


2. Matching opposites


3. Fill in the blank sentences



II. Variations on the above


1. Choose all the possible answers


     He ate lunch in the _____.


            cafeteria        restaurant        snack        snack bar        salad bar        diner


 2. Where would you find . . . ?


     an MD _____             a) in the British or Canadian Parliament

     a Ph.D. _____            b) on a ruler

     an MP _____             c) on a engine

     in. _____                   d) in a hospital

     hp _____                   e) in a university


 3. Compete the phrases


     to achieve ____        a) a secret

     to reveal ____          b) an idea

     to grasp ____           c) a goal


 4. Correct the mistakes


     He felt exhausted after a long nap.   


     possible corrections:  refreshed for exhausted or running to school for a long nap


5. Label a picture     







6. Draw a picture (Works for a limited number of words)


     Draw a target.


     Draw a bow and arrow and label each one.


7. Cross out the word that doesn't belong with the others in the group.


     uncle    father     aunt     brother


     EST    pm     Ph.D.     BC


     meadow     river     yard     field


8. Categories - You give the example; students give the category. Or vice versa.


     Examples:   gun, knife, club:      weapon          


     Category:   weapon:         gun, knife, club       


9. Complete the sentences


     I was exhausted after ___________________________________



III. Distinguishing shades of meaning & near synonyms


1. Analogies - Good even at low levels


     easy : hard :: cold : hot       


     skyscraper : city :: tree : forest      


     warp : wood :: peel : paint 


     shatter : glass :: crumble : stone


2. Choose the two possible answers that can complete each sentence.


     Semantic She longed for . . .  


          (a) her freedom.  

          (b) her lover who was far away. 

          (c) some ketchup for her french fries. (only a joke; not serous enough)


     Grammatical:  He pondered . . .  


          (a) his future.         

          (b) that he didn't know what to do.  (pondered can only be followed by a noun, not a clause)   

          (c) the meaning of life.


     Good source for incorrect answers:  student errors


3. Semantic categories - e.g., break, damage


     He dented the . . . car's bumper / treebranch / glass of water


     She splintered the . . . can / board / mirror


     He shattered the . . . mirror / water / curtains


     She shredded the . . . can / tree branch / curtains


4. Arrange the words on a scale  (most to least, largest to smallest, etc.)


     hot > warm > luke warm > cool > cold 


     despise > hate > dislike


This is nice to do when possible, but it's not possible all that often.

New words are usually presented and defined with one or two known words.

Focus on how the new word differs from the one they already know.


For example:


5. Which word in each pair is stronger, more forceful, or more intense?


     ___ to surprise         ___ to boil                 ___ to toss               ___ to hurl

     ___ to astound         ___ to simmer           ___ to throw             ___ to throw


6. Which word in each pair is slang?


     _____ a kid               _____ disgusting           _____ to fail

     _____ a child            _____ gross                   _____ to flunk


7. Which word would be more polite when talking about a person?

    or Which word has a more positive connotation?


     _____ thin                _____ fat                       _____ frugal

     _____ skinny            _____ overweight         _____ miserly


8. Complete the definitions - How are these actions performed?


     thrust = to push ____________________  (forcefully, hard)


     shatter = to break ____________________  (into many pieces)


     tap = to hit _____________________  (lightly, softly)



IV. Things to do with the vocabulary in a reading passage


1. Guessing word meaning from context


     See suggestions in Section V.


     But make sure it is really possible to guess the meaning from context. A lot of textbooks give students context

     exercises using unclear or ambigious examples. This just convinces them that it's not really possible to do.


     If you have a reading with a lot of vocabulary words whose meanings you cannot reasonably expect students to get

     from context, try some of these techniques.   


2. Give students the definitions; let them find the words.


     e.g., find a word in paragraph 5 that means angry


     A good way to deal with a difficult article without simply giving students the vocabulary.

     This also teaches them to focus on context and can be a good complement to work on guessing meaning (section V below).


3. Teach students when not to look up a word.


     a) Can you get a general sense of the word? e.g., a person? a feeling? a job? something good/bad?


     b) Find all the words on a page that refer to movement (or speaking).


          Do you really need to know exactly what each word means to understand the action of the story?


     c) Take a magic marker and block out all the words you don't know.


          Can you still tell what the passage is about?




4. Parts of speech


     With a corpus of words you've already studied, give sentences that require a different part of speech. (Dictionary use)


5. Different meanings of familiar vocabulary


     e.g., toll 


         [while driving on the highway]  There's a toll bridge ahead. Do you have any quarters?


         The highway death toll has declined sharply since police began to enforce the drunk driving laws more aggressively.


         The bell in the old church tower tolled four o'clock.



V. Teaching students how to guess word meaning from context


Types of context clues:


1. Cause & effect - Label the sentence C & E; then make a guess.


     Because we lingered too long at the restaurant, we missed the beginning of the movie.


     The door was ajar, so the dog got out of the house.


2. Opposite/contrast - Underline the two words or phrases in contrast to one another, then make a guess.


     Even though I studied for hours, I flunked the test.


     My last apartment was really small, but my new place is quite spacious.


3. General sense - Focus on SVO, actor & recipient of action. What type of word is it?


     If it is a noun:  a person, place, thing, abstract idea


     If it is a verb:  an action (e.g., movement?), or feeling/emotion, etc.


     If it is an adjective: what is it describing? good or bad? size? color? shape? emotion?


          Each summer thousands of tourists flock to the beaches of Cape Cod.


          The father tossed the ball to his little boy.


4. Synonyms or paraphrases - Found elsewhere in the sentence or paragraph


     Samuel was deaf, but he didn't let his handicap get in the way of his success.


     Sally's flower garden included dozens of marigolds, which she tended with great care.


5. Examples - if you know the example, you can often figure out the category; if you know the category,

     you can get a general idea of what the example is.


     The baboon, like other apes, is a very social animal.


6. Recognizing definitions - Common in college textbooks, newspaper & magazine articles


     Many children of normal intelligence have great difficulty learning how to read,

     write, or work with numbers. Often thought of as “underachievers,” such children

     are said to have a learning disability, a disorder that interferes in some way with

     school achievement.     

     [from Ten Steps to Improving College Reading Skills]



VI. Miscellaneous


1. Word sheets


     A simple but effective way to review vocabulary from a given unit

     is to post a sheet of paper with the words under study and talk

     about them. You can practice pronunciation, conduct oral mini-quizzes,

     answer students' questions, etc. Do this as a warmup for two or three

     minutes each day.


     For example: 


     Which words have positive/negative connotations?

     Which words refer to people?

     Which words are verbs?

     What's the opposite of X?

     I'll give you a word; tell me what the opposite is in the list.

     What's a more polite way of saying X?

     X is a verb. What's the noun form?


2. Look for words that mean . . .


     When using a magazine or newspaper in the class, you can have students

     look for words in a certain category while they're doing other reading and

     scanning activities.


     One issue of Time Magazine yielded the following:


         words for go up:   soar, rise, raise, increase, push up


         words for go down:   fall, plummet, sink, decrease


     Other categories of words that might work: 


         words that describe movement, travel


         words related to crime


         names of government positions or occupations (president, mayor, etc.)


     In a work of fiction or a profile of a famous person: 


         adjectives that describe the main characters, both what they look like and how they act



VII. Fun & games


1. Act out/pantomime (Charades)


     Give students cards with instructions like the examples below.

     Have them perform the actions without speaking.

     The other students try to guess the word or expression

     that the student is pantomiming.


          Open the door fearfully.    


          Walk across the room cautiously.


2. Crossword Puzzles (a number of software programs exist that allow you to create your own)


     The clues can be synonyms, antonyms, complete the sentences.

     Helps focus on spelling as well as meaning.


3. Categories Game ($25,000 Pyramid)


     Divide the class into teams. One person from a team sits in front of the class.

     The rest of the team members are given a card with a category,


          For example:  Things that are red.


     The team members take turns giving examples of the category

     until the person in the “hot seat” guesses it or all the team members

     have given a clue.


     If the person in front cannot guess, the other team can confer and try to guess.


     NOTE: The clues must be examples, not definitions.


          In the above example, ketchup, blood, and a stop sign are all acceptable clues. Color is not.


     Examples of categories:  


          Things that are . . . yellow, expensive, fragile, made of glass, found on a farm

          American authors, state capitals, things in a woman's purse, winter clothing

          things that are sold in bottles, places where you have to stand in line, people who wear uniforms


4. Password


     Divide the class into two teams. One person from each team sits in a chair in front of the class.

     Those two people receive a card with a vocabulary word. The first person gives a

     one-word clue to his/her team. If no one from the team can guess, the second person

     gives a clue to his/her team. This alternates back and forth until someone from one of the

     teams guesses the word, or until a specified number of clues has been given. 


5. Drawing pictures (Win, Lose or Draw)


     This works well if you have an empty classroom nearby. Divide the class into two groups.

     Give each one a list of vocabulary words (idiomatic expressions also work well for this).

     The students draw pictures—but no words—on the board so that the students in the other

     group can guess the words or expressions they're trying to represent. This is a fun way to

     review some vocabulary and break up the class routine.


A note on keeping score


     You can keep score in most of these games, but I've found things actually go more smoothly

     when you don't. No one disputes points, and students don't seem to mind that there's no clear

     “winner” or “loser.”


     Occasionally, a student will ask why I'm not keeping track of who won and lost. I usually tell him

     (it's never a 'her') that we're just learning how the game is played now, so I'm not going to

     bother this time. I never bother keeping score any subsequent times, either, but I've never

     been asked about it a second time.



VIII. Miscellaneous examples


1. A follow-up to a radio interview of a psychologist who discussed money and people's attitudes towards it.


     Money Talks


     Below are some words used to describe people and their attitudes towards money.

     Working with another student, put them into the proper category.


          a miser          an overspender           generous

          cheap            a cheapskate               giving

          tight              a tightwad                   thrifty

          frugal            a spendthrift                stingy


  spends money
saves money


+ connotation





- connotation



  a miser













2. A follow-up to an article on health


  Match these medical terms with the parts of the body they involve.


       _____ 1) to clot     

       _____ 2) asthma    

       _____ 3) a stroke                               a) brain

       _____ 4) hemorrhaging                      b) lungs

       _____ 5) a migraine                           c) blood

       _____ 6) leukemia

       _____ 7) respiration



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