Vocabulary Strategies and Lesson Plans

When it comes to teaching vocabulary, one challenge is knowing which words and phrases to teach. There are several areas that should always be included in vocabulary instruction. In addition to single words, idioms: (time on my hands, getting cold feet) and phrasal verbs (get in, go out).  It’s especially important for students to learn idioms, phrasal verbs, because there’s no logical way to figure out their meaning from the individual words.

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Strategies for Teaching Vocabulary

Useful vocabulary Sites

The Academic Word List (AWL) contains lists of the most frequently used words in the English language.

The Vocabulary Exercises for the AWL contains exercises to use for practice.

ESL Voices Page for Idioms.

The Google Labs Ngram Viewer which displays the frequency of a word or phrase used in a corpus of books, (for example, English literature books) during a specified time period, that you choose. This is a way to find out if certain words or phrases or still being used today.

Guessing Meanings From Context

Learners who can guess the meanings of words from context are able to read and decipher words independently, outside of class and are prepared for the vocabulary included in standardized tests such as the TOEFL.

Linguist Paul Nation suggests teaching students the following procedure for guessing the meaning of words in context.

1. Look at the unknown word and identify its part of speech. For example, is it a noun, verb, or adjective?

2. Next, look at the sentence containing the unknown word. If the word is a noun, what adjectives describe it? If it is a verb, then what nouns go with it?

3. Study the relationship between the sentence containing the unknown word and the other sentences. Are there cues like conjunctions (because, but, if)?  Are there any adverbs (however)? The possible types of relationships are cause and effect, contrasts, and summary .

4. Try to guess the meaning of the word.

5. Use an English-English dictionary to see if you were correct.

Source: New Ways in Teaching Vocabulary by Paul Nation

Using Graphic  Organizers

Another effective strategy for teaching the meanings of words is the use of graphic organizers. There are literally dozens of styles, and each has its unique purpose. Here is a favorite  vocabualry chart from Enchanted Learning.

This is an effective tool for students for analyzing new words and their associations. You can also draw a vocabualry map on the board:

  1. On the board draw a circle or a square and write the word
  2. Draw a circle next to it and place the part of speech
  3. Draw another for a synonym
  4. Draw one for antonym
  5. Underneath draw a square for a sentence using the word, another square for a picture representing the word, and another square for the definition of the word.
  6. Have students work in groups on one of these charts and then share their work with the class.

Find more ideas for graphic organizers at Graphic Organizers Enchanted Learning.

Antonyms, Synonyms and Homophones

Whenever students encounter a new word, they should record it into their vocabulary notebooks (see introduction) and add not only the meaning but as many associations as possible, including antonyms, synonyms, and homophones related to the word.

Antonyms are words that mean the opposite of each other.

Example: The antonym of long is short.

Synonyms are words that have similar meanings.

Example: Some synonyms for long are lengthy and elongated.

Homophones are words that sound the same, but are spelled differently.

Examples: new, knew

Homographs (or homonyms) are words that are spelled the same but are pronounced differently and have different meanings.

Examples: wind (noun, air current) and wind (verb, operate by turning a key or handle).

Not all words have homophones or homographs.

Additional Sources

Online Thesaurus

Synonyms, Antonyms, Homonyms

Compound Words

A compound word is a word made up of two individual words. An effective method for understanding the meaning of a compound word is to break the compound word down into its components.

Examples: drugstore (a store that sells drugs), lifeboat (a boat that preserves life)

A good site for additional compound words is Scholastic Resources Vocabualry

Affixes: Roots, Prefixes, Suffixes

Students can also learn the meanings of words by breaking them down into their roots and affixes.

The root is the base word; the affix can be a prefix (placed before the root) or a suffix (placed after the root). Some roots can appear alone, as well as with affixes; others appear only with affixes.

Examples:

port = to carry;  prefix ex = out;

 ex + port = export=to carry something out of an area

im = in,  into

im + port = import, to carry something into an area

 able = to be able

trans= carry, beyond,

port = to carry;

trans + port = something that can be carried beyond an area

Additional Sources:

List of medical roots, suffixes and prefixes

Wikipedia List of Latin words with English derivatives (Latin roots)

Online Etymology Dictionary

Idioms and Phrasal Verbs

Students need to master idioms and phrasal verbs if they are to feel at home in English. Idioms (idiomatic expressions) An idiom is a phrase or an expression with a special meaning that cannot be understood from the individual meanings of its words.

For example, to fly off the handle means to lose one’s temper or to get angry.

You can find additional idioms ESL Voices Idioms List

Phrasal verbs

A phrasal verb usually consists of a verb and a preposition, that together have a special meaning. For example, put off means to postpone. Sometimes a phrasal verb may consist of three parts. E.g., put up with means to tolerate. Note: Some phrasal verbs can be also be considered idioms (like put up with) when the meaning of the individual words is different from the meaning of the sum of its parts. You can find more phrasal verbs at

The English Club

Terminology:  the technical vocabulary of a particular area

Terminology or jargon are words used to identify the technical vocabulary of a particular area or subject. For example, stethoscope, and blood pressure cuff, are terms used in the field of medicine. Word Games and Crossword Puzzles In addition to teaching your students strategies for dealing with learning new vocabulary, provide your students with vocabulary games and puzzles so they can practice.

ESL Galaxy.com  (word games for lower-level learners) “Our crosswords are ready-made, easy-to-use, printable worksheets.You will need the free Acrobat Reader to view these files.”

Linguapess for crosswords and other games  (word games for intermediate-advanced levels)“These thematic graded crosswords and other puzzles have been designed for students of English as a foreign or second language, at advanced and intermediate levels. They are particularly aimed at students in the final years of high school or in further education (years 8 to 12 – sixth forms or adult learners) “

Vocabulary Activities

Burying The Mascot  Hatchet – By David Epstein

Level: High-intermediate.

Materials: Handouts: Strategies for guessing the meaning of words in context, the article Burying The Mascot  Hatchet by David Epstein, and the handout of sentences with vocabulary words (below).

Objective: Students will practice using the strategy of guessing meanings from context.

Procedure: Place students in groups, and review the strategy handout with them. Next, give them copies of the reading Burying The Mascot  Hatchet by David Epstein,  and allow them time to scan the article.  Then give  students the handout with the words in bold print. Review the directions with them. Students will need a dictionary for this exercise to help them with some of the meanings. After, review the word meanings as a class. Students can finish any remaining work for homework.

Article Excerpt:

“The National Collegiate Athletic Association last week banned the use of Native American team names and mascots in postseason play, upsetting the 18 colleges that use the symbols, and leaving fans at many of those institutions saying that it would be terrible to change. In fact, many colleges (see list at bottom of article) have changed their mascots and symbols away from Native American imagery, and officials at these colleges report that while a few alumni never get over it, most people are happy with the change, and alumni pride has not suffered.

Stanford University, home to one of the most successful athletic programs in the country, changed from Indians to Cardinal (the color, not the bird) in 1972. The move came after a small group of Native American students and staff members appealed to the administration… “It’s ridiculous,” said Winona Simms, director of Stanford’s Native American Cultural Center, of Governor Bush’s claim. Simms, who is a Muscogee/Yuchi Native American, said that the music and dances portrayed in half-time shows are distorted depictions of culture. “Watching mascots dance to the tom-tom is sort of degrading,” she said. “The drum is a significant part of Native American culture, the heartbeat of the people. [The mascot’s drumming] is not a heartbeat, it’s a jangle, increasingly frantic.”

In 1991, Eastern Michigan University changed from the Hurons to the Eagles,  mid-basketball season, in a year that the team made the NCAA tournament. Some alumni — notably the Huron Restoration Alumni Chapter — have never gotten over the change. “There’s a group of hardcore people that have stayed away,” said Jim Streeter, director of sports information. “But, in general, I think time has kind of healed most of the wounds. There’s probably a group of several hundred that have not come back to games or anything.” Read more…

 Sentences: (answers at the end of this activity)
  1. In fact, many colleges (see list at bottom of article) have changed their mascots.
  2. The move came after a small group of Native American students and staff members appealed to the administration.
  3. Simms, who is a Muscogee/Yuchi Native American, said that the music and dances portrayed in half-time shows are distorted depictions of culture.
  4. “The drum is a significant part of Native American culture, the heartbeat of the people.”
  5. Some alumni — notably the Huron Restoration Alumni Chapter — have never gotten over the change.
  6. “There’s a group of hardcore people that have stayed away,” said Jim Streeter, director of sports information.

Source: Inside Higher Education-(2005).

Harvard, Hip-Hop, and the Amazing Bryonn Bain- By Colleen Walsh

Level: High-intermediate.

Materials: Handouts: Strategies for guessing the meaning of words in context, the article Harvard, Hip-Hop, and the Amazing Bryonn Bain by Colleen Walsh, Harvard University Gazette, and the handout of sentences with vocabulary words (below).

Objective: Students will practice using the strategy of guessing meanings from context.

Procedure: Place students in groups, and review the strategy handout with them. Next, give them copies of the reading Harvard, Hip-Hop, and the Amazing Bryonn Bain by Colleen Walsh,  and allow them time to scan the article.  Then give  students the handout with the words in bold print. Review the directions with them. Students will need a dictionary for this exercise to help them with some of the meanings. After, review the word meanings as a class. Students can finish any remaining work for homework.

Article Excerpt:

“Harvard University is continually striving to find new ideas to attract theri students. The most recent is the addition of the course “Hip Hop and Spoken Word: Theater Performance Laboratory” taught by visiting lecturer Bryonn Bain, an activist, rapper, poet, and musician. Bain graduated from Harvard Law School (HLS) in 2001, and is thrilled to have the opportunity to teach “his passion”. Some students were seasoned veterans. Some were newbies, with jitters. Some had committed their work to memory; others had jotted their thoughts on paper that trembled slightly in their hands…Bain is no stranger to campus, having graduated from Harvard Law School (HLS) in 2001. He’s also no stranger to using spoken word to make a point. In 1999, he was arrested and briefly detained for a crime he didn’t commit, an experience he drew heavily on to create Lyrics from Lockdown…Taking to the stage first, Bain performed an excerpt from the show, a rush of song, poetry, and prose.” Read more… 

Sentences: (answers at the end of this activity)

1. Some students were seasoned veterans.

2. Bryonn Bain, an activist, rapper, poet, and musician.

3. Taking to the stage first, Bain performed…a rush of song, poetry, and prose.

4. He has brought his message and his one-man show to high schools, colleges, and correctional facilities.

5. It’s important to create a space to nurture those voices…

6. …give them an opportunity to talk about the issues… in a language that resonates with them.

Source:Voice packed with passionBy Colleen Walsh, Harvard University Gazette

Answer Key

Burying The Mascot  Hatchet – By David Epstein

  1. mascots mascot |ˈmasˌkät, -kət|-noun-a person or thing that is supposed to bring good luck or that is used to symbolize a particular event or organization: the squadron’s mascot was a young lion cub.
  2. appealed appeal |əˈpēl|-verb [ no obj. ]-make a serious or urgent request, typically to the public: police are appealing for information about the incident | she appealed toGermany for political asylum.
  3. portrayed portray |pôrˈtrā|-verb [ with obj. ]-depict (someone or something) in a work of art or literature: the author wanted to portray a new type of hero.
  4. distorted distorted |disˈtôrtid|-adjective-giving a misleading or false account or impression; misrepresented: his report gives a distorted view of the meeting.
  5. significant significant |sigˈnifikənt|-adjective-sufficiently great or important to be worthy of attention; noteworthy: a significant increase in sales.
  6. alumni alumnus |əˈləmnəs|-noun ( pl. alumni |-nī, -nē| )-a graduate or former student, esp. male, of a particular school, college, or university: a Harvard alumnus.
  7. hardcore hard core |ˈhɑrd ˈˌkɔ(ə)r|-noun-the most active, committed, or doctrinaire members of a group or movement: there is always a hard core of trusty stalwarts | [ as modifier ] : a hard core following.

 Harvard, Hip-Hop, and the Amazing Bryonn Bain- By Colleen Walsh

  1. seasoned |ˈsēzənd|-adjective-3 accustomed to particular conditions; experienced: she is a seasoned traveler.
  2. activist- noun-a human-rights activist: militant, zealot, protester; radical, extremist. -The policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.
  3. prose |prōz|- noun-1 written or spoken language in its ordinary form, without metrical structure: a short story in prose | [ as modifier ] : a prose passage.
  4. correctional |kəˈrekSHənl|-adjective-of or relating to the punishment of criminals in a way intended to rectify their behavior: a correctional institution.
  5. nurture |ˈnərCHər|-verb [ with obj. ]-care for and encourage the growth or development of: Jarrett was nurtured by his parents in a close-knit family.
  6. resonate |ˈreznˌāt|-verb [ no obj. ]-• evoke or suggest images, memories, and emotions: the words resonate with so many different meanings.

 Additional Vocabulary Activities and Lesson Plans

Vocabualry For Young Learners“If you’re looking to build a structured vocabulary lesson plan, Vocabulary.co.il is the place for you! Vocabulary is Fun has the resources you need to construct challenging and beneficial vocabulary lesson plans.”