Teaching Vocabulary

Making new words memorable

Teaching vocabulary is a vital part of any English language course. Many teachers are concerned about how to teach vocabulary. New words have to be introduced in such a way as to capture the students’ attention and place the words in their memories.

Students need to be aware of techniques for memorising large amounts of new vocabulary in order to progress in their language learning.


English vocabulary learning can often be seen as a laborious process of memorising lists of unrelated terms. However, there are many other much more successful and interesting ways to learn and teach vocabulary in the EFL classroom.

How to teach vocabulary to EFL students

If English vocabulary is taught in an uninteresting way such as by drilling, simple repetition and learning lists, then the words are likely to be forgotten.

Teachers need to teach vocabulary so that the words are learned in a memorable way, in order for them to stick in the long-term memory of the student.

Please see the Practice, presentation and production teaching method and the lesson plan suggestions for lesson and activity ideas.

how to teach vocabulary

Teaching Active and Passive Vocabulary 

When thinking about how to teach vocabulary, it is important to remember that learners need to have both active and passive vocabulary knowledge.

That is, students must vocabulary should consist of English words the learners will be expected to use themselves in original sentences, and those they will merely have to recognise when they hear them or see them written down by others.

Teaching passive vocabulary is important for comprehension – the issue of understanding another speaker needs the listener to have passive vocabulary, that is, enough knowledge of words used by others to comprehend their meaning. This is also called receptive knowledge of English.


Teaching active vocabulary is important for an advanced student in terms of their own creativity. This is because in order to create their own sentences, students need active vocabulary.

Active vocabulary contains the words a student can understand and manipulate in order to use for their own personal expression. This is called productive knowledge of English.

Methods for Teaching Vocabulary

Word cards and Word association

Teachers can use devices for vocabulary teaching such as simple flash-cards or word-cards. The teacher writes the English language word on one side of the card and a sentence containing the word, its definition, its synonyms and pronunciation on the other. Word cards can be an excellent memory aid.

This is also a handy way for students to carry their new vocabulary around with them to look at whenever they have the opportunity.

Another successful method of teaching vocabulary is the word association technique. If words are stored individually, they are more difficult to remember as they have no context.

But if the words are stored together in commonly used phrases and sentences, they are more readily absorbed. Putting words with collocational partners in this way helps the students to relate connected words together.

Visual techniques

Teaching vocabulary can become easier with the use of cards with pictures, diagrams and liberal colour coding for grammatical clarity.

In this way, words are remembered by their colour or position on a page or their association with other words, pictures or phrases. Images can link to words; words can also be linked to other words, for example, a student might link the word ‘car’ with ‘garage’ and with ‘mechanic’.

This idea of engaging the other senses can also help with developing a kind of semantic map where words are listed which relate to each other, which creates a situation where one word reminds the student of another.


When teaching new vocabulary, the method of delivery needs to be fresh and interesting for the students or else they will not remember the words.

Ways in which to liven up the introduction of new English vocabulary could include brainstorming around an existing word in the students’ vocabulary knowledge.

This key word should be written up in the middle of the board and the new vocabulary relating to it can be written around it. Use colourful pens if writing on a whiteboard to emphasise different word types.

How to teach vocabulary by brain storming

Matching columns

Once the new vocabulary has been taught, a useful way to test if students have understood the meanings of this new vocabulary is to ask them to match new words from one column with definitions from another column.

Testing comprehension is vital before moving onto new vocabulary. The new words are numbered in column one, and the definitions are mixed up and lettered in column two. Students can also make up sentences using this technique, matching the beginning of the sentence or phrase from column 1 with the end of the sentence or phrase from column 2.

What is it to know a word?

Teachers need to ask what is it to know a word? There is more to teaching a word than simply translating it or even using it in a sentence as an example.

Knowing a word means knowing not only the meaning, but knowing the contexts in which that word is used, the words which are related to it and where to use the word. It also requires knowing hidden implications that could be connected with the word.



Alongside chunks of language and fixed phrases and expressions, teachers should include in their vocabulary lessons these kinds of idioms of the English language.

Idioms are common features of every day language and are an important part of advanced language use and a major step towards fluency.

Idioms can be introduced to the ESL classroom through authentic reading materials such as informal text from magazines, low-brow newspapers, letters, comic strips, pop songs, dialogue from radio or television, popular films and soaps.


Grammatical collocations are when a noun, verb or adjective occur (usually) alongside a preposition. For example: ‘on purpose’, ‘by accident’, ‘in case’.

Lexical collocations are made up of combinations of lexical items such as nouns, adjectives, adverbs and verbs. Examples of lexical collocations are: dripping tap, hopelessly addicted, cook dinner, happy birthday, great expectations.

teaching vocabulary - lexical phrases - hopelessly addicted

Lexical phrases are good for teachers to include in lessons as another way of improving the natural sound of the students in speaking the language.

Phrases such as ‘thanks very much’, ‘don’t mention it’, ‘have a nice day’, ‘sorry about that’, are all useful in conversation.

More idiomatic phrases such as ‘practise makes perfect’, ‘it’s a high mountain to climb’, ‘it glides like a knife through butter’ are good for fluency and understanding commonly used similes.

In addition there are lots of idiomatic and phrasal verb collocations such as:

  • putting something or someone off
  • coming down with a cold
  • giving up on something
  • giving in to something
  • feeling under the weather
  • striking up a conversation
  • bumping into someone
  • getting out of something
  • butting in on a conversation
  • giving in to something or someone
  • In telephone calls, we talk about ‘being put through’ and ‘cutting someone off’
  • Sometimes single words in English have different meanings, for example, the words ‘drive’, ‘pool’, ‘stroke’, ‘bottom’, ‘fence’, ‘catch’, ‘strike’, ‘match’.

Prefixes and suffixes

Prefixes can make a word negative, for example, adding ‘un-’, ‘a-‘ or ‘dis-’. These inflections are vital for students’ understanding of words and can increase their vocabulary substantially simply by inflecting words they already know.

Suffixes work in this same vocabulary enhancing way, by adding endings such as ‘ing’, ‘less’ and ‘ly’.

Teaching the prefixes and suffixes appropriate to new vocabulary can help students to guess what a new word might mean by reference to words they already know. In this way, prefixes and suffixes can help to introduce many new words easily.

For example, knowledge of the word ‘friend’ can help a student to guess the meanings of the words ‘friendly’, ‘friendship’, ‘unfriendly’ or ‘friendless’.

Teaching students the common prefixes and suffixes of the English language can help students to increase their vocabulary greatly by recognising these other derived words.

prefix, root and suffix

Connotations and Appropriateness

Teaching vocabulary involves teaching the connotations of a word and its appropriate usage. The connotations of a word are the feelings it strikes up such as positive or negative feelings, and more specific ones for certain words.

Related to this area of connotation is appropriateness, such as whether or not a certain English phrase is acceptable in polite conversation with a stranger, or if it would be a faux pas or even taboo, if a word is rare or old fashioned, if it is a funny word, or more commonly used in written text, formal or informal or only used in a certain dialect.

These issues are important in vocabulary teaching in order for the student to feel confident using the new vocabulary in new or challenging situations.

Old fashioned langauge - Ye old pork pie shop

Polysemy and Homonemy

When teaching vocabulary, there are subtle differences between similar English words that needs to be communicated to the students in order to avoid causing confusion.

Teaching polysemy enables the student to distinguish between the different meanings of a word with closely related meanings; teaching homonymy distinguishes between the different meanings of a word with distinct meanings.

Read more about homonyms in our English phonology section. Remember also to consider rhythm and intonation in English, both of which can make a huge difference to meaning or nuance and can be difficult for students to master.

Check out the the language guide, in particular the orthography, phonology and vocabulary sections, for more discussion on these kinds of confusing words.


Register is the relationship between the content of a message, the receiver, and how the message is communicated. Knowledge of these things helps students to distinguish between levels of formality and the effects of certain topics on the listener.

Explore more about register, form and genre in the English orthography section.

Practice, Presentation and Production

The Practice, Presentation and Production teaching method is a popular and effective way in which to teach new vocabulary. Browse the site for more information on all areas of English language teaching, including this popular PPP technique.

Do you have any more tips on how to teach vocabulary to EFL students? Share your ideas in the comments.


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