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Ideas to support Vocabulary learning

Vocabulary learning

The thoughts in this section come from a presentation by Sheena Cameron and Louise Dempsey at the recent NZLA conference in Wellington entitled Practical Ideas to Embed Vocabulary Learning in your Classroom Programme.

I think that as ESOL teachers most of us know the importance of vocabulary learning so I will not cover the background to their presentation but rather focus on the activities they suggested. If you are unsure on the research on this topic then the ELLP Introduction Booklet is a great starting point pages 39-46. Paul Nations Victoria University website pages are also helpful with links to a variety of word level lists, vocabulary tests and resources.

Sheena and Louise focused on teaching vocabulary to the whole class rather than for ELLs therefore they were particularly focused on the teaching of high utility words that are useful long term across many subjects (commonly termed tier 2 words) as opposed to high frequency words (tier 1 words, which also need to be taught to ELLs) or tier 3 low frequency, subject specific, words.

Tier 2 words tend to be high use academic words that cross all subject areas e.g. specify, attribute, manipulate or words that are part of rich conversation such as arbitrary, fortunate, obvious which are not used so often in speech.

They advocated planned word teaching rather than incidental word learning. Teachers should explicitly pre-teach words in content areas across the curriculum. The steps are to read, say, define and use the word but as much as possible this should be done by the students rather than the teacher just talking.  

Teachers should:

  • Encourage wide reading at an independent reading level
  • Raise word consciousness to develop a love of learning and an interest in vocabulary
  • Explicitly teach word meanings in understandable language
  • Teach a range of word learning strategies e.g. prefixes, suffixes, parts of words etc embedding this across the curriculum.  See Learning Through Talk: Oral Language in Years 1–3, and 4-8.

Incidental teaching of word meanings

When a word comes up incidentally when teaching teachers need to ask whether a word is worth spending time on? If yes then teach the same as planned words. If not, then just provide a quick explanation. You could do this by popping it onto the white board, in a chart, or in a book then ask students in pairs to discuss what it means, or by adding the word to an alternate list of words e.g. for “said” or “good” etc.

Ideas for creating word consciousness

We can only explicitly teach about 400 words per year.

  • V for Vocabulary: Get students to make a sign a “v” with their hands when a word appeals to them when reading or when they find the target word, or find/hear the target word.  Alternatively this could be a physical sign.
  • Target word: When students hear the target word while the teacher is reading get them to snap their fingers /raise their hand etc.

Practical Word Ideas

  • Adopt a word: Students adopt a word for a period of time e.g. 2 weeks. Give a list of suitable words to the students from which they choose which word to adopt. They then complete a series of activities around their chosen word e.g.
    •  word as an image (note edit the video before using with students) then do a word walk to share your drawing of the word;
    • Sell your word to someone else by advertising it,
    • Play word games e.g. how many words you can make from the letters or other games see wordplays.com for ideas.
    • Tweet the meaning of your adopted word using 140 characters or less,
    • Act out the meaning of your word for other students to guess.
    • Do a short presentation to introduce your word to the class
    • Create word maps and share them.
  • Word Jar: Put each word in a container and student’s take turns to pull out a word and act out it’s meaning for the others to guess which word you are acting.
  • Word Walls: add words to a class word wall
  • A sorting box filled with words: Students can group words that belong together, sound the same or different etc.
  • Feely bag: feel the object in the bag and write words to describe it.
  • Wow words:  the teacher can stamp/highlight words when a student uses a good word in story writing
  • Guided Reading pre reading vocabulary charts: The teacher should pre-read the text and select which words are important to teach. Then put them into a chart for the students to complete prior to reading the text.  


I think it means ….

New Ideas from a partner

















  • Using a picture or a video clip to teach a planned word: Provide a picture or video clip and ask students to complete these sentences after viewing it. I saw …. ; I heard …; I felt … and I wondered …. Asking them to see if they can include a certain word in their writing. Reward your students when they use the word.

For other ideas see the esolonline pedagogy, vocabulary strategies section.  

If you have other great vocabulary learning ideas and strategies I am sure the community would love to hear about them. I welcome your ideas just send them to primaryesol@lists.tki.org.nz

Professional Development Opportunities

I have learnt about a couple of online PD opportunities coming up shortly that you may want to take advantage of:

             You will find many more on his website http://www.teachertrainingvideos.com/ .