10 Tips for Activating New Vocabulary for English Learners

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Have you ever been in an English learning classroom and heard the same old vocabulary? Go, eat, buy, study, learn, speak, etc. or school, class, teacher, student, hamburger, etc. I'm often surprised at how students tend to repeat vocabulary over and over again. It seems like students just feel more comfortable using the tried and true. That's great for beginners and learning structure, but I often find that intermediate students get stuck in a rut when it comes to vocabulary.

Here are ten suggestions to help get students unstuck and activate new vocabulary they've learned by actually using it!

1. Help Students Become Aware of the Problem

In the effort to learn English, students sometimes miss out on the fact that they tend to use a limited range of vocabulary. This is especially true when learning grammar forms because focus on form tends to encourage students to seek comfort in the known. As a teacher, I often find myself using a limited range of vocabulary when explaining grammar concepts in order to ensure that students don't get distracted by new vocabulary. However, this can also lead students to also use a limited range. Point out that you're using a limited range in order to make understanding of grammar structures easier. 

2. Create a Target Word List

I enjoy coming up with a word list at the beginning of class as a target for usage. Start off by focusing on a part of speech.

Students will invariably come up with the same old examples. Place those into a "no-use" list, while putting more ambitious vocabulary into a "target" list. During the lesson, refer to your list, encouraging, prodding, and cajoling students to use words and phrases an the target list. 

3. Student Created Vocabulary Quizzes

Ask students to come up with their own vocabulary quizzes. I find the best approach is to provide students with a list of target words and phrases to use when developing their quizzes. There are many different types of quizzes you can try:

  • Gap Fill Quizzes - Ask students to write a sentence placing a gap for the new vocabulary.
  • Definition Quizzes - Ask students to write definitions which other students need to match to the target vocabulary
  • Word Puzzles - There's lots of free software online that students can use to create word puzzles with new vocabulary

4. Points for Vocabulary Game

Award points for using new vocabulary in conversation. Keep a running tally which will motivate students to use target vocabulary during the course of the lesson. If you can provide a small prize - a candy bar for example - you'll be surprised at how competitive students might become!

5. Use a Buzzer

My classroom is equipped with four lovely buzzers that make funny sounds. When students use a "no-use" target vocabulary item they get an ugly honk or boing. When they use a "target" list item a nice "ding". This helps to lighten the atmosphere and gives students motivation to use new vocabulary.

6. Yellow / Red Cards as Penalty 

Much like buzzers, using penalty cards in class for students who overuse certain vocabulary will help bring playful competition into the mix. 

7. Award Gold Stars 

Much like using a buzzer, awarding gold stars, stickers, etc. at the end of class for students who achieve certain vocabulary goals to provide extra incentive for students to use new target vocabulary.

8. Play Word Bingo

Fill bingo cards with target vocabulary and play a round of bingo. The first students to shout "bingo" must use each new vocabulary item in a sentence providing context to be declared a winner.

9. Use a Word Frequency Counter

On the other end of the spectrum, you can help students become aware of how often they use certain expressions by asking them to write a few paragraphs and load them into a word frequency counter online.

It will quickly become apparent which words are overused, as well as wether they are using target vocabulary in their writing tasks. 

10. Set Goals for Writing

Ask students to use target vocabulary items in written work. This technique can be used in combination with a word frequency counter to help students understand their own writing habits and move up to the next level in vocabulary usage.