How to Increase Vocabulary

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At the age of six, native English speakers already command a vocabulary of over 5,000 words, and the average adult speaker has over 70,000 words in his or her arsenal!

English language learners may be intimidated by what they feel is a very steep learning curve for the English vocabulary. But they don’t have to be intimidated!

Effective Vocabulary Teaching Strategies for English Learners

Teachers can use many strategies to help enrich their students’ English language vocabulary. Encouraging discussions, hammering the foundations, and ensuring participation by using engaging games are just some tools educators can use.

Talk, Talk, Talk

  • The best way to learn anything is to practice, and for learning languages, talking is the way to go!
  • Teachers should speak to the students in English as much as possible. Make use of cognates and use exaggerated hand gestures to convey meaning. Use rich, descriptive language for all instruction.
  • Schedule discussions about different topics and give students a list of key terms related to the topic before the discussions.
  • If you’re discussing the government ensure students have a good foundation of related vocabulary before you even begin.
  • Role play is another great way to encourage discussion in an English learning classroom. Pretend to be a grocer and have students act as shoppers. Pretend to be a patron as your student acts as a waiter.

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Build Strong Foundations

  • New words can make students feel overwhelmed, so give them strategies for breaking words down into smaller parts.
  • Teach the meanings of root words, and really hone in on prefixes and suffixes as they can completely change the meaning of different words.
  • So, if a student sees the word invalidate for the first time, they’ll know it means “not valid” because “in” means not and the root word is “valid.”

Reading is Key

  • Reading is one of the best ways to expand vocabulary for both native speakers and English language learners. Reading exposes students to new words and increases comprehension.
  • Keep books from different genres in the classroom and assign daily readings.
  • Encourage students to keep a dictionary nearby to look up new words and a journal to write down their definitions. Over time, students will be able to look back at their journals and see how much their vocabulary has expanded!

Spaced Repetition

  • The key to language fluency is to commit new vocabulary to long-term memory storage, and multiple studies have shown that spaced repetition is the best tool for long-term learning.
  • This means that students should be exposed to materials in a repeated, staggered fashion. If you introduced vegetable terms in January, make sure you continue using them in April, August, and November.
  • Encourage students to make their own flashcards, and teach them the Waterfall Method for studying. Put cards in hard, medium, and easy piles. Then put the hard cards on top and the easy at the bottom. This compels students to first focus on words they don’t understand.


Lastly, make learning fun! We all know that engaged students learn the best.

Use games like Charades, Taboo, or the ever-classic Hangman to force students to make connections between words and their meanings.  Not only will games make students think creatively, the competition will also motivate students to learn.

Your Turn Which of these strategies for teaching vocabulary will you use with your English language learners? Or do you have another strategy you use to help expand vocabulary?

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