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March 1, 2018

Vocabulary Activities for English Language Learners

“Teaching vocabulary to English language learners (ELLs) is essential to developing learners who are skilled communicators of the target language,” according to Lisa Cox, an instructional designer at Advancement Courses. “Without vocabulary, communication often stops when the learner does not know a vocabulary word or does not possess the words necessary to explain or describe this unknown word.”

Vocabulary is also necessary for preparing ELLs for academic tasks. “A strong vocabulary is critical for learners to express their ideas coherently in speaking and writing,” Cox said. She added that ELLs are less productive at guessing words from context, and they benefit from multiple vocabulary learning strategies. The Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy found that “direct instruction in vocabulary influences comprehension more than any other factor,” and the publication advised teachers to integrate oral games with content vocabulary.

Word meanings make up as much as 70 to 80 percent of comprehension. 

The following section explores effective vocabulary activities for ELLs.

Vocabulary Activities

By utilizing a variety of vocabulary learning strategies in an exciting, immersive format, teachers can engage ELLs and help them achieve their vocabulary goals.

Hot Seat (Taboo)

Divide the class into two teams, having each team sit on separate sides of the classroom. Place two chairs at the front of the room, with the back of the chair pointed toward the blackboard/whiteboard. Write a word, phrase, or sentence on the board, while one member of each team is sitting in that team’s chair (without looking at the board). When you yell “Go!” each team will have one minute to get their seated teammate to say what’s written on the board. They can only use verbal clues and they can’t say (in part or in full) the answer. The first team to guess correctly earns a point, and the teams rotate who’s sitting in the chairs. The first team to score a certain number of points wins the game. A quieter variation is to have one team guess as many answers in one minute, then let the other team have a turn.


Create two teams and have a person from the first team come up to the blackboard/whiteboard. The student will then draw a card (from PictionaryJunior Pictionary or you can have the opposing team write down words based on previous lessons) using only drawings. No words, symbols, or hand gestures can be used. Limit the time to three minutes, and the first team to 10 points wins.

Word Bingo

Make bingo sheets with a 4-by-4 grid and add words to each square. Hand out unique sheets and have students mark the correct word when called. The first person to finish marking his or her page wins. Picture Bingo, Synonym Bingo, and Antonym Bingo are a few variations of this game.


In this game, similar to the Scattergories board game, students draw six columns on their papers and write a category for each column (such as furniture, food, names, verbs, etc.). Choose a random letter and write it on the blackboard/whiteboard. Students have a certain amount of time to write a word for each category that starts with that letter.


The class breaks up into small groups, and each group receives a set of cards that are spread out face-down on a table. Sets are made up of word cards and definition/picture cards. Students pick up a card, turn it over, and try to match it to its corresponding card. If it’s not a match, the cards are turned back face-down, and it’s the next students’ turn. If a match is made, the student keeps his or her turn and tries for another match. When all of the cards have been matched, the winner is the player who has matched the most cards.

Exploring Vocabulary Teaching Strategies for ELLs

Teaching ELLs vocabulary requires a great deal of care and planning. “To teach L2 [second language] vocabulary effectively, instructors should examine existing curricula to determine if (a) vocabulary is sufficiently covered, and (b) the instructional strategies employed are appropriate for ELLs,” Cox said. “For instance, most language textbooks, in particular, L2 textbooks, focus on and are arranged according to grammatical points — any specific vocabulary instruction is rare.”

Textbooks present vocabulary information to ELLs in a confusing way, by presenting it in semantic sets. “Employing the same strategies to teach L2 vocabulary as L1 [first language] vocabulary is a disservice to your English language learners,” Cox added.


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