Five ways to teach vocabulary

Don’t teach your grandma to suck eggs


This an expression from a long time ago (possibly early 1700’s) which sounds a bit weird now (like who sucks eggs?!). It meant something like ‘don’t teach a crocodile to swim’. The meaning is fairly clear: ‘don’t be silly and teach someone what they know already’.




No one wants to be taught something they already know. As adults, we find this annoying, frustrating and condescending. As young learner teachers, it’s easy to go on autopilot (aka be lazy and offline) and start lessons by drilling new sentence structures and vocabulary. And what do we get in return? A loss of interest, and a student body who thinks we think they are a bit stupid, and because we think that, they become it. They lose the engagement that comes with the feeling of being understood, respected and challenged in learning.


As an alternative, here are five techniques to help you start from where your students are. They’re ordered from ‘easy’ to ‘difficult’.


1. Elicit what they already know.

A lot of class time gets wasted teaching words our students learned previously. Before you teach any new vocabulary, ask “What do you already know about this topic?” or “What animals/clothes/weather do you know in English?” Get a list of vocabulary on the board that students already know. Learners can teach these to each other, or draw their own flashcards to illustrate these concepts. You can then spend more time on the new words instead of words they already know. You can supplement this with the Train The Teacher VQL (Vocabulary Question List) designed for students to engage with and build fluency in vocabulary.

2. Add words.

After teaching (or eliciting) new vocabulary, ask students to add to the list. If you have a list of pets, ask students “Which pets are missing?” If it’s clothes, ask “What clothes are not on the list?” Students can draw or write in their L1. Afterwards, teach them how to say these new words in English. Again, you can ask students to create their own flashcards for these new words, and use these flashcards in games and activities later.

3. Collocate.

Crank up the challenge by adding some common collocations to words learners have learned before. So, rain -> heavy rain. Bear -> grizzly bear. Pizza -> margarita pizza. Lamp -> bedside lamp. Skirt -> mini skirt, etc. This will allow students to learn something new while you cover some ‘old’ words.


4. Does it match?

Lots of ideas from coursebooks are written for a global market. Winter is heavy snow. Autumn is falling leaves. Families live in houses. People eat burgers and pizza. But some places don’t correspond to these stereotypes. Ask your class, “What does ______ look like in our city?” If it’s food, “Do we eat _______ here?” Hobbies: “Do we ______ here?” Students can add to lists of vocabulary for things that make sense in their local setting.


5. Find the gaps.

Most teachers end their classes with a task. I like to start my classes with a task. If you’re teaching clothes, ask your class to describe someone else in class. Everyone else listens and guesses who they are describing. You’ll know the gaps when you hear “She’s wearing a, erm, eh, blue, eh, thing…” Teach the language the learners struggle with. If you’re teaching animals, ask learners about their pets; if it’s descriptions, ask them to talk about a friend. You’ll quickly learn what your students already know and what they don’t.


Educational psychologist David Ausbell once said, “The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly”. In short, you might help your grandma with using a new app, but don’t teach her to suck eggs 😊. For your students, know them well and watch them grow.

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