5 Tips for Enriched Vocabulary Presentation

Even in integrated skills courses, we often have some kind of time dedicated expressly to vocabulary. Many of us approach it in a similar way: listing out words on the board, providing definitions and sample sentences for each. In this post I’ll present five easy ideas for enriching that board work and ensuring that this explicit vocabulary-focused time is as valuable as possible.

Activating Schema

Before presenting, some kind of warm-up is in order. I have two ways that I commonly do this. The first is to tell a story into which I incorporate several of the words I’m about to teach. As I tell it, I’ll ensure that students can understand the words from context, and I’ll place extra emphasis on them in the telling. Another warm-up option is to activate students’ schemata by having them tell you what they think or know or can guess about the words you’ve written. Have you heard any of these words before? Are they similar to any words you know? Do you see any roots or affixes that look familiar to you? How would you guess this one is pronounced?

Collocations and Usage

Collocation is essential to actually using new words. Ok, so they understand what sympathize means now, but if we stop there, you’ll end up with students making sentences like, “I really sympathize this movie.” Don’t just teach sympathize; teach sympathize with [person]. Get all that information right up there on the board. In your sample sentence, make these features more salient by marking them up or using color.


Prefixes, suffixes, roots, and etymology don’t need to be a one-off lesson all their own. Incorporate them in an ongoing way. Encourage students to identify the constituent parts of a word and guess at its meaning. Even if they are wrong, you’re building their familiarity and some genuine neural connections with that word. Even if a student incorrectly guesses that sympathy means “nice,” they now have a concrete memory of wagering that guess and being corrected. This is likely to help them remember down the line (as I discussed in my last post).

By learning not just the word but its constituent pieces, that knowledge goes a lot further and deeper. It forges meaningful connections with other words and helps them to predict the meaning of words they encounter in the future.

Don’t limit yourself to simply telling students the denotation a particular affix (re- means again; pre- means before). Encourage them to recognize the patterns and connections between suffixes and parts of speech: This word ends in –ate. What kind of word do you think it is? How do you think we can change it into a noun? Between affixes and pronunciation: Where do we usually find the stress in words that end with –tion?


The neglect of pronunciation has been (rightfully) bemoaned for at least the past decade, and this is one time you can easily address it. Incorporating pronunciation into your vocabulary presentation is not about choral drills; or, at least, it shouldn’t be limited to that. Draw word stress and write phonetic spellings into your board word. Ensure that these will be meaningful to students when they get home and practice on their own (that is, depending on students’ language background, a spelling that appears phonetic to you may not appear so to your students). When having students pronounce words, also practice the sample sentences or at least phrases, so that students can get some practice in connected speech.

Word Families

Make sure that you’re teaching not just a common root word or head word, but pointing students to the rest of the word family, thereby making the most of each new word. That is, don’t just teach synonym and move on to unrelated words. Once you’ve taught synonym, broken it apart and discussed its etymology and derivation, make sure you’re not missing out on antonym, homonym, and pseudonym (and, hey, if you’ve got time, allonym, aptonym, backronym, eponym, glossonym, holonym, netcronym, pertainym, and xenonym)

You might be thinking that a board laden with all this information sounds overwhelming. It can be, certainly. I tend to decrease the number of words I focus on now that I take this approach, or, if I’m working in a curriculum with a fixed set of words each unit, I’ll make sure to help students to prioritize: This word is really useful. That word is really rare; you probably don’t need it. I also make sure to use the full spectrum of markers that are at my disposal, establishing a sort of visual code that (I think) decreases the cognitive load on students.

About Robert Sheppard

Robert Sheppard
Over the past 10 years, Rob has explored a variety of roles and contexts in the field. These include the cram-school culture of Taiwan and Korea; IEPs in Boston focused on academic English; advanced conversation and TOEFL prep taught via Skype to students in Japan; and nonprofit, community English programs for immigrants to Greater Boston. He currently serves as sr. director of adult programs at Quincy Asian Resources, a member of the community advisory council at First Literacy, and a curriculum consultant at Boston Global Institute. He has a master’s degree in TESOL from The New School, and his areas of interest include adult ed, pronunciation and grammar instruction, curriculum development, and assessment.
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2 Responses to 5 Tips for Enriched Vocabulary Presentation

  1. Chris James says:

    Hi Robert,
    This is an excellent post with some great suggestions on vocabulary work. By keeping it to 5 steps you utilise the valuable time efficiently.

    I have been reading about the effectiveness of explicit metacognitive strategy training on vocabulary learning of EFL students. I have reading up on that while busy designing a multi-level vocabulary game in response to an inquiry question: How can we help our young EFL learners track their own English language progress so they can observe and reflect on their improvement in a clear, fun and meaningful way?

    That question hopefully gets answered with the game. Another question for game prep would be: how much time can I reasonable reserve for direct vocabulary instruction as a class or group? And, is teaching dictionary skills out of date now?

  2. Audrey says:

    Invaluable. Useful. Humorous. Timely.
    Thanks Rob!

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