Building Vocabulary Lesson Plans for ESL Students

Building vocabulary lesson plans for ESL students is not very difficult. It's simply a matter of finding words and building up your students' knowledge of them step by step, a few at a time.

Building Vocabulary Lesson Plans for ESL Students Building Vocabulary Lesson Plans for ESL Students
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How Many Words Should Be in a Lesson?

Research shows that most people can only retain a handful of new words at a time. If you want your students to learn - really learn - new vocabulary, you should limit your word list to 5-7 words per lesson. Try teaching five new words each day for the first couple of days each week. Then spend the rest of the week giving your students an opportunity to practice using them.

What Should Be Included in a Lesson?

In general, a lesson plan should include the presentation of new material, opportunities for practice, and the challenge of producing original language.

Building a vocabulary lesson plan for ESL students is no different.
First, you will present the new words and then you will give your students the opportunity to use and practice with the new words.

YourDictionary ESL experts have created a lesson plan template to use in preparing vocabulary lessons:


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Presenting New Words

Try to give your students as much information as possible about each word. Depending on the level you teach, you may want to give some or all of the following:

  • Definitions/synonyms
  • Antonyms
  • Parts of speech
  • Transitive/intransitive verb
  • Usually followed by...
  • Examples of usage
  • Word families (i.e. related words - compare, comparison, comparable, comparably)
  • Pronunciation

Vocabulary Lesson Plan Ideas

Looking for a little more help with lesson plans? Check out these two vocabulary lesson plans for ideas on teaching the information about a specific word list and some vocabulary activities to use the words:


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Note: There is something to be said for having students use context clues to determine the meanings of new words themselves, but it can also be problematic.

  • If students guess a word's meaning incorrectly, then later, after you've given them the correct meaning and sent them home, they may forget which meaning was correct. This happens because students go through a specific thought process to infer a word's meaning. It's a process that makes logical sense to them, and when something makes logical sense, it is very difficult to convince the brain that it's wrong.
  • Using context clues is a great reading skill, but if you're teaching vocabulary, it's best to focus on vocabulary and save the reading skills for another time.
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Practicing New Words

The next step is to give your students the opportunity to practice using their new words in a controlled activity. Possible activities include:

  • Fill-in-the-blank sentences
  • Definition/synonym matching
  • Antonym matching
  • Categorizing
  • Spelling tests/bees
  • Determining whether or not a word was used correctly in a sentence
  • Finding/replacing synonyms with new vocabulary words
  • Matching two phrases to make a coherent sentence
  • Answering multiple-choice questions that include new words (Q: Which two things are comparable? A. a Toyota and a Honda; B. a 3-D movie and a radio; C. your grandmother and Godzilla; D. grapes and motor oil)

Using New Words

Finally, challenge your students to come up with their own sentences using the new vocabulary from your lesson. You can:

  • Have each student write one sentence with one word, put all the sentences on the board, and edit them together.
  • Have students try to use all the new words in one, long, complex sentence.
  • Have groups of students write stories that incorporate all the words.
  • Give each student a slip of paper with one word on it, which they must figure out how to work into a conversation with another student. When they've used their word correctly, they take another slip of paper and try to work that word into the conversation. The student who correctly uses the most words in conversation wins.

Where Can I Find Words?

Now that you know exactly how building vocabulary lesson plans for ESL students works, you just have to choose some words.

YourDictionary has a great word list tool you can use to build and save word lists. Here's one we made based on a NY Times article about Instagram envy.

If you have access to computers and the Internet in your classroom, your students can find your word lists and use them to study words before reading.

There are tons of great books out there with word lists and activities already laid out. Wordly Wise (School Specialty) and Townsend Press's vocabulary series are two that have several books spanning a wide range of levels.

You can also pick out words ahead of time from anything you plan on having your students read. If you spend a few days teaching vocabulary before you read, the students will be able to better digest the reading.