Teaching academic vocabulary can intimidate new adult ESL teachers. Maybe you don’t know how to teach academic vocabulary. You need ideas, strategies, and resources, and if you are lucky, all that is provided to you in abundance. However, if you are reading this, that’s probably not the case for you. Luckily for you (though not for me), I’ve been there. I can help. But first, would adult ESL students even need to study academic vocabulary?
Why should we teach academic vocabulary?
University-bound international students must pass a rigorous exam to prove their English competency to gain entrance to the university of their choice. High school students might also need to pass university entrance exams, though the pandemic has certainly changed things.
Having a firm grasp of academic vocabulary is important for students to do well on each section of these exams, but it’s not just about tests. They’ll need academic vocabulary in university classes as well.
But, perhaps you don’t teach academic vocabulary in an Intensive English Program. Maybe you are teaching refugees in a newcomer center or working-class adults in a community center. Do they still need academic vocabulary? Possibly!
Adults most certainly can reach a stage in their lives where they are content and don’t want to push themselves to achieve more. I envy that and hope I’ll attain it someday.
Is that where your students are? Likely not. If they were satisfied where they are in life and had no drive to go further, well, then they wouldn’t be taking your class, right?
Maybe they need a little convincing, though? My favorite way to win over the naysayers is to show them two pictures, one of a person wearing the kind of clothes you see the average person wearing while out running errands or just hanging out and the other of a person in a “power” suit.
I then ask, “Who do you think is more successful in life? Who can attain what they want? Who likely has more respect?” I then point out that the vocabulary they use is like the clothes they wear—people make assumptions and judgments about people based on their communication skills, on how effectively they can convey the message they want to be heard.
So, let’s teach academic vocabulary! But, what should we do first?
Build that initial background!
Why worry about building background? Well, how often have you spent a lot of time planning a lesson and making/gathering materials only to discover that your students already know the material? While a part of you is thrilled to have a class that is already a bit ahead, you can also feel a bit bummed out because you were looking forward to wowing them all with your lesson!
Building background before you teach academic vocabulary accomplishes several goals at the same time: it allows you to see whether or not proceeding with the planned lesson is useful, but more importantly, it gives your students a chance to show off what they already know, work together to negotiate meaning, and implement test-taking strategies while working out definitions and parts of speech. This also reduces teacher talk and gives your students, especially ESL students, much-needed opportunities to practice their target language.
Create your own!
If you already have a list of words you are required to teach your students, you can create your own worksheets. A page with the words listed and lines to write on is all you need. The first time you do this, you introduce your students to the target words. You may wish to go over the pronunciation of each with them or allow them to try it out while you circulate and correct it as necessary.
Students look at the words and decide what part of speech they are. This allows you to see what they know of using affixes. Take notes as you observe any affixes groups know/don’t know and have the groups pool their knowledge before moving on.
Now that they’ve had a chance to show what they know as individuals, put them together in groups, and have them determine the meaning of each vocabulary word. You may wish to first go over the correct/desired part of speech of each word with them to give them clues about the definitions. Remember that it’s not important that they get it right on their own. You can give them a handout with the words, parts of speech, and definitions later. Right now, they are learning to decipher meaning for themselves sans dictionary.
Dive into those definitions!
Now that you’ve helped them build their background knowledge, let’s dive deeper into the definitions. Sure, you can (and probably should) give them a handout that includes the definitions, but don’t just expect them to memorize it. When you teach academic vocabulary, you want to approach every part of it in various ways.
Match the definitions with a card activity
An easy activity for you to prepare and for them to do is a definition matching card activity. Worksheets are what most people, both teachers and students, are used to, but card activities are another way to teach academic vocabulary definitions. Somehow, the simple action of moving cards around on a desk or table wakes students up. It’s that little bit of difference from a worksheet, that little bit of required movement. It somehow opens them up to talking with a partner more than they might otherwise. Plus, no pencils are needed! The card activities can save you paper and ink because they can be used again and again, unlike worksheets.
Use Word, OpenOffice, or whatever you are comfortable with and create a table. In each cell, put a word or definition. Print as many sets as you need/want, cut them out, and you have an activity you can use again and again. In my academic vocabulary resources, I’m careful to include information on each card that specifies which list the words belong to. This makes it easy to stay organized so that you can use it again when you teach academic vocabulary to another class.
How to use a definition matching card activity
- Give each student/set of partners/small group a set of definition matching cards.
- Have students match the word to the definition.
- Encourage them to use any affixes as clues.
- When checking, either show them which ones are incorrect or, to make it more difficult, simply inform them that they don’t have them all correctly matched yet. You may opt to give them all the time they need or make it a race.
This can be used directly after any building background worksheets, as a review, or even as a fun quiz. You can let them check their own work with a handout you’ve created, or you can check it yourself if you want to subtly assess how they’re doing.
But what if you don’t have time for a card activity or need something you can send home with them?
Try a crossword puzzle to review those definitions!
I love crossword puzzles because they can be used as further reinforcement, a take-home assignment, a review, or even a quiz. For those who struggle with spelling, the built-in clues of a word having to fit in the provided boxes or being able to use the letters from words already filled in as spelling hints for another word make the activity less stressful than simply writing the word on a line next to a definition.
You can make your own crossword puzzles to go with whatever list of words you are required to teach.
Give a little definitions quiz!
Remember, assessments don’t have to be for a grade! They don’t even have to be for you. I provide a matching quiz in all my academic vocabulary resources because they allow students to see how well they remember the meaning of each vocabulary word with the support of having all the terms and definitions right there on the page. You can make one yourself from scratch, or you can use a matching worksheet generator.
Need something a bit more challenging? Give your students a chance to see how well they understand the words by writing definitions in their own words. Create a simple quiz by putting the words in random order and having them write definitions in their own words. Then have them pair up and compare their definitions.
Having them discuss their answers gives them the chance to defend their answers as well as question others. They might decide their partner has a better way to express it and change their own answer. You can either allow them to look at their definitions handout to check their own comprehension, go over them as a class, or collect them to check later.
Let’s talk about spelling!
It’s not all about what the words mean; spelling is important too! Don’t assume that your adult ESL students know strategies they can use to learn how to spell words. When you teach academic vocabulary, you should also teach strategies for learning it as well as provide scaffolded support.
Why focus on spelling?
If you have students from different language backgrounds, take a look at the script of their native languages. Many languages look very different from English. Think about how long it would take you to learn how to spell academic words in not just a foreign language but a foreign script. Now add to that switching even the direction that the language is written in (for example, Arabic is written right to left).
Spelling challenges many students, adults as well as children. Spell-checkers are a convenient tool, but they are not always available or accurate. When attention is paid to spelling, students begin to see patterns that also help them read and understand new vocabulary words.
Ways to provide support with spelling
Try scrambling the words.
Does scrambling the letters in the academic vocabulary words really qualify as a supportive technique? Yes! All my academic vocabulary resources include a word scramble worksheet, and if you teach academic vocabulary using your own lists, you can create one yourself.
Use an online generator like Random-ize to save some time. This type of worksheet is useful because it gives the students all the letters that they need to spell the words correctly. You may choose to read the words aloud so that they don’t have to figure out WHAT the word is before spelling it. Provide multiple lines for each scrambled word so that students write the words more than once. Repetition can be beneficial. Naturally, you only want them to write each word ONCE until you’ve checked to ensure it is correct.
While they are writing each checked word multiple times, encourage them to say each word before beginning to write it again, say each letter in turn as they write the word, and then repeat the word once they’ve finished. This sounds like standard practice to us, but you’d be surprised how many of your adult students simply do not know HOW to study spelling.
Giving them techniques for mastering spelling is necessary—but be sure to have them all share their own methods for learning how to spell a word. If you made your own worksheet, make your own answer key in advance so you can check their answers quickly, or so that you can just give it to them and let them check for themselves.
Can they pick it out of a lineup?
Could your students identify the correctly spelled word in a line of carefully misspelled words?
You may be wondering why I’m even mentioning this because it sounds like an activity for kids. Well, it also helps them with the same skills children are learning when they do this type of activity. This not only helps them to recognize good spelling patterns but also gives them editing practice. Remember, when you teach academic vocabulary, you’re not just teaching the terms. You’re teaching strategies for learning.
If you want to make a worksheet for this, don’t use an online word scrambler. It will jumble only letters of the word, and the result will not even look like a word. You want to carefully misspell the words. Spell them how they sound, use what you know of your students’ pronunciation difficulties like substituting b for p, and so on.
Yes, these days, almost everyone has access to a spell checker, but let’s face it: knowing the correct spelling of words not only enhances reading skills. It also makes writing a more efficient task. Rather than spending a lot of time in the editing phase, students could be writing quickly, capturing their ideas and thoughts before they’re lost. Students could be spending more time employing higher-level vocabulary because they’re confident that they can spell it correctly rather than using simplistic words out of convenience.
What about a spelling bee?
Spelling bees can be a lot of fun, but keep in mind that their traditionally oral nature can be challenging for students who need to visualize the word (especially those whose native language uses a different script). Sometimes you’ll find otherwise competent students struggling with the names of the letters!
I like to use mini-whiteboards. I call out a word, all students write the word, and when time is up, all reveal their answers. Incorrect answers are out; correct answers remain in.
Using a time limit rather than racing to be first is a suitable modification for students who struggle to write quickly. For example, a native Arabic speaker is using a foreign script while a native Spanish speaker may have been writing with a very similar script their whole life.
Let’s Talk About the Parts of Speech
Whether you teach academic vocabulary from a list you choose, that you are given, or from my line of academic vocabulary resources, include the parts of speech! Sure, you probably expected to cover whether the words are nouns, verbs, adjectives, or adverbs, but don’t stop there. Take it further by teaching other forms for each word.
What’s the point of adding the parts of speech?
Learning the different forms of words is one of the fastest ways to really increase your students’ vocabulary banks. If they learn a noun, also have them learn the verb form, the adjective form, and the adverb form (if applicable).
Just take it word by word or list by list, and they’ll not only know more words, but they’ll pick up on the meanings of the various affixes they come across and be able to apply that knowledge to other new words.
Feeling overwhelmed and not sure how to do this? Remember, two very basic ways to handle this are using a card activity and using a worksheet.
Get interactive with a card sorting activity.
By using a parts of speech matching card activity rather than a worksheet, your students can play with how they group the words. Manipulating cards also always seems to wake people up a lot more than a worksheet. Having students work together in pairs or small groups gives them a chance to talk about the words. However, a word of caution: this activity requires a good-sized flat surface to work on. If this is not possible in your classroom, consider using a worksheet instead.
Here’s how to make it.
Now, if you use the card activity I provide in all my academic vocabulary resources, you’ve got it easy. You only need to print and cut enough sets for however many groups of students you intend to have. If you are making this yourself from your own list of words, settle in for some time with online dictionaries. Again, use Word, OpenOffice, or the like to create a table.
Put each word in its own cell. Try to come up with at minimum a noun, verb, adjective, and adverb form for each of the academic vocabulary words. Multiple forms for each would be even better, but keep in mind that some words will not have all four forms. At the same time, create an answer key of four columns. Add your vocabulary words first, in alphabetical order. Then put the forms for each word together in the same row as the original vocabulary word. This will make checking their answers SO much easier.
To make checking easier when they are finished, have them lay out the parts of speech cards in this order: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs. Next, have them place the vocabulary words in alphabetical order in the correct columns. Finally, have them look carefully at any suffixes and place the remaining words in the correct columns.
Once they have finished and you’ve checked it, you can either allow them to take a picture of it with their phone or have them look at their cards to fill in a worksheet version. Presto! A reference sheet!
Save time with a worksheet version.
With worksheets, you save time in class, but if you create your own, you can still expect to spend a lot of quality time with dictionaries. You’ll still want to create an answer key as I described above for the card activity, but once you have created it, making the student version is easy. Simply delete all the words from the table, and voila! Worksheet done! This is what you can let them use once they have completed the card activity to record their answers or if you want them to have an open-ended challenging version.
Warning: This version is challenging for them AND you because no answer key you make is likely to include ALL the different parts of speech they might come up with, especially if they are using online dictionaries. That’s why when it comes to a worksheet, I prefer to include the support of a word bank at the bottom of the page.
You can make the word bank easily using your answer key. Just mix up all the words and put them in a box at the bottom of the page. Now students are limited to just those words, which makes checking their work easier and faster. Students draw from the word bank to fill in the blanks where possible. They don’t miss the words you want them to have, and they don’t spend lots of time trying to come up with the adverb form of a word when no such word exists, for example.
Let’s talk about vocabulary in context!
A list of words is just that–a list. Even when you add definitions, work on spelling, and include parts of speech, there is still more to do. Context is important, and you won’t get that with a list. When you teach academic vocabulary, you need to provide context for the words they are learning.
Adults need example sentences.
No one ever disputes the importance of example sentences for children. Well, just as including images to associate with words benefits adults and children, so does providing example sentences. Seeing how the words fit in sentences will make creating their own easier.
Before requiring students to create their own sentences, ensure that they have examined sentence models. You want to set them up for success, not frustration. Dissect the sentences together to consider negative/positive meanings and examine the sentences for any context clues. They should look within the sentences for definition hints, synonyms/antonyms, etc.
It’s already done for you if you are using any of my academic vocabulary resources, but if you teach academic vocabulary using materials you create yourself, you’ll want to write at least one example sentence for each vocabulary word. Embed context clues, synonyms, antonyms, or even short definitions to make the sentences more useful for your students.
Again, you can make a card activity, a worksheet, or both! Whichever you choose, you’ll use the sentences to point out to students how to use their grammar knowledge and context clues to match the correct word to each sentence. Remind them that they can use these skills to decode new words in the future.
Creating and using a sentence cloze card activity.
Again, use whatever word processing program you are comfortable with to create a table. In each cell, type a vocabulary word or a sentence with a gap where the vocabulary word should be. Print and cut out as many sets as you need for your students.
- Have students work in groups of 2-4 to sort the word cards by part of speech, using the suffixes for hints.
- Next, have students sort the sentence cards according to what part of speech each sentence requires to be complete.
- Remind them to account for the possibility that some words might need to be slightly altered to fit. (singular to plural, etc.)
- Finally, have them match the word cards to the sentence cards.
- If they finish faster than you planned, have them quiz each other on definitions, spelling, and create their own sentences orally.
Creating and using a sentence cloze worksheet.
If you are short on time or just want to mix it up a bit, make and use a worksheet version instead! Remember to create lined gaps that are large enough for students to easily write the entire word. If all the gaps are the same size, students can’t use the length of the word to help them guess the answer.
Have students think about what part of speech is needed for each blank and use any suffixes on the vocabulary words for hints. If your sentences use a different form, such as the plural form of a word that the students are learning as singular or the past form of a word they know the base form of, be sure to tell them they may have to adjust their vocabulary words to fill the gaps correctly.
Again, if they finish faster than you planned, have them quiz each other on definitions, spelling, and create their own sentences orally.
Tip from my students: They liked assigning each part of speech a color and highlighting each blank with the part of speech needed. Then they would consider negative/positive meanings, look for context clues, check for definition hints, etc.
Let’s Talk About Synonyms & Antonyms!
Just as having more than one way to express an idea is necessary, it’s also sometimes necessary to be able to express the opposite idea. It’s not always possible to just add a prefix like –un or –dis to get the opposite. Synonyms and antonyms are often used as context clues. Learning to recognize them is a good comprehension strategy. We teachers know this but remember to tell your students. When they understand WHY they are doing an activity, they are more likely to make connections elsewhere as well.
Isn’t adding synonyms and antonyms too much?
Yes, it might be, depending on your group of students. However, I’ve found that another great way to increase vocabulary banks is to have them learn a synonym and an antonym (where possible) for any new word that they are learning. They’re not learning a new definition. They’re just other words associated with the same general meaning.
Build that background.
As always, it’s a great idea first to see what the students already know. If you suspect that or just want to see if your students can already come up with viable synonyms and antonyms, run a simple check. Ask them to write one synonym and one antonym for each word. You can have them do this individually or with a partner. Remember that not all words will have a synonym/antonym. If the word list you are working with has one of those, you might want to tell your students exactly which word doesn’t or give them a vague hint like, “Two words have no synonyms.”
As always, I’ve got you covered with synonym and antonym materials in my academic vocabulary resources, but if you have the time and want to do it yourself or you are working with a list within your school’s curriculum, you can make your own.
Sites like thesaurus.com are going to be your hangout spot while you come up with word friends and enemies. You’ll want one of each for every academic vocabulary word (where possible).
Teach academic vocabulary with a synonyms & antonyms card activity.
By now, you know the drill and are probably already making that table and filling in the cells with synonyms and antonyms.
Something to consider when choosing which synonyms and which antonyms you want to use is the level of your students. Choose words they are more likely to know already if you want this activity to be strictly to help them associate their new vocabulary words with familiar words. Choose words they might not already know if you want them to increase their vocabulary even more. Choose words with helpful affixes if you’d like the focus to include using them as a strategy for figuring out the meaning.
I prefer to use card matching activities with my students because it encourages discussion, but sometimes time is of the essence, and a worksheet works out better. Sure, you only have to make sets of any of the card activities once, and then you can use them again and again. However, if you don’t have time to cut now, go with a worksheet instead.
Synonym & antonym worksheets
Just like with the parts of speech, providing a word bank at the bottom of the student page is something to consider if you have time constraints. When time is flexible, I love to use a version without a word bank to see which words my students will come up with or choose from dictionaries.
If you go for that, definitely create a possible answer key FIRST with all the synonyms and antonyms you can come up with for each word. This will decrease the chances of students using a word you aren’t familiar with (hey, it happens!) or initially can’t see how it could be a synonym or antonym.
A word of caution: it’s not always that easy for ESL students to use a thesaurus and come up with appropriate synonyms and antonyms. Having the support of a word bank is often the best option.
You can have your students do worksheets individually, with a partner, or with a small group. With adult ESL, I always looked for opportunities for them to talk to each other, so my students always worked with at least a partner.
Let’s talk about getting them to write their own sentences.
When you teach academic vocabulary and expect students to write sentences using those words, you’ll sometimes deal with students churning out simplistic sentences. Not much sells without advertising, right? Same concept. Get your students to buy into the importance of writing context-rich sentences by telling them why. Most learners will be much more willing to go all-in on something when they understand the purpose of the exercise. If they are writing sentences simply because it’s the assignment, they’re not getting anything out of it.
Depending on the level of the students, the sentences can be entirely separate from each other, all with the same general topic, or all linked together. For an extra challenge, have them write a short essay using all of the words.
Teach them to STRETCH.
When creating their own sentences, your students may want to use another form of the word. Please point out to them that if they are using another form because it’s easier (for example, to use the verb form rather than the noun form), it defeats the part of the purpose of this writing exercise. They need to stretch themselves, to try what they haven’t done before to grow. Once I explained this to my students, the majority would either use multiple forms or use whichever form they thought was the most difficult. Of course, how you handle this is up to you!
In my academic vocabulary resources, I include a page of challenges to help guide students out of simplistic sentences and into variety. Consider developing your own challenges to help your students stretch.
Try using vocabulary word maps!
If your students are into graphic organizers, they will appreciate these vocabulary word maps. Keep in mind that graphic organizers aren’t for everyone. Some will find this a tedious waste of time, and others will remember all the information better with these. If you’re not sure which type your students are, just ask them! If they’re not sure, let them try it out. If it’s just not for them, move on to something else. But if this turns out the be a helpful strategy for them, continue using word maps.
I include both a full-page and a mini version from my Vocabulary Word Maps resource in all my academic vocabulary resources. I got the mini-version idea from a student who had missed a lot of class and borrowed a blank page from a classmate. When she came back to class, she had a mini-version filled out for each word. This can be a great paper-saver!
Of course, you can also create your own quite easily. They can even be hand-drawn!
Get them talking!
Don’t forget to give your students a chance to use their newly-acquired vocabulary words in context! Develop a set of sentences to go with whatever topic/theme that matches the academic vocabulary words you will teach. Ensure that each question includes a form of at least one of the vocabulary words. Instruct your students to also include a form of that word in their answer.
Ready-made Academic Vocabulary Resources
Love all these ideas but don’t have the time (or desire) to create it all yourself? Take a look at the resources I created to teach academic vocabulary.
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