Teaching Vocabulary:
Two Dozen Tips and Techniques

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Joseph Pettigrew
CELOP Boston University
890 Commonwealth Ave.
Boston, MA 02215

(617) 353-7838
fax: (617) 353-6195
jpettigr @ bu dot edu

Here is a downloadable version of this page in Adobe pdf format: Teaching Vocabulary

I. Oldies but goodies

1. Matching synonyms

2. Matching opposites

3. Fill in the blank sentences


II. Variations on the above

1. Choose all the possible answers

He ate lunch in the _____.

cafeteria / restaurant / snack / snack bar / salad bar / diner


2. Where would you find . . . ?


an MD _____

a Ph.D. _____

an MP _____

in. _____

hp _____

a) in the British or Canadian Parliament

b) on a ruler

c) on a engine

d) in a hospital

e) in a university

3. Compete the phrases

to achieve ____

to reveal ____

to grasp ____

a) a secret

b) an idea

c) a goal


4. Correct the mistakes

He felt exhausted after a long nap.

possible corrections: "refreshed" for "exhausted" or "running to school" for "a long nap"


5. Label a picture






6. Cross out the word that doesn't belong with the others in the group.

uncle / father / aunt / brother

EST / pm / PhD / BC

meadow / river / yard / field


7. Categories: You give the example; students give the category. Or vice versa.

gun, knife club: weapon

weapon: gun, knife, club


8. Complete the sentences.

I was exhausted after _________________________


III. Distinguishing shades of meaning & near synonyms


1. Analogies - good even at low levels

easy : hard :: cold : __________ (hot)

skyscraper : city :: tree : _____________ (forest)

warp : wood :: __________ : paint (peel)

shatter : glass :: ____________ stone (crumble)


2. Choose the two possible answers that can complete each sentence.

(Good source for incorrect answers: student errors)


She longed for . . .

(a) her freedom.

(b) her lover who was far away.

(c) some ketchup for her french fries. [only as a joke]


He pondered . . .

(a) his future

(b) that he didn't know what to do. [ungrammatical]

(c) the meaning of life.


4. Word domains (?)

e.g., general category: break, damage

He dented the . . . car's bumper / tree branch / glass of water

She splintered the . . . can / board / mirror

He shattered the . . . mirror / water / curtains

She shredded the . . . can / tree branch /curtains


5. Which word in each pair is stronger, more forceful, or more intense?

___ to surprise
___ to astound

___ to boil
___ to simmer

___ to toss
___ to throw

___ to hurl
___ to throw


6. Arrange the words on a scale

hot - warm - luke - warm - cool - cold

despise - hate - dislike


Scales are nice to do when possible, but they're not possible all that often. It's rare that words are encountered all together like this. More common - in pairs (known word + new word)


7. Which word in each pair is slang?

___ a kid / ___ a child

___ disgusting / ___ gross

___ to fail / ___ to flunk


8. Which word has a more positive connotation?
or Which word would be more polite when talking about a person?

___ thin / ___ skinny

___ fat / ___ overweight

___ frugal / ___ miserly


9. Complete the definitions. How are these actions performed?

thrust = to push _________________ (forcefully, hard)

shatter = to break _______________ (into many pieces)

tap = to hit _____________________ (lightly, softly)

IV. Things to do with the vocabulary in a reading passage

1. Guessing word meaning from context

But make sure it is really possible to guess the meaning from context.

If so, teach students techniques for guessing (see Part V). If not, try #2.


2. Give students the definitions; let them find the words.

e.g., find a word in paragraph 5 that means "angry"

A good way to deal with a difficult article without simply giving students the vocabulary.


3. Teach students when not to look up a word.

a) Can you get a general sense of the word? e.g., a person? something good/bad? a movement? a way of speaking?

b) Take a magic marker and block out all the words you don't know. Then read the passage and answer the comprehension questions.


4. Parts of speech

With a corpus of words you've already studied, give sentences that require a different part of speech. (Dictionary use)


5. Different meanings of familiar vocabulary

e.g. toll

(Driving on a highway) There's a toll bridge ahead. Do you have any quarters?

The highway death toll has declined sharply since police began to enforce the drunk driving laws more aggressively.

The bell in the old church tower tolled four o'clock.

V. Teaching students how to guess word meaning from context
Types of context clues:

1. Cause & effect: label the sentence C & E, then make a guess.

Because we lingered too long at the restaurant, we missed the beginning of the movie.

The door was ajar, so the dog got out of the house.


2. Opposite/contrast: underline the two words or phrases in contrast to one another, then make a guess.

Even though I studied for hours, I flunked the test.

My last apartment was really small, but my new one is quite spacious.


3. General sense: focus on S,V,O, actor & recipient of action. What type of word is it?

If it is a noun: a person, place, thing, abstract idea

If it is a verb: an action (e.g., movement?), or feeling/emotion, etc.

If it is an adjective: what is it describing? good or bad? size? color? shape? emotion?


Each summer thousands of tourists flock to the beaches of Cape Cod.

The father tossed the ball to his little boy.


4. Synonyms or paraphrases (found elsewhere in the sentence or paragraph)

Samuel was deaf, but he didn't let his handicap get in the way of his success.

Sally's flower garden included dozens of marigolds, which she tended with great care.


5. Examples in the text

The baboon, like other apes, is a very social animal.


6. Recognizing definitions: common in college textbooks, newspaper & magazine articles

Many children of normal intelligence have great difficulty learning how to read, write, or work with numbers. Often thought of as "underachievers," such children are said to have a learning disability, a disorder that interferes in some way with school achievement.

(from Reader's Choice Baudoin, et al., 1977, 1988 University of Michigan)

VII. Miscellaneous

1. Word sheets

A simple but effective way to review vocabulary from a given unit is to post a sheet of paper with the words under study and talk about them. You can practice pronunciation, conduct oral mini-quizzes, answer students' questions, etc.

For example: Which words have positive/negative connotations? Which words refer to people? Which words are verbs? What's the opposite of X? I'll give you a word; tell me what the opposite is in the list. What's a more polite way of saying X?


2. Look for words that mean . . .

When using a magazine or newspaper in the class, you can have students look for words in a certain category while they're doing other reading and scanning activities.

One issue of Time yielded the following:

words for go up: soar, rise, raise, increase, push up

words for go down: fall, plummet, sink, decrease

Other categories of words that might work: words that describe movement, travel; words related to crime; names of government positions (president, mayor, etc.)

In a work of fiction (or a profile of a famous person): adjectives that describe the main character, both physically & emotionally


VI. Fun & games


1. Act out/pantomime

Give students cards with instructions like the ones below. Have them perform the actions without speaking. The other students try to guess the word or expression the student is pantomiming.

Open the door fearfully.

Walk across the room cautiously.


2. Crossword Puzzles

Several software programs are available which allow you to make your own puzzles. Clues can be synonyms, opposites, fill-in-the-blank sentences, etc.


3. The Category Game ($25,000 Pyramid)

Divide the class into teams. One person from a team sits in front of the class. The rest of the team members are given a card with a category, for example: Things that are red. The team members take turns giving examples of the category until the person in the "hot seat" guesses or all the team members have given a clue. If the person in front cannot guess, the other team can confer and try to guess.

NOTE: The clues must be examples, not definitions. In the above example, ketchup, blood, and a stop sign are all acceptable clues. Color is not.

e.g., things that are yellow/expensive/fragile/made of glass/found on a farm

American authors/state capitals/things in a woman's purse/warm clothing


4. Password

Divide the class into two teams. One person from each team sits in a chair in front of the class. Those two people receive a card with a vocabulary word. The first person gives a one-word clue to his/her team. If no one from the team can guess, the second person gives a clue to his/her team. This alternates back and forth until someone from one of the teams guesses the word, or until a specified number of clues has been given.


5. Drawing pictures

This works well if you have an empty classroom nearby. Divide the class into two groups. Give each one a list of vocabulary words (idiomatic expressions also work well for this). The students draw pictures - but no words - on the board so that the students in the other group can guess the words or expressions they're trying to represent. This is a fun way to review some vocabulary and break up the class routine.


A note on keeping score

You can keep score in most of these games, but I've found things actually go more smoothly when you don't. No one disputes points, and students don't seem to mind that there's no clear "winner" or "loser."

Occasionally, a student will ask why I'm not keeping track of who won and lost. I usually tell him (it's never a 'her') that we're just learning how the game is played now, so I'm not going to bother this time. I never bother keeping score any subsequent times, either, but I've never been asked about it a second time.


VIII. Miscellaneous examples
1. A follow-up to a radio interview of a psychologist who discussed money and people's attitudes towards it.

Money Talks

Below are some words used to describe people and their attitudes towards money. Working with another student, put them into the proper category.

a miser / an / overspender / generous / cheap / a cheapskate / giving / tight / a tightwad / thrifty / frugal / a spendthrift / stingy

  saves money spends money

2. A follow-up to an article on health.

Match these medical terms with the parts of the body they involve.


_____ 1) to clot

_____ 2) asthma

_____ 3) a stroke

_____ 4) hemorrhaging

_____ 5) a migraine

_____ 6) leukemia

_____ 7) respiration



a) brain

b) lungs

c) blood