Teaching ESL Vocabulary - 5 Stages to Success

By Shannon Tani

This can be a daunting task even for the most accomplished of teachers. Young and old students alike can be uncomfortable and shy when dealing with vocabulary words they do not know.

I've found that most students will go through five different stages when learning ESL vocabulary. When you are able to recognize which stage of learning your students are in, you can adapt your lessons to meet your students' needs. Some activities and games work best when students are in the first stage, while others require a much more advanced level of comfort with the words.

It's not hard to determine the level that your students are at, but you do need to know what you are looking for.

The 5 Stages
  1. Repeat the teacher.
    At this stage, students are completely unfamiliar with the vocabulary. They will feel most comfortable working in a group situation. You should use your flashcards, say the word and have them repeat it. It's best to use a 1-1-3 pattern when teaching new ESL vocabulary. To do this, say the word once and have the students repeat. Say the word once again and have the students repeat. Then say the word three times quickly and have them repeat the word three times quickly. This fast repetition causes them to think less about the pronunciation and gives them a more native pronunciation.
  2. Recognize the word.
    At this stage, students can associate the word with the picture on the flashcard, but are not yet confident enough to say the word on their own. You can lay out all the flashcards and ask a student to touch a particular card. Usually they can successfully do this.
  3. Speak alone, with prompting.
    At this stage, students feel confident enough to say the word on their own, but may still be afraid that they will say the wrong word. This can be resolved by the teacher prompting them with the right word to say. Then they will feel confident enough to repeat it.
  4. Speak alone, without prompting.
    At this stage, students feel confident that they know the vocabulary word and can say the word out loud without prompting from the teacher.
  5. Use the word in a sentence.
    At this stage, students know the vocabulary and can start to use the words in simple sentences (e.g. "It's a..." or "I like...").

When teaching ESL vocabulary, you should realize that these stages are a natural progression for students. Some students may stay longer at one level than others, especially if they are shy or if they are learning English for the first time. Just remember...it's not a race. Eventually all of your students will be able to speak in full sentences.

Shannon Tani has many years of experience teaching ESL preschool in Japan. She writes and maintains Teach ESL to Kids which is a resource helping ESL teachers of (very) young learners.

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