Great Idea: Building Vocabulary

What is building vocabulary?

Vocabulary (the knowledge of words and word meanings) is one of the key building blocks in learning a new language. The more words a learner knows the more they will be able to understand what they hear and read and the better they will become at communicating in speech or writing. The larger a learner’s vocabulary becomes, the easier it will be to connect a new word with words they already know. A large vocabulary raises achievement and confidence and supports independent learning.

Examples of vocabulary activities

EAL learners of all ages and at all stages of English language proficiency need additional support to increase their vocabulary and to learn the meanings of words and phrases in different curriculum contexts. This is important as words can have totally different meanings in different subjects. For example, compare the usage of the word ‘volume’ in music (turn up the volume), science (measure the volume of) and English (published in three volumes).

1. Introducing vocabulary in advance:

It can be a useful strategy to introduce key words and phrases before starting a new topic. This can be done via a list with visuals on an Interactive White Board (IWB), displayed on a poster, word wall or word mat, or a handout given out at the end of the previous lesson for homework. EAL learners will need time to read the words and phrases, look up any that are unfamiliar in a bilingual dictionary or ask someone to help translate them. They can then refer to their list during the lesson. Many of the resources on this website contain lists of key words and phrases for the topic, for example Tudor Word Mat.

2. Repetitive games:

Games are particularly useful where a structure or phrase is repeated rather than just a word. For example: I went to market and I bought… where each player needs to remember all the previous items and add one of their own. This can be used across the curriculum: I am a scientist and I use a Bunsen Burner. I am a scientist and I use a Bunsen burner and a pipette.

3. Adapted games:

Well known games can be adapted to involve EAL learners being expected to produce a phrase or sentence, for example:

  • Snap (using flashcards with a word and picture on) can be adapted so that before a player can win the pile of cards they have to say a sentence containing the word, the word’s opposite (using the structure: The opposite of _____ is ________), or a synonym (using the structure: Another word for ________ is _________)
  • Bingo (using flashcards with a word and picture on). Learners work in teams and the winning team has to make sentences that include all the words (see Food Bingo)
  • Matching games (matching pictures to words or words to phrases), where in order to win the pair the learner needs to say a sentence including the word

4. Bilingual glossaries:

EAL learners who are literate in their first language can be given their own word book where they can write down all their new vocabulary arranged either alphabetically or by subject. This could include space to include words from their first language, synonyms and antonyms, pictures and the word used in a sentence. The learner should be encouraged to write the definition in their first language, rather than just the word. If a teacher is introducing vocabulary that is likely to be new to all members of the class, such as subject specific or technical vocabulary, then the EAL learner is also unlikely to know the word, or understand the concept, in their first language, so a translation of the explanation is more useful than a translation of the word or phrase.

5. Word or phrase of the week:

Learners commit to using the word or phrase as often of possible during the week and report back the following week. This can be integrated into the school’s reward system, e.g. house points or merits earned for correct use of the word in writing or orally in class. This is a useful way of increasing all learners’ ability to understand and use the more advanced academic language needed for success in external exams, further and higher education. A useful resource for selecting appropriate words of the week is the Academic Word List.

How building vocabulary works

It is important to think about the most appropriate ways to build a learner’s vocabulary. Learning lists of words out of context is of limited use. It is better to:

  • Teach words in context and provide learners with opportunities for purposeful communication
  • Introduce key phrases and structures as they are generally more useful than key words, easier for a learner to internalise and be able to reproduce
  • Teach vocabulary which is important for the topic that is being taught – rather than trying to introduce words or phrases that might seem easier. If an EAL learner is New to English it is just as easy for them to learn ‘central business district (CBD)’ as ‘city centre’, and in the context of a geography lesson CBD would be a more useful term.

Top tip: Repetition is key to building vocabulary. Decide on a limited number of really crucial words or phrases for each topic and set up learning activities that will involve EAL learners in repeatedly using these words and phrases in speech and writing.

Why is building vocabulary a Great Idea for EAL learners?

Research suggests that building vocabulary is important for exam success. According to Stanovich (1993), EAL learners on average have smaller English vocabularies than their peers, and Burgoyen et al (2009) found that much of the academic vocabulary and syntax needed for success in GCSEs and A-levels is not normally encountered in speech or in, for example, teen fiction, so exposure to academic language is crucial for increasing the breadth of learners’ vocabulary (see also Nagy and Townsend 2012).

Researchers such as Halliday (1975, 1993), Cummins (2008), and Thomas and Collier (2002) that have been influential in the development of EAL good practice have highlighted the difference between conversational fluency and the academic language that takes longer to develop.

There is also a body of research that suggests that vocabulary knowledge underpins reading comprehension, e.g. Joseph and Nation 2018, Oakhill and Cain 2012. This means that EAL learners, including those who are at the Fluent proficiency level, need support to build their English vocabulary to help them, for example, access original source material in history, or unseen poetry in English literature exams.

In order to build their English vocabulary, it is important that EAL learners have the opportunity to revisit target language regularly, as recommended by Alali and Schmitt (2012), to ensure that they understand it fully and are able to use it appropriately.


Alali, F., and Schmitt, N., Teaching formulaic sequences: the same or different from teaching single words? TESOL Journal 3, 2: 153-180.

Burgoyen, K., Whiteley, H.E., and Hutchinson, J.M., (2009). The comprehension skills of children learning English as an additional language. British Journal of Educational Psychology 81(2). 344-354.

Cummins, J., 2008, BICS and CALP: Empirical and Theoretical Status of the Distinction. In N. H. Hornberger (Ed.) Encyclopaedia of Language and Education, Boston, MA, Springer US, pp 487-499.

Halliday, M. 1975, Learning How to Mean: Explorations in the Development of Language, London: Arnold.

Halliday, M. 1993, Towards a Language-Based Theory of Learning, Linguistics and Education 5: 93-116

Joseph, H. and Nation, K., 2018, Examining incidental word learning during reading in children: the role of context, Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 166, 190-211.

Nagy, W.E., and Townsend, D., 2012, Words as tools: Learning academic vocabulary as language acquisition, Reading Research Quarterly, 47 (1): 91-108.

Oakhill, J. V.  and Cain, K. (2012) The precursors of reading ability in young readers: evidence from a four-year longitudinal study. Scientific Studies of Reading 16 (2), 91-121.

Stanovich, K.E. (1993), Does reading make you smarter? Literacy and the development of verbal intelligence, Advances in child development and behaviour, 24, 133–180.

Thomas, W. and Collier, V., 2002, A National Study of School Effectiveness for Language Minority Students’ Long-term Academic Achievement, Santa Cruz, CA, University of California.

Upcoming courses and webinars

Embedding EAL Assessment (Online Course)

4 June 2024
Online course

EAL Learners and Science (Webinar)

5 June 2024

How to Adapt Teaching for Learners Who Use EAL (Online Course)

17 September 2024
£45 – £67.50
Online course