Target Vocabulary Questions

This is less of a coherent lesson plan and more of a series of related activities to recycle or review vocabulary through questions that drive the student to use the target words or phrases.  Teaching vocabulary is difficult because it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what learning or knowing a word really means, let alone how we evaluate when a student actually knows a word. As much as possible,  I like to give students the chance to be exposed to and use the vocabulary in a meaningful context. Asking and answering questions that authentically use the vocab is a great way to do that. Questions also lend themselves to incorporating other learning points like grammar, language style, or content. So here’s a few ways to do it.

I. Simple Vocabulary Questions

The simplest way to review or test vocabulary knowledge with questions is to give students questions that have the vocabulary in them, which sounds fairly obvious. See the image below for one example:

SimpleVocabQuestionsIt seems straightforward enough. But there are a few important points for writing good questions .

  1. The questions should use the vocabulary authentically. There’s no point in giving the students input if it isn’t good input. And students can pick up a lot from context, consciously and unconsciously including the most commonly used form of a word, the register and collocations. All of these are things that will help them later. And all of these tend to be things that students get wrong when using a new vocabulary word. For example, while “inflict” means to cause, it is really only used with negative situations and it generally collocates with a handful of words. A question like, “What do you enjoy inflicting on others?” is not going to help students learn to use the word correctly.
  2. The questions should help the student reflect on the meaning of the word in some way. Depending on the part of speech, students should be asked to give an example, or reflect on a nuance of the word, or relate it to a synonym or antonym, or discuss the word in some authentic context.
  3. That being said, you also need to consider what kind of knowledge of the word the student needs. Do they need to be able to recognize the word, grasp vaguely what it means, use it in a set chunk, or write and speak it clearly with 100% accuracy in all situations?
  4. Consider bolding or underlining or italicizing the word in some way so that students notice it.
  5. Finally, don’t be afraid to sneak in grammar review and content review by making the questions also feature a particular grammar form or relate to the theme of the unit you’re doing. This is especially easy if the vocabulary is on a particular topic. However do be sure that the questions aren’t taken directly from the book or already covered elsewhere so that students are sick to death of saying what their favorite food is or why salt is bad for you or whatever.

II. Question Dictations

Even if you can’t relate your questions to another topic, you can get in a bit more speaking practice, not to mention practice asking  for clarification by having students dictate the questions to each other before discussing them. Here’s an example of the Vocab Dictation Game. You’ll see a teacher’s sheet with all the questions that feature the target vocabulary and then a sheet for Student A and a sheet for Student B.  Basically each student has half of the list of questions and they need to take turns dictating their half of the questions to the other student. This is a great way to increase student talk time, force them to pronounce the word, and hear it, and also a chance to practice survival phrases like,

  • What did you say?
  • Can you say that again?
  • How do you spell it?
  • What did you say after “blue”?

Obviously to be done right, students should not see each other’s papers until they have finished dictating the questions. Then they can check if they got everything down correctly before discussing the questions.

III. Simple Vocabulary Answers

Obviously, if students are answering questions that use the word then they are recognizing the word and what it means. However, they may or may not use the word in the answer. If you do Question Dictations, then at least they are speaking the word. However that doesn’t mean they’re getting meaningful practice with it.  So one variation is to in some way force students to use the word in the answers as well as the questions.

A nice way to do this is with prompts:

VocabAnswers So here, I’m demanding that the students use the target idioms in their answers. The trick to doing this is to give authentic questions and imagine authentic answers–without forcing an answer. I think if you look at questions 5, 7, and 8, I’m basically forcing the student to give an answer of my own devising. #5 is pretty much set up for students to say something like, “You have to narrow down the textbook by underlining what’s important and what’s not.” Or, “You have to narrow it down to what you think will be on the test.” And that may not be the student’s strategy, so this is a bad example. Or a good example of what not to do. Because you want students to be focusing on expressing themselves with the language and not trying to read the teacher’s mind.


My Post-TESOL Reading List

I know I just got back from the TESOL Convention in Portland last night (to encounter a flooded backyard and happy ducks because I didn’t get enough rain in Portland), but I feel like if I don’t do this now, I’ll never do it. I met a lot of new people and saw so many new books and got a million new ideas. In short, I have a huge new to-do list!

So I’m putting up my list of books and articles and blogs that I discovered at TESOL that are going on my to-read list. I’d love to hear your comments on my list and your own lists too! I’ll also keep updating this list as I meander through the catalogs and all that I brought back with me. Fair warning, I dug pretty heavy into the materials writing side of things. I’d also like to note that this is a DREAM list, not what I will actually have time to get to. And a lot of these are edited volumes so it’s not like I plan to read every single essay and article!

Materials Writing Stuff

Language Teaching

Coursebooks to Check Out

Teacher Resources and References

Predicting Vocabulary from Context

I had a really nice worksheet that I liked to give to students to help them predict words from context. It forced students to actually write down the sentence that the word came from which I really liked. Using context to predict or infer the meaning of the word is an important skill. However, realizing that context is an important part of a word’s definition is also important. Remembering how  a word is used in a sentence helps students use it to—it gives the part of speech, spelling, collocations and topics, sometimes connotations.

I have long since lost the worksheet, which was copied out of a book I would happily give credit to if I had it. However, the activity went like this:

  1. As students read the book, they look for a word that they do not know.
  2. Students write down the word and the sentence they got the word from.
  3. Students then write down what they can glean about the word from the text. These guesses might be as simple as, “a kind of animal”, “it lives in Africa.” Or “adjective”, “something bad”. Nobody expects them to actually guess the word.
  4. After students have read the text or passage, ask them to reflect on whether their guesses were enough to read and understand or not. In other words, were they able to understand the rest of the story despite not getting this word or was there something that didn’t make sense because they didn’t know this word? This takes some reflection on the part of the student. A good example of a word that you don’t need to know exactly is jaguar in the following (made-up paragraph):

    The two hunters looked for the jaguar in the trees. They knew the jaguar was dangerous. It could easily kill them with its teeth and claws if they didn’t shoot it first. Suddenly, they saw its black fur against the green leaves. John fired his gun and the animal fell from the trees.

    A jaguar is a big, black scary animal. That’s enough to understand everything that happens in the story. On the other hand, you would need to know what Keynesian means in this passage:

    Keynesian economics has been proven correct a number of times. Its central tenets explain the Great Depression and the success of the recovery. However the current government ignores Keynesian economics in favor of supply-side economics.

    In this case, the writer is assuming you know what Keynesian economics is and is getting into nitty gritty details of it. It will probably only get worse as you read.

  5. Now have students look up the word in the dictionary.
  6. Finally students can go back and circle elements of the sentence that support the definition.
  7. Now students have a new vocabulary word with an example sentence and a definition!

This has really worked with me and my students.

Photographing Vocabulary

This awesome activity that gets students finding flashcards in the classroom to learn vocabulary, The Camera Game, looks like a lot of fun. One variation (for older students) is to put flash cards or realia around the classroom and have students photograph them with their cellphones. And for more advanced vocabulary, students can create photos or videos illustrating abstract concepts.

You can give students a list of words such as honesty, beautymerchant.

Somehow, they have to photograph these words. That might mean finding something they think is beautiful, talking a friend into dressing up as a merchant, or making a short video illustrating an honest action. Then they have to explain how their photo illustrates the word. This activity leads to a lot of deep processing of the word.

Design Your Living Room

This lesson teaches or reviews the names of living room furniture by getting students to design their perfect living room. It could easily be adapted to other rooms in the house as well.


Warm Up

Either print out the Living Room Furniture Quiz or have students take it online. Make sure they know the vocabulary of living room furniture. Activate vocabulary by asking them what other items they have in their living room.

Let’s Go Shopping

Now hand out the Living Room Floor Plan [PDF] and have students add a door (1 meter wide) and 3 windows (1/2 meter wide each) to the plan anywhere they want. Make sure they understand the scale, that each dotted line is 1 meter. This is important because it puts realistic limits on how they furnish the room. You can’t put a bookcase in front of a window, or the TV in the door.

Once students have done that tell them they have $450 to spend to furnish the living room. They should use the Price List which also tells them how big each piece of furniture is. You may also want to redo the prices in your home currency or make them realistic for where you live. You also might want to add items that are common in your country, or take away items that are not common.

When they are finished, each student can present his living room to the other students and explain his choices.

Alternatively, you could now practice vocabulary and prepositions by having students describe their living room to a partner. The partner should try to draw the living room without looking at the picture. After one partner has described and the other has drawn the room, they should switch.This will give students a chance to practice the names of furniture and also prepositions like, “next to”, “on the right”, “in the middle”, “on the wall.” In fact you may want to give them this language first, using one of the students’ drawing as an example. Another variation, which gives you more control would be to have a few students describe their living room to the entire class and everyone draws it. That allows you to catch mistakes as they happen.

You can also practice comparing and contrasting language by having students compare their living rooms. For example:
“I put the sofa in the corner.”
“Well, I put MY sofa in the middle of the wall”
“My TV is across from the armchair.”
“My TV is next to the armchair.”
Students then report back: “My sofa is in the corner but his sofa is in the middle of the wall.”

What a Wonderful World

A lesson plan for beginners on the classic song by Louis Armstrong, “What a Wonderful World” that promotes learner autonomy by breaking students into groups and giving each group a different assignment. The tasks focus on vocabulary, writing, grammar and comprehension.

I normally wouldn’t think that beginners could handle a song as difficult as “What a Wonderful World”, but after another teacher did it with his beginner class, I thought I would give it a shot. They really enjoyed it because they knew the song quite well, and while there is some difficult vocabulary in there, the gist is pretty simple to grasp.


Warm Up

Write the song title on the board and ask students what it means. See if they can elicit the meaning, “Boy the world is a wonderful, nice, happy place” and also that it is the title of the song. They may or may not know the title of the song, even if they know the song itself.

The Song

Play the song for the class and ask them what words or phrases they heard. What do they remember? Put up any words or phrases up on the board. This helps students to focus on picking up bits and pieces, without feeling like they have to understand every single word. Avoid explaining too much vocab at this point because you’ll preempt the main task.

Now play the song one more time and let them try to listen for more. Put up anything else they remember on the board and correct or edit anything they misheard the first time.

Now ask them what the song is about. If they can’t give a good answer, ask what they think these words and phrases that they remember collectively have in common. Hopefully they will have picked up on trees, rainbows, blue skies, babies, friends, I love you. With those images and the title, they should have a good idea that the song is about how beautiful the world is.


Now break the students into four groups. You can do this at random or by interest. Explain that each group will do a different task related respectively to: vocabulary, grammar, acting out the song, and writing. Students can choose what kind of task they want to do.

Hand out the lyrics to the song to the students – one copy per group often encourages collaboration more than one copy per student – and set each group their task. It may help to give them these directions translated into their native language if their level is very low.

    • Vocabulary

Pick 5 words in the song you don’t know and find out what they mean. You may look them up in the dictionary or on the Internet. You may refer to your textbook or infer from context what they mean.

Now plan a lesson to teach the other students in the class these words. Think about how you will explain what they mean, how you will help them use these words and how you will test if they understand them.

    • Writing

Write two more verses to this song. Think about some other things you see in the world that make you happy. Try to follow the pattern of the song and even the rhyme scheme as best you can.

    • Grammar

Underline all the verbs in the song. Which verbs are in Present Simple?
Then circle the subjects of the verbs.
Now double underline the objects of the verbs.
Write the questions that match the sentences in the present simple.

    • Acting

Your task is to make a skit or short play out of this song. Act it out for the other students. You will have to think about what actions you will make and how you can make any props or costumes from what you have in the classroom.

You can also do these as learning-stations. Set up four tables or groups of tables in the classroom and a task sheet at each table. Each group will sit at each table and do the task there for 20 minutes. Then signal that it’s time to move. Each group should move to a different table and start on a different task. That way, each group gets exposure to each task.

You can also assign one or more of these tasks as homework instead of doing it in the classroom as well.

Things to Try from my MA program

Reaching for the Stars

Update: I recently revisited the post in light of the new 30 Goals Challenge (new for me)–Goal #4: Revisit an Idea. Since I’ve been keeping this list of ideas. I thought I would just take another look at it and update it and try to keep it updated! As always I love getting more input from my dear readers.

So I have begun an MA TESOL program at Adelphi University. It’s through my work so I’ll be doing most of it online. I’ve learned a lot in my one month here on Long Island. This is a list of things I want to try when I go back to teaching. A lot of them come from Penny Ur’s book, A Course in Teaching English. Feel free to comment on any of these ideas. Have you tried them? Did you tweak them? Do you want to try them too? Do they look interesting or do they look like they will fail.


  • Giving homework by time limit, not number of problems.
  • Giving mandatory and optional tasks i.e. do this exercise. If you finish early, do exercise B too.
  • Put the answers to the homework in a folder in the classroom. Students are on the honor system to do homework first and then check it.
  • Give students the answers to the homework and let them check their work. Then talk about only the ones they didn’t understand.


  • Vocab webs to activate or prime vocab with word association maps. Research shows vocabulary is stored in the brain in the form of associative maps
  • One variation of this is the British Councils game: put all the words you think you will see in this article on the board. Cross them out as you see them in the text.
  • Review vocabulary by putting lists of words on the board. Students have to come up with categories or connections between words. (I’ve done this before but want to do it more–it works really well!)

Classroom Management

  • Negotiate rules with students. Research shows students are more likely to obey rules they feel they helped devise.
  • Medal and a mission–You did that, great. Now do this.
  • Do It Now on the board every class.


Also if you want to see other Goal 4 ideas, check out this Mural of Innovations and of course feel free to add your own.