Presenting Vocabulary to EFL Students

Vocabulary size is a key predictor of language ability, so as language teachers it is important that we teach it right!

While there is no one way to “teach it right,” I would like to present to you how I present vocabulary to my EFL students. This is the first day of usually a 4-5 day vocabulary teaching sequence.

Before I begin, I must mention one of the best and most thorough books ever written on vocabulary instruction: Bringing Words to Life, Second Edition: Robust Vocabulary Instruction. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is looking to up their vocabulary teaching game. Much of what I do has been influenced by this book.

Preparing for Instruction

Before my vocabulary presentation, I prepare:

  1. A Vocabulary Grid
  2. A Flashcard Set

Vocabulary Grid

The first thing I prepare is my vocabulary grid. This grid is the basis for my presentation on day one. (PDF)

As you can see, the grid includes the following fields:

  1. Word
  2. Part of Speech
  3. Definition
  4. Collocates/Usage
  5. Picture

Additional fields I have added in the past are:

  1. Related Words
  2. Synonyms/Antonyms
  3. Examples/Nonexamples
  4. Sentence from the Text

Which fields you include depends on your students’s level and the amount of time you have.

You will notice that the grid already has the word, part of speech, and definition filled in. You could alternatively present it to the students with just the word and ask them to take notes, again, depending on level and time.

A Note about the Definition: Generally speaking, dictionary definitions are terrible. However, there is one dictionary that I trust for definitions that make sense: The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English Online. Comparatively speaking, these definitions are more clear than other dictionaries, especially for nonnative speakers of English. While sometimes I use the definition as-is on my vocabulary grid, I often use Longman as a reference to formulate my own definition approrpiate for my students.


Next, I prepare a Quizlet flashcard set. The one for this unit is here:

For the Quizlet set, I put the word on one side and the part of speech, definition, and picture on the other. I use the set for presentation of the words, for games in class, and for students to use at home to study.

If you are interested in more on how I use Quizlet, see my 2016 ETA presentation.

Presenting the Vocabulary

On Day 1, I present the vocabulary words to the students using, and students fill out a vocabulary grid during the presentation. It’s important to note that although it is a presentation, students should still be active. Presenting vocabulary should not just be students sitting and listening to the teacher talk about words.

Here are the steps:

  1. Listen and Repeat the Word (Usually  x 3)
  2. Teacher talks about the definition and examples
  3. Students draw a picture meaningful to them to represent the word
  4. Teacher shares the collocates or how it is used
  5. Teacher ellicits a sentence from the students

Class Example

For this example, I will use the word “confidently”.

Teacher: Our first word is confidently. Say confidently.

Students: Confidently

(Multiple Times)

Teacher: Confidently means “doing something with certainty.” Usually, you confidently do things that you are good at.

Turn to your partner and tell them something you do confidently, or something you are good at. I’ll give you 10 seconds.

Students: (Sharing with their partner)

Teacher: Jack, please tell me something you do confidently, or you are good at. Use this sentence. (on the board- “I confidently (verb)…”)

Jack: I confidently at basketball(sic).

Teacher: Great! But look at our sentence stem. We need a verb. Jack, which verb goes with basketball.

Jack: Play

Teacher: Very good! So your sentence should be…

Jack: I confidently play basketball.

Teacher: Nice! Now a quick question…do you think Mr. Graham confidently plays basketball? Put a thumbs up for yes and a thumbs down for no.

Students: (Likely many thumbs down)

Teacher: Right! Chances are Mr. Graham cannot confidently play basketball. How about teaching English? Does Mr. Graham confidently teach English? Thumbs up yes, thumbs down no.

Students: (Likely many thumbs up)

Teacher: Yes, I feel I confidently teach English. I would now like you to draw a picture to help you remember the word confidently. If it were me, I might draw myself teaching English.

Students: (Students draw picture)

Teacher: So we have talked about “confidently play” and “confidently teach”. You’ll notice that we usually use confidently with a verb because it is an adverb. Under usage, please write the sentence stem “Subject + confidently + verb.” Also, you can write down the most common verb used with confidently, which is “confidently predicted.”

Students: (Write the sentence stem)

A Note about Collocates: Research has shown that teaching collocates, groups of words commonly seen together, is better for English language learners than the words alone. It is very simple to find the most common collocates using a concordancer, a database of language. While concordancer use is a bit beyond the scope of this article, the one I most commonly use is The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA).

Teacher: When you are finished writing, turn to your partner and say a few sentences using confidently. See if you can make sentences with more than 6 words.

I will give you one minute.

Students: (Sharing with their partner)

Teacher: Alright, I would like for someone to share a sentence with me. Stephanie, tell me one of the sentences you shared with your partner.

Stephanie: I cannot confidently predict what will be for lunch today in the cafeteria.

Teacher: That’s a great sentence! Let’s all write that down. When you are finished, put your pencil down and we will continue to our second word.


This is generally the process I follow to present vocabulary words to my students. However, this is far from the end. The presentation is only day 1. On the subsequent days, the students and I do a lot of activities to help practice and reinforce the words.

While I feel confident about this method of presentation, I cannot emphasize enough that this alone is not enough to get students to acquire vocabulary. There must be practice, practice, and more practice. But practicing vocabulary is a topic for another day. Until then…

Happy vocabulary presenting!

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