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How To Teach ESL Vocabulary For Kids
If you teach ESL and are looking for vocabulary for kids, you know that can be a challenge. In fact, the biggest challenge for me at the beginning was learning to keep kids’ attention span. While it’s true that kids find the fun in the small stuff, they (paradoxically) get bored so easily.
In today’s post, I’ll tell you exactly how to do that! Actually, I’ve been trying a new game with the kids I teach ESL to, and I’m excited to share it with you 🙂
Read on for my top tips…

3 Challenges When Teaching ESL Vocabulary (For Kids)

1. Managing rapidly changing emotions

This first one may be a bit unexpected – but if you are just beginning to work with kids, be sure you keep this in mind.
Kids get emotional! That means if they don’t understand, they may get really, dramatically frustrated. So, be sure to keep them on their toes with fun activities that involve laughter and movement.
If you see that they start to get frustrated, abandon your lesson plan and start a backup game. I can’t tell you how many times backup games have saved my day!
Interested in learning more about managing emotions? You can read more about managing emotions in the classroom here.

2.  Activities: Keeping Vocabulary For Kids Short

This is a key point! I usually aim for 4 activities in a one hour class, and have a backup one in case they seem frustrated or bored.
Sound like a lot of work? You have access to my free printables library, right? If not, click the button below to grab access as I have quite a few worksheets and games that may help with vocabulary for kids.  Games work especially well!

Free Printables Library

5 Grammar Games for Kids and Adults

3. Teaching Kids Grammar


Well, this is a tough one! My key tip for teaching grammar here is to make it a game.
Try out these grammar games if you’re stuck for ideas.

What Language Acquisition Research Says

As some of you know, I’m currently doing my PhD in the field of Applied Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition. Specifically, I love learning about how we can learn to speak second languages better.
Now, I don’t want to bore you with a bunch of academic lingo, but here are a few takeaway points that may help you help your students:

1) Read, Read, Read 

Keeping reading! Keep reminding your students to read, too.  It’s simple, but it works.How To Get Students To Speak In English Class

2) Tell the Same Story Again

What about speaking fluency?  Well, the best way to learn new vocab is to use it!  I love the speaking fluency activity where students use repetitive stories (to different listeners) to develop their skills. Hunter (2012)    reminds us of the importance of recording students’ speech errors, and going through a written version in class, and having students find the mistake.  While this may be tricky to do for vocabulary for kids, it may be worth a try!


3) Find Immersion Environments

Actually, I just attended a seminar on studying abroad last week (stay tuned for a whole post about that!). While immersion environments on their own don’t usually work, when combined with substantial effort it can work wonders.  Even if you’re not in a country that speaks the language you’re learning, find places where you can pretend you are! In fact, I’ve done this before when taking language classes like Italian where I had a fairly low level. Even meeting in an Italian cafe and speaking with other non-native speakers can be a huge help! Encourage kids to do this, too.

Vocabulary Treasure Hunt: How To Play 

ESL vocabulary for kids is not always the easiest subject to teach! So, I want to show some examples of a cool, fun treasure hunt game I’ve been working on.
 Now, keep in mind this can easily be expanded to use in the classroom – but you will need a few extra supplies.
First, be sure you have these supplies:
3 dice
– Game board (optional – free printable coming soon!)
There is very little prep work. Basically, you need to have the supplies ready. If you’re tutoring students one-on-one, make sure your supplies are easily portable. Small whiteboards would also work well for group work in a classroom.
Here’s how to play:

1. Choose A Room for the Treasure Hunt 
Now, I like to do this with my tutoring students, choosing a room of the house every week for a few weeks in a row. (Be sure you ask permission to use the room first!). For the classroom, you may have a bit more prep work to make corners of the room look like rooms of a house. Photos or props could work well here.

2. Learn or Review Vocabulary for Parts of A Room
Words like floor, ceiling, table, wall, etc. can be great vocabulary for kids and beginner adults. Make a list before you start the game, or have students make a list from memory.
3 Split the Whiteboard into 3 Columns
First, split the whiteboard into three columns. They are for  Number of Things (1 to 6), Preposition and Part of the Room.  Then, make a list of the appropriate items in each column. You can change the prepositions to suit your class and what they have learned.  For example:
1-6,   on, in, under, over, beside, behind   and ceiling, floor, wall  etc.
4  Roll the dice (one for each column)
Write down the numbers you get in each column!  Then,  choose the corresponding items in each column
So, if I rolled 1 -1 -1  in the example above, I would need to find  one thing on the ceiling.
5. Have students find the “treasures”
They have so much fun with this!  Be sure you ask them to speak aloud to say what they need to do, as well. For example:
“I need to find three things on the floor in the kitchen”.  It’ll help them remember basic words like “floor” and “wall”, as well as the names of items they find.
Kids  LOVE this.  I promise!  I thought it might have been a little silly, but  THEY LOVE IT.  It works especially well if you give them a small whiteboard to write down what they find.  (Or a worksheet, coming in the March Free Printables!)
6. Review the vocabulary at the end of the game
So, when does the game end? Well, I suggest setting a timer for younger kids, or going until you see they are getting a bit tired. Don’t forget to review the vocabulary before the class is over! Oh, and you can check out more super fun vocabulary games to add to the mix, here.
Now, get excited to play the game with your ESL kids!

Other Tips for Teaching ESL Kids

 1. Don’t Forget To Make Grammar Fun
Check out this post on How to Teach ESL Grammar to Kids and Beginner Adults for some top tips.
 2. Remember that worksheets are a great tool – but NOT the whole lesson
Of course, if you’ve been reading my blog you know that I’m all about games! Grammar games, speaking games, vocabulary games, to name a few. If I didn’t believe in worksheets, I wouldn’t have made a whole library full of them. However, please remember to use games as well.

Remember, the free printable for the Vocabulary Treasure Hunt will be available when I release my March printables, so be sure to sign up now!

Do you play games with your ESL students? What are your favourite ones to play with kids in a tutoring session, online sessions, or in a classroom? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below 🙂

Happy Teaching!



P.S. Photography fans, the main image (of the waterfall) in today’s post is one I took in Pltivce Lakes, Croatia last fall.

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