How to use word lists in your lesson

October 15, 2018


Three steps to develop effective word lists

Students have to practice and learn a second language. To make sure they study new phrases, word lists can be used. However, just 'using a word list' is not going to be of much help.

Let me share some ideas on how to word lists in your lesson (or even in your school!)

Estimated time to read this article: 5 minutes

Why would you use them?

First of all: Why would you care?

Indeed, a word list can be a great tool to help students develop vocabulary and think about the words they use in class. 

This is actually linked to the lower Bloom skills: remembering and understanding.

Making that link already allows to realize we do not just want students to learn words by hard, we want them to understand what the words mean.

And if you really want to spice things up: be able to apply them in new situations!

Reasons to use a word list

  • Convenience: All words a student might find tricky can be found in one place
  • Understanding: A word list can help students understand a piece of text better, especially if students just started out learning a second language
  • Share ability: Word lists can easily be shared and distributed
  • check
    Focus: With some scaffolding, teachers can allow for a certain focus in word lists (like a topic or a chapter)

I am not saying everyone should always use word lists. I use them only sparely myself. But I do want you to understand the pros and cons so you can make a decision about this yourself.

In order to do that, I provide three steps you can do to help you apply word lists in your lesson.

Step 1: Translation vs. synonyms

The first thing you have to think about is what you actually want your students to learn.

Are you focusing on making them understand the word in their first language? Or is your focus for them to be able to describe it in the (new) second language?

The choice is yours, but remember what you want to focus on.

In my case, my textbook actually provided a word list with translations. Students started using this once they realized it, but had trouble remembering the English word.

They were constantly translating in their head.

I wanted them to understand the word. That is why I make them write down explanations or synonyms.

I even ask questions like "Please explain this phrase in your own words" regularly at the beginning or at the end of a lesson.

Key Take Away

If you want your students to understand the words they have to learn, make them write down the description in their own words.

Step 2: Student generated vs. Teacher generated 

Another interesting topic to have a look at is the focus of the word list

Student generated lists

If you ask your students to create their own lists, the word lists will be personal. This is great if you want to differentiate and diversify.

It also trains students to be responsible for a task.

This can also go wrong.

If you students do not keep track of the difficult words they encounter their word lists might lose their focus and usability. 

One way you can help with this is by giving them time to explore the chapter.

Teacher generated lists

Whenever a teacher provides a word list students can use, you can decide what the students can focus on. You can make sure no difficult words are skipped and you are sure all students have the same word list to use when they study.

Again, there are also cons.

I know whenever I hand out papers in class, the next lesson someone will have forgotten to bring it. 

Even if I specifically say I want them to bring it next lesson. (Recognize this?)

So, availability might be an issue. One that can be tackled, but still. Just receiving a pre-made list is will not make a student more responsible for the understanding of the phrases.

Key Take Away

Making students responsible for their own list allows for a personal approach, but they might not keep track of it.

Teacher's can help with this by providing focus.

Step 3: Just for one subject?

One more thing you can think about is: Do I want this word list to be for my subject only?

Maybe colleagues who teach similar subjects might use the words as well?


Personal Idiom Files (or PIFS) can be a great tool to help students create a word list that covers phrases in different subjects. Students keep track of the words they encounter and share these word lists with each other.

Make the teacher say...

To help our students realize the fact words can be used in different contexts, we provided students with a list of words they had to make the teachers say.

Fun fact: The teachers did not know the words.

As a sort of contest, students from different classes would do their best to make teachers say various words (obviously without asking them to say that specific word directly).

A fun activity, which also showed students words can be applied in different situations.

And it helped them remember the word: Win - Win!

Key Take Away

If you just start out with a word list you can use it in your own lesson, but do not forget to ask your colleagues if and how they use them. You might be able to work together!

Activity: Word Search/Crossword

Enough theoretical things, let me finish with a CLIL activity for you to do!

At the end of a topic or a chapter, use a word search or a crossword to check for understanding of the difficult words of a topic.

Puzzlemaker is a great tool but you can also just google various puzzle generators.

Too much work?

I ask my students to come up with the description of a specific word, and use all of these descriptions.

Again: win-win!

Students had to look up the meaning of a word and think about how to describe it in their own words AND got to a puzzle at the end of the chapter, which helps them to study the most difficult words.

Credits: Image designed by Freepik

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