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Using the Communicative Approach to Teach Vocabulary

In this article, I demonstrate how I teach advanced learners how to develop richer and more expansive vocabulary.

This article demonstrates perfectly how to use the communicative approach to teach vocabulary in a way that is both meaningful for the teacher and student.

About the Author: Melissa is a graduate of OnTESOL’s 120-hour Advanced TESOL Certificate course.

She recently returned from teaching English in Japan. She runs her own private teaching business where she teaches English to Korean students in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

The Information Behind Words

Every word in a language comes with multiple layers of information. Among them include its:

      • Basic meaning(s)
      • Preferred contexts/common occurrences
      • Associations

The first two criteria are what is commonly taught in vocabulary lessons in classrooms.

The third criterion is what creates the richness in native speakersknowledge of words.

Associations give plenty of meaning and flexibility to a word and are the reason why it can be challenging to teach puns to non-native speakers.

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Associations are acquired through ordinary life events and are influenced by the environment in which the native-speaker grows up.

This is why students and teachers should never discount the value of time, experience, and learning outside the classroom.

TESOL Vocabulary Methods: Teach engaging English activities

While it would be very difficult to replicate each of these experiences, as teachers, we can strengthen vocabulary by providing as many associations as we can with words.

Connecting Words

One useful activity is connecting words.

Finding connections among words is a challenging exercise, especially if you add more words.

Students will have to rely on their creativity and it will also encourage them to ask questions as to the words permissible contexts, what part of speech it is, and so on.

This reflection will give them the opportunity to get to know this word at a deeper and more meaningful level.


Choose 2 random words (more words can be used to make it more challenging).

Here are some of the methods I use to do this:

1. Instruct students to draw strips of words from a cup. 

2. Take a page from any book, run your fingers through it, and stop at a random word. Repeat to get more words. 

3. Use a word generator website  

Once the words have been chosen, students will provide an account using them.

There are numerous ways to answer.

I like to use as many as I can because this also exercises different ways to perceive a situation and its particularly useful for the speaking portion of language placement tests like IELTS or TOEFL.

Connecting Words – Providing Accounts Explained

An account can take the form of personal stories, historical accounts, fictional stories (like that of a novel), stating opinions, persuasive speech, and jokes.

For instance, if the given words are blurryand fadin the form of a personal story, the student can say:

There was a fad when I was in high school for a certain type of glasses. But I dont really remember what they look like. I do remember that my friend had them and when I tried them on, everything was so blurry.

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At this point, the student is still sticking to the standard definitions and contexts for both words. Teach Vocabulary to derive meaning in the TESOL classroom

However, the teacher can suggest that blurrycan also be used to describe memoryand that the student can say my memory for it is blurry.”

The student can give an even more specific expression such as, I remember it very vaguely.

Therefore, the student can add more information to the preferred contexts and associations of the word. Teach TESOL vocabulary lesson

Using the same words, students can give other types of accounts (jokes, stating opinions, and so on).

Likewise, teachers can add more words and ask students to provide two types of accounts in one answer.

There are many words+ type of accountcombinations (e.g. 3 words, 2 types of accounts), and teachers can gauge what works best for their studentslevels.


This activity not only exercises word flexibility, but it also strengthens retention of the vocabularys meaning and contexts.

In addition, students gain plenty of confidence knowing that they were able to perform this challenging exercise.

It also gives teachers the opportunity to teach contexts and associations more naturally, through conversation, as opposed to writing words on a board and bombarding students with too much information at one time.

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