ESL Advanced Vocabulary: Word List & Games

Instructor: Benjamin Blanchard

Ben has taught ESL and web programming and has a M.S. in education.

The following lesson will provide you with guidelines and specific ideas about how to develop a word list for your advanced ESL students. We'll also look at how to use games to present and reinforce the acquisition of new vocabulary.

What to Put on Your Word List

You know your advanced English as a Second Language (ESL) students should be expanding their vocabularies, but what should their new words be? Let's look at some guidelines and ideas about how to put together a good vocabulary list.

Vocabulary List

Since your students are advanced, you're likely going beyond the words that are necessary for basic communication. So one thing to take into consideration is your students' objectives and interests. Are they medical students? IT workers? The contents of your vocabulary lists will often depend on what your students do and why they are motivated to improve their English. If they have specific goals - related to a certain standardized test, for instance - your list should probably be drawn from test materials.

But you may not always want your lessons to focus too narrowly on technical vocabulary. It's good to aim for a balance between obscure or technical words on the one hand and vocabulary that's too basic and probably already known by your students on the other.

One more thing that it's important to consider when putting together a word list for students is how many words should be on the list. You don't want to overwhelm them with an enormous set of words all at once. This is another place where it's necessary to strike a balance between a trivial challenge and an insurmountable one.

Word Games

Students are likely to have much more success adding words to their vocabulary if rote learning happens in the context of interaction and communication with others. One of the best ways to take the drudgery out of repetition and add meaning is to use games. Good games must challenge students to remember something about the words: their spelling, pronunciation, meaning and use. They should also be fun. While there are many word games in existence, below are some of the best ones to use for reinforcing new vocabulary with advanced students.


Pictionary requires only a writing implement, such as a pencil or marker, and a surface to write on, such as a piece of paper or whiteboard. Divide the class into teams, and have them take turns trying to guess a word based on a drawing. At the start of each turn, one team member tries to convey one of the vocabulary words to the rest of his or her team by drawing pictures. When he or she succeeds, the team gets one point, and the person drawing moves on to the next word on the list.

After a time limit is reached, usually one minute, play is passed to the next team and continues until all the words have been guessed. The team with the most points is then declared the winner. Pictionary works because leaners are actively engaged in trying to remember the words in a context in which there is an increasingly explicit visual connection to the words' meanings. Students take turns being the one to create the visual representation. The game is also inherently fun, even for native speakers.


Charades is a classic word-guessing game that's similar to Pictionary, except instead of drawing to create the visual hints, players use their bodies to act out the meanings of the words with physical gestures. It works on the same principle, challenging students to recall the words and providing a memorable visual generated in the course of interaction.

Playing Charades

Guess the Word

In this game, play can proceed similarly to Pictionary and charades, but instead of drawing or gesturing, the non-guesser tries to convey the target word by using other words to describe it. The only rules are that a) They cannot mention the word, or any derivation of it (i.e. no compounds, plurals, past tense forms, etc.), and b) Everything they say must be in English. Guess the Word provides practice at circumlocution, itself a valuable skill for language learners.

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