ESL Beginner Vocabulary: Word List & Activities

Instructor: Amanda Wiesner-Groff

Amanda has created and taught English/ESL curricula worldwide, has an M.Ed, and is the current ESOL Coordinator for the Saint Louis Public School District.

Teaching beginner ESL students can seem like a daunting task. Don't worry, it doesn't have to be. This lesson will provide some basic English vocabulary, along with some fun activities, to help you successfully instruct and connect with your ESL students. Read on to learn a fun way of teaching ESL beginner vocabulary!

Beginner Vocabulary

There is nothing worse than wanting to speak a new language, but being fearful of making a mistake once you open your mouth. In order to connect with beginner ESL students, it is important to remember one thing: you need to make learning fun, not intimidating! If you can teach new vocabulary in a fun way, students will be more prone to opening up and taking risks with their learning. This word and activity list will help you give ESL students basic conversational vocabulary, so they can confidently engage with other English speakers. That being said, it's time to shake off any fear you have of teaching beginner ESL, and read on for ways to make this experience a fun one.

Word Lists

The following are some beginner word lists to get you started. Read through the lists, teaching tips, and activities for ideas to get your students talking!


You want to first teach your students how to introduce themselves to others. This is very basic, but important, vocabulary.

  • Hello
  • My name is _____
  • What is your name?
  • Nice to meet you

The more silly and exaggerated you are with your gestures and expressions, the better! You want to be over the top, so your students are engaged and able to understand what you are saying.


Now that your students can introduce themselves to one another, you will want them to learn some more conversational vocabulary to express how they are feeling.

  • How are you?
  • I am _____
  • Fine
  • Happy
  • Sad
  • Angry
  • Sick
  • Tired
  • Confused

Again, you need to be over the top with gestures and expressions when teaching feelings vocabulary. Facial expressions and hand gestures are an easy way to convey the feeling vocabulary words you are trying to teach.


Next, you want your students to learn some basic vocabulary for using manners with others.

  • Yes
  • No
  • Please
  • Thank you
  • Excuse me
  • I am sorry
  • It is okay

Show a lot of emotion when teaching manners vocabulary. You want students to understand the actual feeling that goes behind the use of this vocabulary. Showing sincerity with your gestures while teaching these words, will help students understand the appropriate times to use them.


This is a very important word list when it comes to teaching ESL. You want to make sure your students know how to convey confusion or lack of understanding. It is important to practice patience and understanding when students need you to repeat, slow down, or re-explain. Each word needs to be taught and emphasized. Many students will translate these words into their own language, but you still must make sure you act these phrases out, so your students know when, and how, to use them.

  • I understand
  • I do not understand
  • Speak more slowly
  • Can you say that again?
  • I am confused


The best way to learn these words and phrases is to use them. Aim to be expressive. Exaggerate your gestures and expressions.

Role Play

Act out the words when you teach them. Reach out to shake a hand when saying, 'It is nice to meet you.' Use facial expressions and hand gestures when expressing feelings. Pretend you are begging to help emphasize the word 'please.' Show gratitude when saying the word 'thank you.' Look confused when stating, 'I do not understand,' and show great relief when saying, 'I understand.' Role play with the students at first, and then when they feel more comfortable with the vocabulary, have them role play with one another.


Write words or phrases on one side and put pictures depicting the vocabulary on the other side. Students can each have a copy of these, or you can have one copy for the classroom. You can show the picture side of the flashcard and then depict the wrong action or expression to be silly and have the students correct you. This is especially enjoyable for young students who think it is funny to see the teacher being silly.

Vocabulary Jeopardy

This is a great game for younger students because they typically have fun competing against one another. List the above categories on the board and write each vocabulary word (or picture, depending upon the age of the students) on one side of an index card and a point value on the other side. Place lower point values for more basic words/phrases, and higher point values for more difficult words/phrases. Tape the cards onto the board under their respective categories, point value side up. Divide students into two teams and have them each take turns choosing a card (based on category and point value of their choice) to see if they can identify the word/phrase/picture on the opposite side of the card they chose. If they get it correct, their team gets the allotted points. If they get it wrong, the opposite team can collect those points. Once all of the cards have been chosen, the team with the most points wins.

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