ESL Thesaurus Activities

Instructor: Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo

Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.

A thesaurus is a treasure your ESL students can use to learn new words. With the thesaurus activities in this lesson, your ESL class will expand their vocabulary and, thus, their knowledge of English language.

Thesaurus Review

To begin this lesson, start out with a brief review of synonyms. Have your students tell you what a thesaurus is--a book listing synonyms for words. If they're having trouble grasping the concept, you might show them a thesaurus and read entries from it to demonstrate how it lists synonyms and what synonyms are.

This next part of the review is the most important for student engagement. Your students should discuss why a thesaurus is so important. If the class does not know, you can pass the thesaurus around so your students can get a deeper look into it.

Here's an interesting fact to help get your students interested: Explain that the word 'thesaurus' means 'treasure' and that this book is a treasure of words.

Thesaurus Activities

Now, let's take a look at the activities you can use to help students better understand how to use a thesaurus.

Synonym Search

This activity involves searching for the appropriate synonyms. It's a good idea to have students work in pairs so they can help each other use the thesaurus. There are two main options for this activity.

The first option is to give your students a list of sentences with an adjective in bold. Your students have to find a synonym for the word in bold in their thesaurus. Here are some examples of sentences you could use:

  • My best friend is very nice.
  • Our teacher is never late because she is very punctual.

The second option gives students a more active role in the activity. Instead of having an adjective in bold, your students have to fill in the blank with an adjective and then find a synonym for it. So, you might provide the following sentences:

  • My best friend is very _____
  • Our teacher is never late because she is very _____

The students fill in the blank, then they look through the thesaurus to find synonyms for their selected adjectives.

Verb Synonyms

For this activity, your ESL students can work in pairs. The first task you give them is to make a list of, say, fifteen verbs. Next, they use the thesaurus to find a synonym for the verb. Once all students have their new words, they present to the class what they found.

Decoding Unusual Words

Your ESL students are certainly going to be intrigued by the words in the decoding worksheet you give them. For this worksheet, make a list of some unusual words. Your students will use the thesaurus to find another word, which would be of common use. Here is a list of examples of words you could use:

  • Adipose
  • Badlands
  • Canker
  • Dastard
  • Eerie
  • Farcical
  • Gaiety
  • Haggle
  • Imperilment
  • Jolt

Depending on your ESL class level, you could have the students write a sentence with these unusual words once they know what they mean.

Improve a Letter

With this activity, you emphasize to your ESL students that overused words can be boring and unexciting in writing. This way, your students know that less common words with the same meaning can make writing sound interesting and elegant. Your student's job is to change a letter into a more sophisticated piece just by replacing the words in bold. Here is a ready-to-use letter sample you can use:

  • Dear Janet, I am very happy to know that you have a new job. From what you say, the new job is very good. Besides, you get to work with a friend so I am sure you will have a nice time. I also want to thank you for the beautiful postcard you sent. Your town looks very interesting and I imagine it is big, not like my town, which is so small. I enjoyed your funny note at the end. You are a very special friend and I hope to see you soon.

Students will get a kick of how the letter improves once they replace the bolded words with synonyms. A final note on this activity is that since your students will be working individually or in pairs, it is a good idea to have them share with the class so students can see how word choice can vary. For example, a student could choose 'dazzling' to replace 'beautiful,' whereas another student could choose 'splendid.' You could make a list of words your students chose and pass the list out as a a handout afterwards.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it now
Create an account to start this course today
Used by over 30 million students worldwide
Create an account