Innovative Ideas for Teaching Vocabulary Remotely

Hello colleagues, Since, like many of you, I'm currently teaching remotely, I've been trying to discover innovative ways to teach vocabulary effectively online. In aaddition, I want to support and encourage learners to study vocabulary on their own outside of class. One thing I've long done in my face-to-face classroom to encourage self study is having learners create their own  vocabulary flashcards. I tend to favor paper flashcards, but Quizlet or the flashcard app for iphone are also useful, and some students actually prefer creating flashcards with technology.

Learning Chocoloate is also a fun vocabulary website where learners can practice vocabulary by using a variety of learning games.

When it comes to teaching vocabulary explicitly, I want to carefully choose the words I teach to ensure they are words that learners will encounter often. I always choose words from the texts we are using in class so students can study the word in an authentic context.

I have found that learners may know and understand words, but even advanced learners don't always know how to use those words in speaking and/or writing. It's important to me that learners have the opportunity to practice using the words they are learning. I have created what I call Vocabulary Workouts fto give learners the opportunity to practice actually using the words.

When I'm teaching intermediate and advanced learners, I use one Vocabulary Workout in each class. I've been able to adapt the Vocabulary Workouts for my online Zoom class. We first go over the part of speech, the pronunciation, the explanation and the examples.  We walk through the conversation practice together to ensure everyone understands and is ready with a personal response. I aways include a sentence frame, so learners have the language they need to respond to the question. I then use the breakout room feature of Zoom and place pairs of students in a breatkout room where they practice the conversation using the new vocabulary word.  Learners are encouraged to expand on their conversation by asking for clarification as needed and building on what each other says. When everyone comes back into the main room, I invite learners to tell us what they learned about their partner from their conversation.

Here's the conversation we practiced in class today using the verb survive.

Q:   Do you enjoy stories where people survive difficult things? Why or why not?

A:  Yes, I enjoy/No, I don’t enjoy stories where people ____________________ difficult things because _____________________________.

Students talked about the inspiring stories of people who have overcome enormous odds such as those who survived the killing fields of Cambodia, the many migrants around the world who survived crossing dangerous seas, and those who survived natural disasters such as the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti in  2010 and Hurricane Maria that crippled Puerto Rico in 2017.  

I have shared the Vocabulary Workouts with many teachers over the years. If you would like to receive the workouts I've created for sublist 1 of the Academic Word List, please contact me at

I'm eager to hear from teachers about the innovative ways you are teaching vocabulary remotely.

Take care, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP


Hi Susan, I want to comment on the excellent presentation that Dr. Glenda Rose provided today and send thanks to you for your introduction, assistance and participation throughout the webinar. I gained valuable information for offering multiple online teaching platforms for my adult ESL students and specific strategies for engaging our students. Her step by step guidance eased my concerns about making mistakes as I navigate these new methods of remote offerings. I sent an email request as was suggested to attain a copy of the recording and slides. I highly recommend this webinar but I was unsure if I could post the email for others to request their own copy. Perhaps you can post the contact email/information if you feel it is appropriate.

Hello Victoria, I'm glad you found Glenda Rose's webinar so helpful. Anyone who would like a copy of Dr. Rose's PowerPoint can email Melissa Zervos at I'll be starting a follow up discussion on the webinar today, so you can be looking for that.

Take care, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Language Acquisition CoP

Dear Glenda & Susan,

I truly appreciate your reponses and offers of assistance. Although I finally gained decent footing with zoom & have conducted 5 classes now with many bumps in the road, I will surely be reaching out for your help. I must say, though, that my adult students experience the trials of "remote" classrooms along side of me and we work through the struggles together. I have observed a tremendous amount of re-bonding among the students and myself, especially as we overcome frustration with a healthy sense of humor!

I have been providing ESL instruction online since January 2019 because my students live in surrounding counties. So, I have had some time to get work out many of the kinks. However, I began teaching most of my students in-person, so they have had the benefit of being acclimated to my instructional routine. For those that I have only instructed online, we have an initial meeting where we discuss objectives and expectations. This is followed by an initial instructional session that allows them to see how things work in real time and decide if this format is right for them.

Teaching vocabulary online requires independent preparation on the part of the instructor and the learner. Both parties are expected to prepare for the lesson. The synchronous meeting is reserved for monitoring comprehension, strengthening and expanding word relationships, and other forms of formative assessment. It should last from 45-75 minutes, depending on the learner’s cognitive abilities, language development, and performance goals.

Above all, vocabulary should be taught within a context, so the instructor and the learner need to plan which context will be used. Learners seeking to enter the workforce will need access to vocabulary that differs that needed for high school equivalency exams, which also differs from the  terminology of a CNA test. This difference will affect the texts and resources that instructors use with learners as well as the reference materials that learners use to support themselves. These topics, along with the length of each session, should be ironed out during the planning session.

After overarching context has been selected, instructors will need to identify, and potentially modify, texts that are appropriate in length, difficulty, and content. These texts provide the linguistic environment needed to illustrate how words interact with each other to create meaning. Additionally, instructors will need to identify which words will serve as targets of instruction for each lesson. This task should not be left up to learners—to just figure out the words they don’t know or need to learn better. I recommend 10-15 words per text. Instructors should also identify the parts of speech and contextual meanings for all target vocabulary, using the same reference tool (i.e., glossary, Quizlet, print or online dictionary) that has been prescribed to the student. Lastly, use a formative assessment that can be saved by the learner for future reference. This can be in the form of a quiz, game, flashcards, or a crossword puzzle, all of which can be presented digitally or in print.

Once given the assigned texts, list of targets, and reference tools, learners can successfully complete independent learning and prepare for the “face-to-face” meeting. This should include:

  1. Looking up words, repeating pronunciations, and copying definitions before reading the text. For words with multiple meanings, instructors need to inform which definition (i.e., the number) to use. I recommend:
    1.  - for lower level students
    2. – for higher level students
  2. Reading the text and answering comprehension questions. A good set of comprehension questions will include key vocabulary targets.
  3. Identifying synonyms and antonyms.
  4. Writing sentences that show understanding of meaning. If the student is unable to write a novel sentence, they should identify and copy a model that shows understanding of meaning.
  5. Learners should expect to spend 45-75 minutes working independently before the lesson. I often hold evening sessions to accommodate working professionals. 

I usually provide 1-2 weeks of assignments at a time. This allows me to take a step back and see how the texts and the vocabulary interact, almost like a corpus. How often are target words repeated? Do they appear in different grammatic or semantic environments? Which words are best understood by expanding background knowledge? These are the same questions I would ask for an in-person class.

True word knowledge is developed after content has been read, written, heard, and spoken multiple times. All of these can be achieved during an online session. When working with students, I always have students begin with a timed, oral reading of the text. Oral reading fluency gives me a window into comprehension and a clear understanding of changes in pronunciation. Standard pronunciation is important to vocabulary development. This is particularly true of academic vocabulary where stress is often an indicator of part of speech and spelling conventions. Next, we review answers to comprehension questions and learner-generated sentences, which gives insight into student’s understanding of word meanings, especially outside of the context of the reading. For a more productive display of comprehension, I always ask learners to end the session by writing a short summary of the text (2-5 sentences), including key vocabulary where appropriate, and read it back to me. This could easily be typed and emailed, but that would deprive the learner with direct kinesthetic experience with the vocabulary and me of an opportunity to hear pronunciation one last time. For small groups, you can employ the chat feature and ask students to read the sentences of others.

Thank you, Adjua, for contributing to this discussion and describing your approaches to teaching vocabulary in such rich detail. You recommend the Merriam-Webster Learners's Dictionary to students. I draw from this dictionary all the time. I would also recommend the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. For many years -- for as long as learners' dictionaries have been available -- I have suggested that every classroom from elementary school to college could benefit from learners' dictionaries. These dictionaries use student-friendly language to explain words, which is helpful for learners of all ages and language backgrounds, including those who grow up speaking English. 

Regular English dictionaries are designed to conserve words and often include words in the definitions that are also new to those who are still learning English. These dictionaries usually do not include examples of how to use the words, nor do they feature collocations so students can see what other words are often used with the words they want to learn. 

As Adjua suggests, there are good reasons to avoid recommending dictionaries that are not designed for language learners-- especially for low-level learners. Here's an example from for the word convenient. Convenient means "suitable or agreeable to the needs or purpose; well-suited with respect to facility or ease in use; favorable, easy, or comfortable for use." I think most of us would agree that this definition is not very "student-friendly" especially for low-level students who have not yet learned the word convenient. 

With beginners, teachers might want to use the following student-friendly language: "Convenient means something that is useful, easy or quick to do." Teachers can then give examples of things that are convenient such as a microwave and shopping online. They can also create a conversation task and a writing task for students to practice using the new word in both speaking and writing.



Q: What is the most convenient way for you to get to school? Why?

A: The most __________ way for me to get to school is ___________ because __________.

WRITING PRACTICE: Texting is more ____________ than ____________  friends because _______________.

It would be great to hear from other teachers about how they are teaching vocabulary in their remote classrooms!

Take care, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, English Langauge Acquisition CoP


Good evening!

I love teaching vocabulary to speakers of other languages.  

My students enjoy the website,

We study words at different levels.  We talk about the words and have a discussion about the vocabulary.

It is very enjoyable.  I have learned many new words on Free Rice.

We started  I am not sure how my students feel about this website because it has a different approach to vocabulary building.

The approaches are different, but they are both fun ways of playing with words and increasing vocabulary.