Vocabulary Activities for EAL Learners

Vocabulary development plays an integral role in an EAL learners journey to proficiency in English (a key indicator of academic success (Strand and Lindorff, 2020). EAL learners need vocabulary development and teachers need to provide activities and opportunities that allow learners to increase their knowledge of vocabulary.

Murphy (2015), in a presentation at NALDIC 2015, highlighted research that suggests ‘ vocabulary is a strong predictor of reading comprehension’ and that ‘children with EAL have less vocabulary knowledge (smaller vocabulary sizes) than native speaker children.’ Vocabulary learning and activities that I create are always explicitly linked to curriculum / subject learning (e.g. maths, English or science). I do not believe isolated vocabulary learning that is not linked to the curriculum is a beneficial as explicitly linked vocabulary learning. Below, I have listed some of the vocabulary activities I am using at the moment to support my EAL learners.

  1. Frayer Model / Four Square Strategy – This strategy takes time to complete properly (I have found around 15 – 20 minutes per word / concept) but for building vocabulary breadth and depth it is highly effective. If you EAL learners are new to English and literate in their first language (L1) then allow you learners to use their L1 when creating a Frayer Model. It could also be set as a homework task for EAL learners to develop their understanding of key vocabulary from a topic or subject area.
  2. Odd one out – Odd one out is a great strategy to use as a starter / plenary. It helps develop understanding of words that are related and also words that are unrelated (the odd word out). Have a list of words related to a topic or subject your class have been studying and learners have to circle the odd word in a list. As an extension, learners could discuss why the word is the odd one out.
  3. Alphabet Race – A fun way to recall words learned in a topic of subject. This could be used as a starter or plenary.
  4. Knowledge Rating Scale – This is a great way to check prior knowledge and build background understanding of what words your learners know and don’t know. In addition, at the end of a topic, unit of work or subject, learners return to their scale to assess what they have learnt.
  5. Snap – Snap is a good strategy to use with beginner / new to English learners. It helps them recognise words, learn spellings and pronunciations of keywords learned in class.
  6. Vocabulary noughts and crosses – As you can see below, put learners into teams – teams play a game of noughts and crosses creating sentences using keywords learned in class. A great spoken language team game.

7. Word dominoes – As you can see from the image below, word dominoes is played much like traditional dominoes where learners match a topic or content word to its definition.

8. Top Ten – I love Top 10. It takes no time to prepare and my EAL learners love playing it. Learners create a list of 10 words they have learned from a topic. Pair up and face each other. Student A has 1 minute to guess the word on their partner’s list. After the time has finished, student B must explain any words student A has not guessed without actually saying the word. A great way to develop skills such as paraphrasing and explaining. You can’t go wrong with Top 10.

9. Barrier Activities – Barrier activities are great to use when developing vocabulary knowledge. There are a number of different barrier activities you could use such as barrier crosswords (fantastic strategy) or the barrier activity pictured below where learners sit facing each other and communicate missing information to fill in the gaps.

10. Snowball – I haven’t met a class that doesn’t like snowball! It is a great way to develop speaking, reading and listening skills. Learners stand in 2 lines facing each other, scrunch up their piece of paper (with either a word or definition on) and throw them at each other in a snowball fight! They then pick a piece of paper up and repeat what is written on the paper until they find their partner which is the person either with the word or definition on. Really fun and really engaging but ensure you set the ground rules before starting as Snowball can get noisy!

Vocabulary development for EAL learners is essential. Teachers cannot leave the learning of new words to immersion or just picking up new words learned. A range of strategies and approaches to developing vocabulary knowledge will help EAL learners to internalise new words and then use them effectively within curriculum contexts.


Murphy, V. (2015) https://www.naldic.org.uk/Resources/NALDIC/Professional%20Development/Documents/NALDIC%2023%20Murphy.pdf

Strand and Lindorff (2020) https://www.bell-foundation.org.uk/research-report/english-as-an-additional-language-proficiency-in-english-educational-achievement-and-rate-of-progression-in-english-language-learning/

1 thought on “Vocabulary Activities for EAL Learners

  1. Thanks for the tips. Keep up the good work!


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