Word building

There’s no problem in using and re-using methods that work as primary children need some sort of routine and approaches they are familiar with. However this shouldn’t lead to monotonous teaching and the same old pre-teaching with picture flashcards each lesson. Here we try to suggest some other ways to introduce vocabulary that will motivate and keep the children interested.

Jo Bertrand

What should children know about a word?

  • Sound - First and foremost how the word sounds. For children who can read let them hear the word before they see it as much as possible.
  • Spelling - Remember that the way the word sounds and how it is spelt is not always coherent. It is useful for children to have a few spelling rules to help them have some reflexives where spelling a word is concerned such as; ‘i before e except after c’.
  • Context - There are very few words that work on their own without being in a sentence or expression. It is also easier to remember the meaning of a word that is associated with other words and not seen in isolation.
  • Opposites - Putting ‘not’ in front of a word to express the opposite is a valid way of speaking English but it’s also important to expand their vocabulary as much as possible. Giving a word and its antonym at the same time is a quick way towards developing their knowledge.
  • Grades - In the same way as opposites you can introduce a word as part of a continuum. So when introducing ‘big’ why not teach them ‘huge’ as well. Don’t over do it as you don’t want to give them a word overload but if you feel they can handle a few precisions then by all means go beyond ‘big’ and ‘small’.
  • Word type - Without going into too much detail they should know if it’s a verb, adjective or noun. Even the younger learners can understand the difference between a doing word and an object as something we can see or touch.


  • Picture and word pairs
    Use pictures and words on cards with two of each word. Put them all face down and then get the children to take it in turns to find the pairs. Each time they turn over a card they have to say the word on the card. That way they will say and hear the words over and over again. In the game make at least 50 percent of the vocabulary new.
  • Taboo
    This is the game where one person has a word on card and has to describe it without saying what’s on the card. Do this in teams as a shared knowledge activity. If the person guessing a word doesn’t actually know what it is in English then the game becomes pointless. However, if you do it in teams using words that some of the class know, they can help each other. Why not split the class into group, explain five words to each group, and then mix the groups up to play the game.
  • Cascading teachers
    Another version of the shared knowledge taboo is simply giving each person a new word on a piece of paper. Give it to them in the form of a picture. They should take it in turns to come to you to find the English word and to hear how it is pronounced. Then once everyone has their word and picture they have ten minutes to ‘swap’ their word with the other people in the class. They mingle, tell people their word showing them the picture and in turn the person shows them their picture and tells them the English word. At the end of the set time display all the pictures around the room. Point to them in turn and see how many they can remember.
  • Letter gap fill
    Seat the class in groups. Choose your new words to introduce and make sure the number corresponds to the number of groups. Also make sure that the number of letters in the words corresponds to the number of people in any given group. Before the class comes into the room stick cards with letters from a word onto the bottom of the chairs. Tell the children to get the letter from under their chair and together with their group they must put their letters together to try and find a new word.
  • Post-reading word building
    Instead of pre-teaching vocabulary all the time why not read the story to them first and deal with vocabulary afterwards. Tell them before you read a paragraph or short story to listen for any new words. Read again and tell them to knock on the table when they hear a word they don’t understand. Every time they hear a knock they have to shout out the word they have just heard. If anyone knows the meaning of the word they can share their knowledge.
  • Word search
    You could place the new words into a puzzle where they have to find them. Write the list of words to be found down the side of the word search, or write definitions on the side and underline the first letters of each word in the puzzle. This is also great for spelling. Go to http://www.discoveryeducation.com/free-puzzlemaker/ where you can type in the words you want to use and then create your own puzzle.
  • Recording
    If you don’t have the flashcards you need and you’re not so great at drawing you can record the word onto a tape. Leave a gap after the word and then say it a second time. Play the tape in class and let the children repeat the word they hear and then they can hear it a second time. This stops you from having to rewind to check the pronunciation.

Different ways of using flashcards

  • Over uncover a small section of it and see if they can guess what the picture is.
  • Stick them to the children’s backs. They have to mingle and find two other people who have the same picture as them. They can do this by saying for example: 'Your animal is big. It is grey.' Once they are in their threes they can ask you for the word if none of them know it already.
  • Hide the flashcards under tables. The children have to guess from your clues what is hiding under their table.
  • Stick them on the board and hand out cards with the corresponding words on them. Let the children see if they can guess which words go with which pictures.
  • Tell a story and hold up the flashcards as you say the word.
Language Level


Submitted by louise boardman on Wed, 09/06/2017 - 15:37


Hi does anyone know where I can find a printable English and Spanish, picture/word cards. With the picture and the word in English and in Spanish (the Spanish is for me as a reminder)!

Research and insight

We have hundreds of case studies, research papers, publications and resource books written by researchers and experts in ELT from around the world. 

See our publications, research and insight

Sign up to our newsletters for teachers and teacher educators

We will process your data to send you our newsletter and updates based on your consent. You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the "unsubscribe" link at the bottom of every email. Read our privacy policy for more information.