ESL Tips: Using a thesaurus to boost student's vocab

How much time do you spend banging on at your students about expanding and amplifying their vocabulary? I get sick of hearing myself saying and writing it. Vocab, vocab, vocab. Improve it, make it better, use more synonyms, write something meaningful and make me reach for the dictionary, and this is just to my beginners.

Then one afternoon as I was watching a couple of sparrows pecking the crap out of each other in my patio, I had one of those light bulb moments. I realised I could actually get off my arse and help my students a bit more, or at least point them in a better direction to actually improving their vocab.

thesaurus in esl class

Use it in class! Make a difference improving vocab. Photo by Ramaclean

A thesaurus.

I use it all the time when I’m editing my writing, so why can’t they do it in class, or at home when they are doing theirs? I spend a lot of time editing my work, making sure I don’t repeat things, editing my work, and making sure I don’t repeat things.

Turns out the Spanish language doesn’t actually have a thesaurus.

Then, while on the metro on the way to work correcting some of my FCE student’s writing, something glared out and hit me in the eyebrow. The basic adjectives, basic verbs, basic everything.

“What’s wrong with these adjectives?” I said in class later as I rattled off several ‘goods,’ ‘bads,’ ‘beautifuls,’ and ‘likes.’

They all laughed as I went through their essays, pointing out the same words they had all used. It was just so predictable, and they knew it.

“Today you’re going to learn how to use a thesaurus.”

“What’s a thesaurus?”

“It’s like a huge bank of synonyms; the perfect way to improve your vocabulary.”

So I flipped up thesaurus.com on the white board and we sat and entered all the basic adjectives they’d used to get more interesting, dynamic, complex words. They loved it and were genuinely impressed such a mechanism existed.

So I had a bit of a weird thesaurus phase where I would get the thesaurus up whenever I could, just to show students how they could learn more.

Here are my top ideas on how to use a thesaurus actively in class.

  • During speaking activities make a list of common, basic words that they regularly use. Type the words into thesaurus.com once finished and get them to make a note of useful synonyms, then maybe repeat the activity, get students to write personalised sentences with the new words, or keep a list of useful synonyms.
  • Have a thesaurus moment during the class where each student asks me to look up a synonym of a word in a reading text they don’t understand to help them figure it out. This is what we would normally do in our own language anyway. Learning English through English has to be more memorable than just translating.
  • Open it up at the start of class and get students to ask any questions about reading texts or exercises from their homework and build up their lists.
  • While writing in class, get students to change 5 words by using a thesaurus before they hand it in.
  • When students ask me the meaning of a word, just type it into a thesaurus and students can work it out for themselves.
  • Students have their mobiles on their table and search for words whenever they feel like it.

This most important thing to do is use it regularly so they don’t forget and keep on top of them about improving their vocab or they’ll just take the easy route and use basic words.

Do you use a thesaurus in class to help your student’s vocabulary? Which of the above would you like to try? Which one do you think is about as useful as a solar powered torch?

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