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25 ideas for using unit word lists in the classroom

Teacher and young adult students developing their skills with classroom activities

Many ELT series have unit word lists, either in the student book, or available in the teacher resources. However, few teachers make active use of these unit word lists on a regular basis. In an attempt to address this situation I have produced a set of 25 activities which teachers can easily incorporate into their regular teaching practice.

All of the activities have the following three principles:

  1. they can work with almost any ELT unit word list;
  2. apart from the students having access to unit word list itself, they require only basic classroom resources i.e., pencil, paper, board and marker;
  3. they require no previous preparation from the teacher.
Example from: Smart Choice 2nd edition, OUP

Note: Unless otherwise stated, students need to be looking at the word list to do the activity.

  1. Which words do you know (before starting the unit)? – Individually, before starting the unit, students put a tick (✔) on the right next to all the words they know.
  2. What is your favorite word? – Individually, each student identifies their favorite word from the list. Students explain their choice in groups and/or to the whole class.
  3. Which ones are similar to words in your own language? – In small groups, students look through the unit word list and identify all the words that appear to be similar to words in their own language. These could be cognates or false cognates. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  4. I don’t like this word because… – Individually, each student identifies a word from the list that they don’t like. Students explain their choice in groups and/or to the whole class.
  5. Rapid underlining – The teacher chooses between 5 and 10 words from the unit word list and calls these out quite quickly. Individually, students listen, find and underline these words in the list. Students then compare and check that they have found the correct words.
  6. Find the word in the unit – The teacher chooses a word from the word list and calls this out and the students need to find the word in the unit of the course book. This can be done as a race.
  7. Which is the most useful word? – Individually, each student identifies from the unit word list the word they think is the most useful. Students explain their choice in groups and/or to the whole class.
  8. How many of the words are things you can touch? – In small groups, students identify how many of the words in the unit word list are things that can be touched. The teacher elicits and discusses. There might be many different ways to interpret this and can lead to interesting discussion.
  9. ‘Killing’ vocab items – In small groups, students decide on 3 words they want to eliminate from the unit word list and which will not appear in the next test. The teacher then elicits from each group the 3 words they chose. The teacher writes these words on the board and identifies which 3 words are the most frequently chosen from all the groups. The teacher promised not to include these in the next test. (Dudley, E. & E. Osváth. 2016. Mixed-Ability Teaching. OUP)
  10. Rapid translation – In pairs, students take it in turns to choose a word from the unit word list. The other student has to try to give the translation in their own language.
  11. How many have you seen today? – In small groups, students identify how many of the words in the unit word list are things / concepts / actions they have seen today. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  12. Identify the words from a definition – The teacher chooses about 5 words from the unit word list and then one word at a time tells the students a definition of each word. Individually, students look at the list and underline the words they think the teacher is describing. The teacher elicits, checks and discusses.
  13. How many have 3 syllables? – In small groups, students identify how many words have 3 syllables. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  14. Which word is the most difficult to pronounce? – Individually, each student looks at the unit word list and identifies the word they think is the most difficult to pronounce. The teacher elicits and helps students pronounce the words they chose.
  15. Bingo – Individually, students choose any 5 words from the unit word list and write these on a piece of paper. The teacher reads and crosses off words at random from the list until a student has crossed off all of their 5 words and calls out ‘bingo’.
  16. How many words have the stress on the second syllable? – In small groups, students look through the unit word list and identify how many words are stressed on the second syllable. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  17. Which is the most difficult word to spell? – Individually, each student looks at the unit word list and identifies the word they think is the most difficult to spell. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  18. Test your partner’s spelling – In pairs, one student looks at the unit word list and chooses 5 words and dictates these to the other student (who is not looking at the list). After the dictation of the 5 words the students both look at the list and check the spelling.
  19. The teacher can’t spell – The teacher choices 5 words and spells these aloud to the student but makes a deliberate spelling mistake in 2 or 3 of the words. Students listen while looking at the word list and try to identify which words were misspelled.
  20. Quick spelling – In pairs, students take it in turns for one student to choose a word and spell it aloud quickly to other student. The second student tries to say the word before the first student has finished spelling it aloud.
  21. Which word has the craziest spelling? – Individually, each student decides which word, in their opinion, has the craziest spelling. The teacher elicits the words from the students and the class identifies which word was the most frequently chosen.
  22. Which are the 3 longest words? – In small groups, students look through the unit word list and identify the 3 words with the most of letters. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  23. Guess my word – In pairs, students take it in turns to choose a word from the unit word list. The other student needs to ask yes/no questions to work out the word.
  24. Can you make a sentence using 4 of the words? – Individually, each student makes a sentence using any 4 of the words from the unit word list (combined with other words to create coherent sentences). Students then compare and decide which sentence they like best.
  25. Which words do you know (after finishing the unit)? – Individually, after finishing the unit, students put a tick (✔) on the left next to all the words they now know. They can compare this with the number of words they knew before starting the unit and see their progress.

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Philip Haines moved to Mexico from England in 1995, and currently works as the Senior Academic Consultant for Oxford University Press Mexico. He has spoken internationally in three continents and nationally in every state in Mexico. Philip is the author/co-author of several ELT series published in Mexico.


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Using First Language (L1) in the ELT Classroom

Using L1 in the ELT ClassroomPhilip Haines is the Senior Consultant for Oxford University Press, Mexico. As well as being a teacher and teacher trainer, he is also the co-author of several series, many of which are published by OUP.  In this post he discusses the use of L1 in the classroom and shares some guidelines for its use.

The majority of English language teaching takes place in classrooms where both the students and the teacher share the same L1 (first language). In these contexts, the L1 is often banned from the classroom, and for many good reasons. Many teachers and heads of department forbid the use of L1 because an all-English speaking environment is prized since it actively encourages communication in English. Another reason is that the L1 can easily take over if not restricted. While there are many reasons for banishing the L1 from the classroom, there are also good reasons for using it. What I believe is needed are clear guidelines for effective use of the L1. Below I set some guidelines in three levels; from basic to more in-depth.

Level One: Functional

Level one can be used by all ELT teachers to help the class function more effectively without essentially compromising the popular principle that English should be used at all times. The use of the L1 is quite restricted and the teacher is always in complete control so there is no chance of the L1 taking over the class.

  • How do you say ____?: Students are allowed to ask how to say something from their L1 in English.
  • Can I say something in my language?: If students have something important to say but do not have the level of English to do so, they can request permission from the teacher to speak in their L1.
  • Time out: Just as in Basketball, the teacher can indicate that they will create a short space within the regular class to use the L1, and then return to the English class. This is especially useful when something needs to be discussed which could not be done in English.

Level Two: Strategic

In this second level, the teacher has at their disposal all the uses outlined in level one, but now encourages students to draw on their knowledge of their L1 and English to develop language learning strategies. This is essentially done by asking students to make comparisons between the two languages. The teacher is able to do this without the need to use the L1 themselves if they do not want to. Again, if the teacher fears losing control they can use the time out idea to create a ‘window’ from the exclusively all English atmosphere in the classroom.

  • English you already know: When there is a new word that has some relation to a word from their L1, the teacher asks students, “Does it look like a word you know in your language?”
  • Finding patterns and similarities: When there are grammatical patters or phrases that are have similarities between English and the L1, the teacher can ask, “What is the equivalent in your language?” or “Is it similar or different in your language?”

Level Three: Discourse

Level three uses the L1 to develop language awareness, higher order thinking skills, and to explore and comprehend features of discourse in English. The teacher also incorporates the ideas from levels one and two.

  • Discussing register: When looking at a phrase in context that has a particular register or degree of formality, the teacher asks students for an equivalent in their L1. This opens up discussions about appropriacy and register.
  • Just for fun: All bilinguals are aware of words and phrases that are easily mistranslated and produce funny consequences. By highlighting some of these and encouraging students to play with the language, we not only bring some light relief into the classroom, but encourage creativity and heightened language awareness.
  • Translating: Students work together and translate extracts or short texts from one language to the other. The teacher encourages students to discuss and justify their choice of words and phrases. This develops insight into features of context, appropriacy and register, develops higher order thinking skills, and promotes greater awareness of both languages.

These ideas are designed to encourage teachers to make principled use of the L1 in their classroom without feeling guilty about doing do so, while at the same time avoiding the pitfalls that are often associated with its use. It is hoped that all teachers will feel comfortable using some of these ideas and will consider the possible benefits of others.