English is a fascinating language with unique and beautiful origins, often using common words from diverse languages to create more distinctive definitions. Calvert Watkins, author of The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, writes, “Although English is a member of the Germanic branch of Indo-European and retains much of the basic structure of its origin, it has an exceptionally mixed lexicon. During the 1400 years of its documented history, it has borrowed extensively and systematically from its Germanic and Romance neighbors and from Latin and Greek, as well as more sporadically from other languages.”1 While admittedly some meanings are harder to comprehend than others, some English words are just plain fun and interesting to teach ESL students.
I asked ALO7’s online teachers which English word is their most favorite to teach ESL students, and here are some of the top responses:
1. Favorite: “I like asking ‘what is your favorite – color, animal, food, etc…’ So the word would be favorite. It’s my favorite word as it truly gets the student to answer with what they like. I use it when starting a new class.” ~ Teacher Yvette
2. Shave: “I like the word shave. [When teaching the meaning of the word] We will all ‘shave’ our face, and then I will ask ‘does your father shave his face in the morning?’ except one lucky student gets ‘do you shave YOUR face in the morning?’ This always catches them off guard and makes them giggle ?” ~ Teacher Brittany
3. Future: “Future… So much fun you can have with this. Maybe I just love talking about robots and living on the moon. My students love it, too! It’s easy to think big or small here: What are you going to do after class? Or, What will the world look like in 100 years?” ~ Teacher Erin
4. Extremely: “Extremely! I like to ask students what animal they would want to be today, and I often get things like ‘I want to be a VERY VERY VERY VERY VERY big dinosaur.’ That gives me an excuse to teach them extremely! It means ‘very, very, very, very, very!’” ~ Teacher Yann
5. Tomato: “I guess I would have to say…tomato. After I ask students how they pronounce it, I sometimes sing the song, ‘You say tomato…..’ I usually get a laugh out of most students for that.??” ~ Teacher Juli
6. Yell: “YELL! I give the kids permission to be loud for one word, and they love it.” ~ Teacher Carol
7. Excited/Exciting: “I like the word excited/exciting because of the TPR, and it’s a good chance to talk about what is exciting to the students.” ~ Teacher Elaine
8. Travel (topic): “This isn’t necessarily a word [in this context], but I love the topic of travel (trip, travel, vacation). I LOVE traveling, and it’s so interesting to hear where my students have previously been. It makes the world seem a little less small when I realize a student, and I have been to the same place before!” ~ Teacher Haley
9. Emotions: “Emotions. It’s a great way to use TPR and have students use TPR when I have them describe it.” ~ Teacher Charles
10. Uncomfortable: “One of my favorite words to teach ESL students is ‘uncomfortable’ because it shows a bit of the unpredictable nature of English. Although it’s spelled ‘uncomfortable’ and it’s perfectly fine to say it with five syllables… I teach this while clapping… it’s more commonly pronounced as ‘uncomfterble’ with four syllables…” ~ Teacher Sumaya
11. Regret: “With older students, I like the word regret. It gives a great opportunity for sentence making.” ~ Teacher Kathy
12. Refrigerator: “Refrigerator. Hands down my favorite word to teach. Why do we call it a fridge? There’s no D! I like teaching this word because the students definitely know what the appliance is and we can have a bonus word of ‘fridge.’” ~ Teacher Megann
13. Understand: “With many of my students, one of the first words I like to teach separate from the curriculum is ‘understand.’ I like the students to feel comfortable saying, ‘Teacher, I don’t understand,’ without shame or fear of negative repercussions.” ~ Teacher Gabby
Teaching fun, interesting, and even commonplace words to our foreign students is a great way to organically introduce them to the English-speaking world around them. Hearing our favorite words in natural context often makes them feel at ease with the language and the tutor. What is your favorite word to teach ESL students? Next month I’m thinking of introducing ‘balderdash.’ How about you? What’s the new cool word on your agenda?
Citations for 13 Fun Words to Teach ESL Students
1Watkins, Calvert. “The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (1985 Edition).” Open Library. January 01, 1985. Accessed April 18, 2019. https://openlibrary.org/books/OL2864902M/The_American_heritage_dictionary_of_Indo-European_roots.
Gabriel Cunningham, a New York native, is a former pediatric nurse with over 15 years in the healthcare industry, working with hundreds of critically ill babies and children. She and her husband are therapeutic foster parents who, together have cared for numerous medically fragile children in their home until they were ready to reunite with their families. In 2017 Gabriel, also known as Gabby, formally transitioned into online education after over nine years homeschooling her five children from preschool through high school and four years directing her church’s homeschool co-op. She is well-known in her community for her activism in homelessness prevention, youth trauma intervention, and family crisis prevention. Gabby has an AS from Monroe Community College in Rochester, NY and is currently pursuing her Special Education K-12/Elementary Education degree at Western Governors University.
In her spare time, Gabby enjoys reading, cooking, volunteering at church, and providing pro bono doula services to the underserved young mothers in her community. Gabby believes that service to the community is the greatest form of love.