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14 Ways to Help Kids Learn Vocabulary in a New Language

What happens when your child comes home with homework in a foreign language of which you’re not fluent? What if they’ve got a list of vocabulary words to learn over the weekend? I’m facing a lot of language acquisition issues with my children as we navigate a bilingual educational system.  I asked those on my Facebook page and my personal Facebook account what some of their tricks and tips were for learning vocabulary in another language. I was overwhelmed by the response! I have trained as a TEFL teacher but somehow when it’s your own kids that need vocabulary help and you’re trying to teach, it can be difficult to find something that works well. I decided to share some of their best advice here so that others can benefit from it too.

14 Ways to Learn Vocabulary in any Language

First, you may want to think about the best way to learn vocabulary words for your child. The truth is that all kids learn in different ways. If you have a child that LOVES video games chances are he is going to be more interested in learning vocabulary if there’s a way to make a game out of it – or if there’s an app he can play. If you have a child that loves drawing, then a video game is not going to have the same impact. The best way to learn vocabulary is really the way that works best for the child, there’s no single solution.

Label Items

When I started to think of how to memorize vocabulary I wanted something that was practical and I could see regularly. This won’t work for all words, and will only work for kids that can read in the target language already.  Label the mirror, cabinet, stove, shelves, etc in the target language. Kids (and probably you too!) will start connecting spoken and written words.

Everyday Vocabulary Activities for Kids

In Morocco there are lots of small stores on every street corner.  Sending (old enough) kids on errands to pick up things forces interaction and use of language. Likewise in a grocery store vocabulary words for food products, questions, transactions can all be used when there is no “fall back” option in their native language.

Learn the Language With Them

… and try to use it. The more they hear the language the easier it will become. Some estimates are that a child needs to hear a word over 100 times before it “clicks”.

Be Dramatic

Have kids write/perform skits or musical performances using vocabulary words. This makes it fun, and puts them in the position to not only learn vocabulary words but build sentences and plot. Let’s face it if you can find fun ways to learn vocabulary kids are going to be more likely to join in and get the knowledge to stick.

Learning New Vocabulary Games

Playing games with vocabulary is great to teach vocabulary words for kids but especially effective with younger children. Don’t forget if you, as a language learner, are learning/playing along with them they are likely to be even more interested. You can always adapt a board game so that they have to use/make a sentence with words.

Idea 1: Storytime using that vocab is also fun– have the list of vocab out, and have all four of you play the game where someone writes a sentence, starting the story, then passes the paper to the next person. The goal is to use all the vocabulary by the end of the story. Bonus points for creativity/wackiness.

Idea 2: Go Fish – recently my youngest son and I played Go Fish. He chose to play in French. We were able to work on asking questions, number recognition, and had a great time! 

Language Flashcards and other Tactile Learning Devices

Vocabulary drills aren’t always fun but they are effective. You can create your own flashcards online with flashcard programs for pure rote memorization. But I find it’s easier to learn when you use it than just memorizing it.  If you have puffy paint or glue, you can add coloring to them and make the words 3D on a card so they can feel the word. This will help kids kinetically. I’ve also found several iPad apps that my younger son uses to practice writing Arabic script. There’s a very strong connection between remembering a word and having written the word as well.

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Cognates and Word Association

Try association games to see if it helps learn the new vocabulary. For example, ” …. x sounds like x word in target language.” For kids (and adults) with advanced vocabulary in their native language, understanding how a word relates to what they already know can be very helpful.

Make a game: a traveling game where he can get from one place to another by saying the word out loud. Once the child start putting words into sentences you can adjust the game such as using the correct form of the word or using singular or plural forms of the word.


I can remember my English teacher telling us the only way we would become better writers was to read more. In my husband’s ESL classes the advice he was consistently given was that if he wanted to spell or write better he needed to read more. Teaching kids to read in the target language will help them expand their knowledge rapidly.

You might consider checking out bilingual books that offer the text in both English and your target language. Children can go back and forth between the two languages when they aren’t clear on the text.

These are some examples in Arabic, French and Spanish.

Research Bilingual Education and Methods

A friend, and bilingual educator recommended the book Teaching for Biliteracy: Strengthening Bridges Between Languages. It’s not long (under 200 pages) and has many ideas to help teachers and parents. There are many, many great books to help parent-teachers support their learners.

Total Physical Response

I first heard of this method in my TEFL training courses.  This technique for learning vocabulary has educators using the same action to represent a word in both languages. It’s very simple. Teachers and learners say the word while doing an action. This helps learners connect and transfer the two things. In the book mentioned above this process is referred to as “the bridge”.  Many bilingual schools in the US use TPR methodology because it’s very effective at that age.

Visual Aids

Visuals are very important and helpful along with hearing the words used in context because it helps kids learn how to use the word correctly, and if they understand the rest of the sentence, it can help them to learn the meaning of the new word through context clues. The often used flash card would fall into this category. Just like writing a word, having something visual to connect to can help the brain hold onto and place the word.

Immersion, immersion, immersion

The best way to learn a new language at home? You guessed it, immersion! Visit places related to the vocabulary theme and practice, speaking only that language by having a conversation there. Watch only films/tv in the target language using subtitles if helpful.  Listen to music in target language(s).

Finding Connections

Thinking of connections between vocabulary words can help to exercise your brain, and it can help students to file the new information in their memory in meaningful ways. For example when working with vocabulary they can: sort them into animals and non-animals, or sort them into feminine and masculine, or sort by big, medium, and small. This requires students to think about each word and what it means, and not just memorize it out of context.


An ESL teacher I have a lot of respect for shared this bit of advice. “I’m constantly telling teachers that many ESL learners (this would be true for any language) go through a silent period of up to a year where they may not use the new language. Forcing students to use the language before they’re ready can be bad. It’s also important to remember that it takes hearing a new word in context multiple times, something like a dozen, before students remember it and can use it themselves, and that’s when they understand the language being used…”

 Final bit of advice….

Don’t learn the language, live the language.

Have more tips? Share them here for others!

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Marie O'Brien

Thursday 8th of December 2016

Wonderful Article!! At Yak Academy Inc., We teach children foreign language. However, having a family environment that nurtures what we have started will promote learning much quicker. Thank you for sharing your ideas.


Sunday 27th of November 2016

Living the language is a spot on advice. There's no short cut to it other than actually speaking it no matter how bad you are at it. As someone who's trying to learn Arabic for many years, speaking it has been the best aid I had (surrounding yourself with Arabs who don't know your language so you won't talk in any language other than arabic).


Sunday 27th of November 2016

A useful article to read, thank you for gathering these effective ways! I love the final quote: "Don’t learn the language, live the language." This is exactly what we promote through Arabic Seeds and what worked for me personally: I really started to acquire Arabic when I started to speak it with my baby and to sing, play, read in Arabic with her. Now it is our major language at home.

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Saturday 22nd of October 2016

[…] 14 Ways to Keep Kids Learn Vocabulary in a New Language (Marco Mama) It provides short & sweet methods with clear examples of the ways to keep kids learn vocabulary. […]

Po Tim

Monday 27th of June 2016

Love it! I love the last piece of advice "Don't learn the language, live the language" Totally agree. There are a lot of time I taught my students to THINK and DREAM the new language, try to immerse yourselves into the culture of the new language as well. Anyway, I love this article a lot, and it fits perfectly to my future blog post. So I've included your link and a little review to my future blog post. I will post it on the weekend. Feel free to come visit and make some comments. http://fortunecookiemom.com I'm a new blogger, homeschooling mom that blog about tips and methods and create printables of learning Chinese. Thanks again, Po Tim