Practical Vocabulary: Teaching Words for Everyday Situations

I firmly believe in the value of learning academic vocabulary. Such words prove to be useful both in academic and professional settings. Also, for any ELL who aspires to express abstract thoughts and engage in thought-provoking discussions, knowledge of high-level vocabulary is a must.

That said, there is also a need to learn practical vocabulary. I empathize with intermediate and advanced students who complain to me that they often lack the words to comfortably manage communication during common activities, such as shopping, driving, cleaning, or playing with a child. I encountered the same frustration while learning Russian. When I shared the cooking with a Russian speaker, for example, I couldn’t say exactly what I wanted: Let the pot soak a bit.  Instead, I managed in a roundabout way that sounded something like: It won’t be easy to wash the pot right now. Let’s put water in it and wait.

An effective way to present and/ or review practical vocabulary is to have students perform short tasks that demand specific words. Here’s one idea for teaching vocabulary related to hand movements: grip, grasp, twist, squeeze, etc.

STEP 1 – Bring in a half a dozen or so household items that require manipulation of the hands. Examples:  a jar, a childproof medicine bottle, some thread and a needle, a pair of sneakers, salt and pepper shakers, a letter and envelope, a plastic storage bag, and a pair of pliers.

STEP 2 – Have a volunteer demonstrate how to use one item. Ask the student to narrate his/ her movements.

Model (student):

This is a jar. You can put nuts or other small things in here. To open and close it, you turn the top like this.


STEP 3 – If the student uses accurate vocabulary, note it on the board. If better choices or alternative choices are possible, ask the class to offer suggestions. If targeted words are not offered, note them yourself.

Model (teacher):

Good. Thank you. You’re right that it’s a JAR. We can talk about putting food or other small things in here, but we can also say we STORE food or other small things in a JAR. Also, who knows what this top is called? …It’s a LID. To put it on and take it off we have to TWIST it.

[Words in CAPS are the targeted words to be written on the board.]

Continue with the other items.

Suggested vocabulary:

  • JAR: store, lid, twist
  • CHILDPROOF MEDICINE BOTTLE: squeeze and twist/ push down and turn
  • THREAD AND NEEDLE: cut, tie a knot, sew, stitch
  • SNEAKERS: tie, untie, shoelaces
  • SALT and PEPPER SHAKERS: shake, sprinkle
  • LETTER and ENVELOPE: fold, insert
  • PLASTIC STORAGE BAG: slide, fold
  • PLIERS: squeeze, grasp


STEP 4 – Have students work in pairs. Number the items and then assign a number to each pair. Students must compose a fill-in-the-blank statement in order to quiz their classmates on vocabulary related to their assigned item. Monitor the pair work and assist with editing before Step 5.


[JAR: store (2), lid, twist]

A jar is a good place to _________ small things like buttons or paper clips. You can also use it to _________ food like jam. If you _________ the _________ tightly to close it, the food will stay fresh.


STEP 5 – Have each pair read their statement to the class or write it on the board. The other students can call out answers or one volunteer can try to complete the statement.


6 Comments Add yours

  1. Lee Monk says:

    Great activity, just tried it. I added in lots of quickfire, where, what how, etc questions. They loved it!!

    1. Terrific! Thanks for the feedback and the note on how you modified the activity.
      Happy teaching!
      Best wishes to you and your students,

  2. Thanks for this idea – I used it today with a student who will be staying with a host family in Canada soon and it went down great. It’s easy to forget about teaching/learning very everyday ’mundane’ vocabulary, but of course it’s often what we need the most 🙂

    1. So glad to hear this! Yes, that was sometimes my experience living in Russia. You can contribute to a classroom discussion, but then you’re stuck asking for something you want in the kitchen because there’s a word you never learned. Thanks for posting your comment. Best wishes to you!

  3. Hebe Miriam prieto says:

    I, want app for my phone, did you have one

    1. Hello. I’m not sure what you’re looking for.
      Here’s one that I have on my phone.
      Look under Tech Tips for more ideas. Here’s one.


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