Using More Colorful Vocabulary: 5 Tips

Have you ever caught yourself using the same word too often? I remember in grade school my classmates and I played a prank on a teacher that capitalized on her overuse of “okay.” We were fond of her, so our actions weren’t done in cruelty. Chalk it up to spring fever and youth. For one class period, we agreed to cough every time she said “okay.” By the middle of class, our teacher caught on and began to laugh with us. Needless to say, she did her best to avoid saying “okay” for the rest of the day.

We all have our favorite greetings, forms of agreement, idioms, filler words, and expletives. And in conversation, we don’t always choose accurate words to express ourselves because it’s much easier to fall back on common descriptions such as “nice” and “good.” Is that what we want our students to do as well? Well, we want them to sound natural, but surely we want to teach them the richness of the English language. Right? When I talk about giving students more colorful vocabulary, I’m not talking about profanity. I’m referring to the opportunity to teach them about word variety.

How do you push students to expand their vocabulary and actually put words into use?

Tip 1: Increase self-awareness. If students have too much repetition in their speech, I point it out. I can easily do this in their writing, highlighting grammatical structures or specific words that repeat too often. I’ve been able to catch instances of repetition in students’ speaking through recordings. For small groups, I’m able to transcribe short audio submissions and highlight repetitive use of words.

Tip 2: Get students involved in the substitution process. Once I call attention to repetition, I suggest alternatives, but only the first time. In later instances, I highlight words and prompt the student to reword the text.

Tip 3: Invite follow-up practice. When students submit audio recordings to me the first time, they get my feedback, which includes suggestions for alternative wording. They then have the option to resubmit a recording for the same task. In the context of a conversation class, I stress the importance of not reading off a script, but rather restating the same ideas a second time with more accuracy and confidence.

Tip 4: Post a word list that students can easily refer to. I know I’m not the first to suggest this. I’ve seen plenty of classroom infographics. As attractive as ready-made charts are, I think there’s more value in a customized word list. How about working together to create a list of words that can substitute overused ones? Have a group brainstorming session and then ask the students to create the final design. A digital file can be shared and posted online. Are students using “good” too often? Compile a list including words like high quality, exceptional, solid, outstanding, and reliable. 

Tip 5: Focus on context. “Outstanding” could substitute “very good” if we’re talking about a job candidate, but so would highly qualified or highly skilled. In fact, those choices would be more accurate. If you compile a word list, consider using phrases rather than single words. Use phrases that fit the topics students have spoken about. Examples:
a very good candidate > a highly qualified candidate
good customer service > exceptional customer service
a good trip > a memorable trip, a fun trip, a really enjoyable trip
a good performance > a solid performance
a good worker > a reliable worker
I had a good time. > I had a blast.

Which words do you think students tend to overuse the most?

Photo credit: Painting, Acrylic, Paint, Background by Mondschwinge. Retrieved from the Public Domain at

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