Word Association | ESL Vocabulary Activity | English Vocab

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ESL vocabulary activity

This word association activity is an ideal way to help students activate prior knowledge that they might have about a topic. Or, you can use it at the end of a unit to show students how much they have learned!

The key to having a happy ESL classroom is to mix things up in your classes. After all, nobody likes doing the same thing over and over again. Try out some new activities today…here’s a simple vocabulary one you can start with.

Word Association ESL Vocabulary Activity

Skills: Reading/writing/speaking

Age: 7+ (must be able to read + write)

Materials Required: Workbook or butcher paper and pens

Word Association is an ESL vocabulary activity that can be used to introduce a new topic, lesson, theme, etc. You have to write a single relevant word in the middle of the board or paper and have students take turns adding as many words or images related to that word as possible.

For example…the centre word could be “school.” Some of the other branches could be subjects (Math, English, History, Gym, etc) while another branch could be school supplies (pen, paper, ruler, etc.) Finally, you might have one about recess or break time (play games, tag, climb, jump, swing set). And keep going with more associations from there.

For large classes, have students work in groups with separate pieces of paper taped to the wall or the top of the table/ grouped desks. After a given amount of time (3-5 minutes, or when you see no one is adding anything new), discuss their answers.

Teaching Tips for This ESL Vocabulary Activity

For large classes, butcher paper works best, so more students can write at one time. If that isn’t possible, have 5-6 board markers available.

If using butcher paper, prepare in advance, including taping to the wall, unless students will be working at their desks. Finally, if students will be working at their desks, write the word on each table’s page in advance, but don’t hand them out until you have given your instructions.

This activity is often quite a fun way to start off a holiday themed class. For even more ideas, check out: ESL Christmas Activities and Games.

Procedure for Word Association Game

1. Write a single word relevant to your new topic, lesson, or theme on the white board or butcher paper.

2. Have students take turns adding as many words or images related to that word as possible.

3. After 3-5 minutes (or less, if no one is adding anything new), discuss their answers.

Word Associations Activity for ESL


You may wish to spend quite a bit of time teaching your students how to do mind-mapping, or brainstorming the first time they do it. This is because it can be a very useful skill that they can take with them to all of their classes. It’s often a great first step before doing almost any kind of writing task or project.

Remember to teach your students that they’re not to edit their ideas at this point. Just to write down anything that comes to mind. And that they should also be doing this very quickly.

Like this ESL Vocabulary Activity?

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Learn more about Student-Centered Language Teaching

Word Association ESL Vocabularly Activity

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