Developing vocabulary, improving written work, and enhancing computer use

Simon Handy, Kyoto University of Foreign Studies


Quick guide

  • Key words: Thesaurus, word processor, electronic dictionary, crossword
  • Learner English level: Pre-intermediate and up
  • Learner maturity: Senior high school and above
  • Preparation time: 45 minutes
  • Activity time: 90 minutes
  • Materials: Thesauruses and dictionaries (computer or paper-based), students’ written work


This lesson gives students practice in using thesauruses to give their language new variety. This helps them improve their vocabulary and the range of words used in written compositions. A thesaurus is arranged like a dictionary, but rather than giving the definition of a word, it provides words with similar meanings (synonyms) and often opposites as well (antonyms). Thesauruses are available in book or online form, in most word processorsand, increasingly, in many electronic dictionaries.


Step 1: Go to a library and find thethesauruses and dictionaries. See how many you can borrow and think about how they can be distributed in your class.

Step 2: Look through your students’ work and find the words that are most often repeated. Typical words are interesting,like,enjoy andso so. Using these words as your clues or hints, create a crossword puzzle online and print it out (see below for several sites which can help you with this). Select words from the thesaurus that the students will then have to find as the answers (fascinating,fond of,take pleasure in,andindifferent for the above examples). The kinds of words you select will depend on the proficiency level of your students and what you want to highlight to them.

Step 3: Make sure you have examples of written work for the students to work on in the final stage. These can be the students’ own writings, those of other students, or a piece that you have created to highlight the vocabulary in question.


Step 1: Distribute the dictionaries, thesauruses, and crosswords as best suits your class. On the board, show the class an example of what you would like them to do.

Step 2: Circulate to monitor and help. Then check the answers in open class. The time taken to complete this task depends on how many words you choose to put into the crossword and how well your learners can manipulate a dictionary or thesaurus. It is a good idea to do some preparation on dictionary or thesaurus use in classes running up to this.

Step 3: The students should now be ready to look at some of their previous written work and introduce new words from the thesaurus. It is important they are aware they cannot simply replace vocabulary word for word, as the uses of words and phrases can vary. Similar meanings can be verified by crosschecking the old and new words in a dictionary. Monitor to ensure your students are using new vocabulary appropriately.

Step 4: (optional) Students can exchange their work to reflect on improvement and the kinds of words they have used.


Using a thesaurus is a powerful way for students to improve vocabulary and written work. Sadly, very few learners are aware of the thesaurus and its usefulness. In ancient Greek thesauros was a storehouse or treasury. Your students will feel they have discovered a treasure store and become passionate users, helping them think and learn more about vocabulary and improving their overall word-power.


Suitable book thesauruses for students include the Collins Gem Dictionary and Thesaurus and the Oxford Mini Dictionary and Thesaurus, both of which are small, light and reasonably priced. Having both a dictionary and a thesaurus in one edition makes it easier for students to cross-refer between definitions and synonyms, as these are printed on the same page.

An online thesaurus is available at:

Free online resources for making various puzzles and quizzes can be found at: