Great English Teaching Strategies –
Big Boy/Big Girl Word Lists
Using Better Vocabulary in Class
by Frank Holes
Do you want your students to get into the habit of using a more sophisticated
vocabulary and to avoid using simplistic or redundant words and phrases?
Are you tired of reading 'got', 'a lot', and 'thing' in your students' writing?
Would you like them to use the vocabulary words from your textbook, chapter,
This teaching technique, originally designed for middle school students,
could be adapted for ESL students anywhere in the world.
A great idea is to use a 'Big Boy and Big Girl' word list. This is a set
of specific vocabulary you want students to use in class, in discussions,
and in their writing.
This name indicates that the students will be using bigger, more sophisticated
and descriptive words that the 'big boys' and 'big girls' use.
On a wall of my classroom, I've put up a poster of the basic words I never
want to see in my students' use in writing.
The six banned words in my room are: got, a lot, thing, something, anything,
and like (as in “she was like … and he was like … and then
I was like …”).
At the beginning of the year, I teach the kids about word choice and why
it is important to use both specific and creative alternatives to the mundane
words most of our students will use if not challenged.
We discuss the banned words and their definitions. Then we brainstorm and
list alternatives to each banned word. This becomes the start of our 'Big
Boy/Big Girl' list.
This poster is right next to the front board where I can add to the list.
Big Boy/Big Girl words are added throughout the year, along with the
Instead of 'a lot', students can use 'frequent' or 'often'. Instead of 'big',
we brainstormed 'huge', 'gigantic', 'and 'humongous'.
The word 'thing' is the common stand in for virtually any noun, and could
refer to a person, a place, an idea, or an object. In this case, have the
students be specific in their naming of the 'thing', and use descriptive
words and phrases instead of the simple banned word.
We also put together a list of banned words for speeches and class presentations.
Students are not allowed to use 'like' in their normal adolescent parlance,
such as "I was like..." and "he was like..." or "like this and like that".
We also never tolerate terms or phrases like 'this sucks'. And the ever famous
'um' and 'uh' are not allowed. Instead we teach the students to pause and
take a breath, then continue. Students lose significant points on these
presentations if they say banned words.
You as the teacher can decide on what words you want your students to use
or ban in class. This is a great opportunity to require them to use important
terms and vocabulary from your curriculum.
And in short mini lessons, you and the students can brainstorm alternatives
to many simplistic words, which reinforces the student's acquisition of the
Ok, now this is a great idea, but how is it enforced? Once we've had the
mini lesson on word choice and discussed the list and banned words, I inform
students that I will not accept any assignments in which I find a banned
The assignment automatically becomes a zero, unless the student fixes the
problem. If they don't, the zero remains. Although this may seem to be a
more time consuming task for the teacher, the students pick up on the concept
It may take you a bit more time and effort on the front end, but you'll reap
bigger rewards the rest of the year as soon as the students pick up the habit.
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Frank Holes, Jr.