Lexis is the linguistic term for the vocabulary of a language. It is arguably the most important aspect of learning any language because it is the study of words, and without words, we cannot think or communicate.

The importance of strong lexis instruction in the classroom cannot be stressed enough. This section will discuss the various categories of lexical items: etymologies, euphemisms, modern slang, synonyms & antonyms, compounds, collectives, homophones, lexical sets, affixes, collocations, and idiomatic expressions. We will explore different ways to approach these subjects, what is important for EFL students to know, and how to use lexical items through contextualized examples.

Take a look at the following group of words. Which one do you think does NOT belong with the others?

glum                    upset                            inspired              cheerless


Synonyms are words that have the same or similar meanings

All of the words above are synonyms of “sad” except for “inspired.” Teaching students various words to express the same or similar feelings will diversify their communication skills and allow them more precision. Other synonyms include:

  • Pretty – beautiful, attractive, gorgeous, good-looking
  • Tired – exhausted, weary, sleepy, drained, fatigued
  • Happy – glad, content, pleased, joyful, cheerful

Now take a look at the following words. Which one do you think does NOT belong with the others?

terrible               idyllic                  blissful                         wonderful


Words with opposite meanings are known as antonyms. Quite obviously the odd word out above is “terrible.” Other antonyms include:

  • black – white
  • on – off
  • right – wrong

Synonyms and antonyms are a good way to hone in on the meaning of new vocabulary. Whenever presenting new vocabulary, teachers should include the antonym and a few synonyms if possible to enhance comprehension.

Now take a look at the following words. Which one do you think does NOT belong with the others?

there                            their                    these                            they’re     

Homonyms, Homographs & Lexical Sets

Homonyms are words that have exactly the same spelling and the same pronunciation but different meanings.

For example:

  • bear (the big, furry animal)
  • bear (to support or hold the weight of something)
  • bear (to give birth to)

Homophones are words with the same pronunciation, but different spelling (usually) and different meaning. “These” is the only word in the previous group that did not sound like the others. Here are some more homophones:

  • four, for, fore
  • see, sea
  • too, two, to
  • blue, blew
  • bear, bare
  • sew, so

All these homophones have the same pronunciation, but they are spelled differently and have completely different meanings. This can be frustrating for students and is often the cause for spelling errors. They can be useful when introducing the pronunciation of new words. Students learning the word blew can be given the word blue (which they will most likely know by then) as a model for pronunciation.

*Remember: if it sounds the same but it’s spelled differently, it’s a homophone. Homographs are words that are spelled the same, but generally have different pronunciation and different meanings. Some homographs are especially tricky which have the same spelling and the same pronunciation, but different meanings.

For example:

same pronunciation

  • lead  (to show someone the way)
  • lead  (a position of advantage in a contest/game)

different pronunciation

  • lead  (the heavy, bluish metal)
  • lead  (the starring role in a play or movie)

To clarify, the term homonym is  ambiguous, which creates a lot of obvious confusion. In some rare cases, words can be both homographs and homophones. When the sound is different they are homographs . When the spelling is different, they are homophones.

These types of words will be discussed in further detail later in this section under the title Words with Multiple Meanings.

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