Saturday, December 31, 2016

Guidelines for Teaching Vocabulary

A large number of words, phrases, and chunks are acquired incidentally via reading and/or listening to stories, articles, and news items out of class. Similarly, many words are learned from textbooks, teachers, and classmates. In this post, I will shed light on how vocabulary is usually presented and taught in class. 


Commercial textbooks usually use different techniques to present new vocabulary. Context-based vocabulary lessons are the most common method for presenting vocabulary. Materials writers most often integrate teaching receptive skills with teaching vocabulary.  You can notice that most reading and listening texts contain subskills exercises such as gist and comprehensions questions followed by grammar or vocabulary work. The reason is that presenting vocabulary through a reading or listening text is more engaging and logical for learners to grasp the new items.

Another common way of presenting vocabulary is through lexical-theme lists. Some coursebooks include a vocabulary reference at the end of the book with many vocabulary items along with their pictures (similar to a picture dictionary). The downside of this approach is that learners get overwhelmed by learning too many words out of context within short time and little practice. 

A third way of presenting vocabulary is called “situational presentation”. In this method, the teacher uses a picture to build a story around, feeding in the vocabulary she intends to teach. It is sometimes time-consuming, but the effect it has on students is worthwhile, especially if the teacher has personalized the story or dialogue.  You can narrate a story about your last holiday to teach words and collocations such as package holiday, sunbathe, go sightseeing, four-star hotel, make a reservation, etc. Tell your story to the learners twice, let them ask some questions, and then give them the script and ask them to underline the words and phrases (hyponyms) related to the superordinate word “holiday”. Put students in pairs and ask them to work out the new vocabulary items from context. 


The presentation stage of any kind must be followed by a clarification and practice stages to enable learners to learn, remember, and prepare for using the new vocabulary productively and correctly. Teachers should choose seven to eight key items from the text to clarify their meaning, form, word class, and pronunciation. They are also advised to teach these words in context. But there are times when they need to write these words in isolation to highlight a certain linguistic feature such as stress. In reading texts, students see the form of a new word before they get the meaning, and that allows them to make guesses about it from the co-text and context, which is an important sub-skill they always need in real life. 

On the other hand, students are introduced to the sounds of the new items in listening texts before meaning. In this case, they need to use their general knowledge about the subject (schemata) and their bottom-up (linguistic) knowledge as well to get the meaning. In any case, meaning must be established and clarified as soon as possible for learners wouldn’t be able to connect the new lexis with other words they know and store them in their memory unless they get their meanings. the teacher could use a variety of modes for conveying meaning of a vocabulary item, such as giving a definition, using a gesture, cline, example sentence, picture, synonym or antonym, etc. Using one or a combination of these techniques depends on the word at hand. For instance, an effective way to explain the word “mild” is to write a sentence example and put it on a cline: It’s mild today; let’s have a walk (boiling -hot - mild - cold -  freezing). Having conveyed the meaning, the teacher is advised to use concept checking questions (CCQs) to check if the learners have got the correct meaning. 

When pinpointing the form of a lexeme, a teacher should consider the word class (whether the word is a noun, verb, adjective, etc.) and spelling, especially if it is at odds with its pronunciation. Teaching other words within the same word family would be appropriate at this stage. For instance, it is easy for a student to learn the word “anger” if he has learned ‘angry”. Pronunciation comes next; the teacher drills the lexis chorally and individually indicating the correct place of stress. For more details on what aspects of a word a teacher should teach, and examples for using CCQs and anticipated problems, click here.


So far there is no guarantee that learns are able to use the words at hand productively. In other words, they are still passive. We need to put the word to work. The mainly teacher-centered clarification stage must be followed by student-centered production activities. New vocabulary items should occur in different exercises which cognitively engage the learners. Learners need to do some controlled practice such as identifying, matching, gap-fills, sentence completion, grouping words in categories. The practice such exercises provide helps students get the new items round their minds. The more students make decisions about words the more they remember them (Thornbury, 2002).


Having done some of the above controlled-practice exercises, students should be ready for freer production activities, in which they use the target language in speaking or writing activities. If learners have learned shopping words and phrases such as get a refund, exchange, on sale, etc., the teacher can set a role-play where student A is the shop assistant and student B is a customer. If students have practiced holiday vocabulary such as sunbathe, go sightseeing, take photos, they can practice these items in speaking or writing about their last holiday. 

Production activities should be guided by the teacher with simple instructions and/or a demonstration so as students know exactly what is required from them. A good production exercise is the one that asks learners to personalize the target language to talk about themselves or someone they know. Production exercises are similar should be similar to real-life discourse when learners use the language to communicate with others. The class is a great place to prepare students for real-world communication. Hence, the time allocated for controlled practice and freer production tasks must be much longer than the time allotted to the presentation stage. 

While students are conducting the production activities, the teacher is recommended to take notes of good language use and common errors from the students' practice for delayed error correction stage. After the learners have finished the speaking or writing activity, she writes the notes on the board and has the students mark the sentences correct and incorrect. Then she praises them for the correct use of the new items and gives them a time limit to correct the mistakes in the wrong sentences. 

Even students have done enough practice in one session, they are still prone to forget the new items in short time if they haven’t encountered/revised the vocabulary again. Recycling activities must be taking into great consideration for they enable students to store the items in long-term memory. You could start or end your lesson with a short recycling activity. And make sure you distribute the vocabulary over a number of recycling activities in different sessions (Thornbury, 2002). Click here for a list of my top five recycling activities. 

If you have any interesting ideas on teaching vocabulary, please share them with us in the comment box below.  

Thornbury, S. (2002). How to teach vocabulary. England: Pearson Education Limited

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