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TEFL Program - teaching vocabulary so that it sticks

Page history last edited by augusta.cooper@gmail.com 13 years ago

Teaching Vocabulary so that it Sticks


Learning words and phrases so you can both understand and use them is of course essential to learning a language. It is central to expressing your thoughts and experiences, and to building relationships with others in that language. Being stuck with a small vocabulary can be frustrating, whereas having a wide range of vocabulary at your fingertips can be liberating and empowering. 


However, with so many words making up any language, it can sometimes seem difficult to know where to start and then where to go. Often teachers rely on their coursebook to help them here, without really analysing why they are teaching the vocabulary that the book requires them to.


This module and the one after it are designed to give you some insights into how you can teach vocabulary effectively, enjoyably, and in such a way that your students both remember and use it.


Exercise: Please note down your answers to the following questions.


1.     What kind of vocabulary do you think is useful for your students to learn?




2.     And which words and phrases do your students want to learn and use? What will inspire them, make them laugh, and excite their curiosity?




3.     How do your students meet new words and how do you explain them?




4.     How do you explore vocabulary with your students?




5.     How do your students record new words so they can remember them later?



Here are some of our thoughts on the above questions:



1. What kind of vocabulary do you think is useful for your students to learn?


There are 2 key areas to look at here (a) getting the basics in place and (b) building a vocabulary that is useful, interesting and fun  to learn and use.


a.     The Basics – establishing the foundation

It is clearly essential for every student to establish a base of very commonly used words. These are words students will see and hear time after time. It is essential for them to learn such words quickly in order to be able to start expressing themselves in English. 


The 100 most commonly used words according to the British National Corpus (2011) are listed in the Appendix at the end of this module. Not surprisingly, they include many items that form part of early years' English language syllabi - articles, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, auxiliary verbs, common verbs, question words, and determiners.


It is also important for students to be able to use words and phrases associated with learning English. These include:

  1. the alphabet
  2. words to describe language - noun, verb, adjective, etc
  3. important classroom language - read, listen, ask, 'turn to page..', discuss, 'what do you think?' etc


These words will help students understand how English is put together and will help them analyse the language that they create.


b.    Building on the Foundation

Once a base has been established, it is important to focus on vocabulary that will be useful to your students. There should be lots of vocabulary they will regularly want to use in their everyday conversations. This is called 'high frequency vocabulary'.


So, with younger students, it makes sense to teach 'frequency adverbs', 'talking about your family', or 'saying how you feel' for example, rather than 'things in the office', 'fairy tales', or 'writing complex sentences'.


The language you choose should accurately reflect the context of your students lives. So, if you are based in the foothills of the Himalaya, then the language of mountains, trekking, local crops, local family patterns, what students do outside class, and so on, is more relevant here than to students living in large coastal cities like Karachi, Rio de Janeiro or Mombasa, where students will live different lives with different concerns.


By focusing on high frequency vocabulary, students will come across these words and phrases regularly, understand how they are used, and then be able to use them in their own language.


Conversely, if students are asked to learn words they don't identify with and don't need to use, they will not remember them easily. It's an illustration of the old saying, 'use it or lose it!’.



2. And which words and phrases do your students want to learn and use? What will inspire them, make them laugh, and excite their curiosity?


The answer to this question should tie in closely to the points raised above. Learners of any language will want will want the words to express their ideas, tell stories, describe their lives and so on. They will also want to laugh - laughter can be a great vehicle for learning. So, any jokes, word games, fun activities you can introduce into your classroom, the more motivated and engaged your students will be.


As part of this, personalise the activities you do. Don't just follow the coursebook. Ask students to produce their own language using the target vocabulary. By describing their lives, their ideas and experiences, students will get a clear understanding of how vocabulary can be applied in practice.



3. How do your students meet and understand new words?


Meeting new words

Students will find new words in their coursebook and through what you introduce to them. To understand them, students must see them in a language context. Words don't happen in isolation. They occur in phrases, sentences, and dialogues. They are part of a conversation. So, use a contextualised approach, as follows.


When students meet a new word, try to avoid giving them an explanation or translation straight away. Ask them:

a.    what they think a word means from the others around it.

b.    to describe the meaning of a word to you - don't do this for them.

c.    to put the word into a sentence or a short dialogue (perhaps with some other new words).


Students can often help each other, so if a student is struggling, ask another to help out. Building vocabulary in pairs or small groups is good for students as there is less pressure on them to 'know' everything, and they can learn a lot from each other.


Explaining Words

If students cannot guess the meaning of a word, then of course it is your job to explain it in such a way that the class all understand it.


How many ways can you think of that you use to explain a new word or phrase?



Here are some ideas

  • say some sentences which have the new word in – then ask students to guess the meaning
  • mime it – so act the word out
  • draw it on the board
  • do it – so ‘whisper’ or ‘shout’ or ‘pick up’ or ‘put down’, etc
  • use an anecdote or short story – tell a story with the word appearing a few times – again, ask students to guess the meaning
  • act out short dialogue – again, include the word and ask students to say what they think it means
  • show it, for example 'window', 'shirt', or 'money'
  • Teach words with their opposites, so that students understand the meaning from something already familiar to them 
  • if some students know the word, ask them to explain the meaning to the others using their English


All these methods use English to explain new words. This is great for encouraging your students to get ‘inside’ the language. Ultimately, they should start thinking in English. However, from time to time, it may be necessary to simply translate the word. It may not always be practical to spend time working on new vocabulary if the exercise priorities are elsewhere.



4. How do you explore vocabulary with your students?


Look at groups of words. These could be word families, synonyms, antonyms, or lexical sets for example.


Quick exercise:

a.    What other words are in the same family for ‘beauty’?


b.    Write down some synonyms for ‘beautiful’ (words with a similar meaning)


c.    Write down some antonyms for ‘beautiful’ (words with an opposite meaning)


d.    Write down some physical characteristics that might go in the same ‘lexical set’ as ‘beauty’ (a lexical set is a group of words and phrases which share a connection)



Suggested answers:

a.    Word family: Beauty (noun), beautiful (adjective), beautifully (adverb), to beautify (verb)


b.    Synonyms: pretty, attractive, gorgeous, stunning, handsome


c.    Antonyms: ugly, plain, hideous, unattractive


d.    Lexical set: grace, elegance, attractiveness, ugliness, strength, youth


Look at Collocation (words which typically ‘go together’ in English)

As we said above, words do not exist in isolation. Ask your students to think about which words typically go before or after the word – ‘pretty’ often precedes ‘girl’ or ‘woman’, whereas ‘handsome’ tends to be used to precede ‘man’, for example. This is an example of ‘collocation’.


Here are some more involving verbs and nouns:

  • Have breakfast
  • Catch a bus
  • Do your homework
  • Take a photo of someone
  • Do business with someone
  • Make your bed
  • Lay the table for dinner
  • Have a baby
  • Do some shopping
  • Spend time with someone


And there are hundreds more to look out for and pass onto your students. By looking at collocations, your students will instantly get an idea of how words are used together in practice.



5.   How do your students record new words so they can remember them later?


Using a List

Most students have an exercise or copy book in which to write down new words. Many tend to do put new words in a list, perhaps writing the translation next to it.


However, this may not be the most efficient way recording new words so students remember them. Here’s why:

  • words in a list are often unconnected to each other, and may be an incoherent list of nouns, adjectives, verbs, etc
  • these words may be recorded without context
  • these words may be recorded without families/opposites/synonyms
  • these words may be recorded without a pronunciation key 


All these factors make a list of words difficult to remember and then to use in practice.


Other Ways of Recording Vocabulary


Here are some alternatives to a list:

  • record lexical sets together. Perhaps make a page for vocabulary groups, for example a page for topics like 'the weather', 'moods', or 'daily routines'. Or make pages for phrasal verbs using 'go', or prepostions of place, or 'making comparisons', etc.
  • record related words together – word families, synonyms, antonyms
  • ask students to draw pictures, such as 'parts of the body', 'houses', or specific scenes
  • use spider graphs – mind maps – to link words and phrases together
  • use context – so record new vocabulary in sentences, dialogues or stories
  • write down a pronunciation key so students can remember how to say a word correctly


This module has focused on which words to introduce into the class, how to get students to see them in context, how to explore vocabulary effectively, and how to record words so they can be remembered.


The next module looks at lots of fun activities to help students remember and practise new vocabulary.





Appendix: The 100 most commonly used words according to the British National Corpus (2011)


  1. the
  2. be
  3. of
  4. and
  5. a
  6. in (preposition: "in the old days")
  7. to (infinitive marker: "to sing")
  8. have
  9. it
  10. to (preposition: "to the country")

  11. for (preposition: "for you")
  12. I
  13. that (relative pronoun: "the book that I read")
  14. you
  15. he
  16. on (preposition: "on the beach")
  17. with (preposition: "with pleasure")
  18. do (verb: "I do")
  19. at (preposition: "at school")
  20. by (preposition: "by midnight")

  21. not
  22. this (determiner: "this page")
  23. but
  24. from (preposition: "from home")
  25. they
  26. his (determiner: "his job")
  27. that (determiner: "that song")
  28. she
  29. or
  30. which (determiner: "which book")

  31. as (conjunction: "as we agreed")
  32. we
  33. an
  34. say (verb: "say a prayer")
  35. will (auxiliary verb: "I will try")
  36. would
  37. can (auxiliary verb: "I can go")
  38. if
  39. their
  40. go (verb: "go now")
  41. what (determiner: "what time")

  42. there
  43. all (determiner: "all people")
  44. get (verb: "get busy")
  45. her
  46. make (verb: "make money")
  47. who
  48. as (preposition: "as a child")
  49. out (adverb: "go out")
  50. up (adverb: "go up")

  51. see (verb: "see the sky")
  52. know (verb: "know a place")
  53. time (time: "a time to laugh")
  54. take (verb: "take a break")
  55. them
  56. some (determiner: "some money")
  57. could
  58. so (adverb: "I said so")
  59. him
  60. year

  61. into (preposition: "into the room")
  62. its
  63. then
  64. think (verb: "think hard")
  65. my
  66. come (verb: "come early")
  67. than
  68. more (adverb: "more quickly")
  69. about (preposition: "about you")
  70. now

  71. last (adjective: "last call")
  72. your
  73. me
  74. no (determiner: "no time")
  75. other (adjective: "other people")
  76. give
  77. just (adverb: "just try")
  78. should
  79. these (determiner: "these days")
  80. people

  81. also
  82. well (adverb: "well written")
  83. any (determiner: "any day")
  84. only
  85. new (adjective: "new friend")
  86. very
  87. when (conjunction: "when you go")
  88. may (auxiliary verb: "you may go")
  89. way
  90. look (verb: "look here")

  91. like (preposition: "like a boat")
  92. use (verb: "use your head")
  93. her (pronoun: "give her")
  94. such (determiner: "such problems")
  95. how (adverb: "see how")
  96. because
  97. when (adverb: "know when")
  98. as (adverb: "as good")
  99. good (adjective: "good time")
  100. find (verb: "find time")

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