How to teach vocabulary: making your lessons more effective

Vocabulary is an important part of language study, especially for younger learners and low levels of ability. However, teachers often gloss over opportunities for deep practice with new words and phrases – we often only have time to teach things once, and then we are flying on to the next thing without giving sufficient chance for students to practice new words. Vocabulary retention may take longer than we assume; just because we teach a word, it doesn’t mean the students will learn it, so here are some ways of bringing more depth and long-term retention into your teaching, both directly in individual lessons and continuously across longer periods of study.

If you´d like to read more about exploiting reading lessons for vocabulary work, then check out this post on why reading is important.

1) Contextualise new words to aid retention

As with all new language, new words and phrases are most easily retained by students if they are learnt through a strong context. Context forms a foundation for new language as it is presented, and helps learners to process new words in situations where they frequently occur in real communication.

When planning  list of words to teach, think of ways to connect them together. Some groups of words, such as types of food, animals or jobs, may already fit together nicely as topic-based lists, but when we teach reading or listening lessons, the connections may not be so clear.

A good solution for this is to invent a story which includes the words one by one, and tell the story in class, pausing as you reach the target words, to elicit and drill as you go along. It may seem a little artificial, but the mental links formed as the students listen to the story will help them to retain the new words more deeply.

2) Present meaning before form

Perhaps the greatest golden rule of language teaching, which underpins the presentation of almost any new language is to teach meaning before form. This means that the concept of a word or phrase, given to the students in a simply-worded form, is more likely to be understood before the new (unknown) word is presented.

The theory behind this is that any learner can understand the concepts of the target words you are teaching, whether they know the word for it in English or not. Thus, a quick, easy definition of the thing or idea you are teaching helps learners to understand what you are about to present, rather than new, unknown language confusing them as a starting point.

For each of the words or phrases you teach, think of a simple way of defining or exemplifying its concept. Check that all students follow what you are describing, and then ask for the specific word in English. If someone in the class knows the word, so much the better. If not, then this is the ideal point for you to give them the word. This meaning-to-form elicitation technique gives your learners the conceptual information they need before they have access to the word itself.

Let´s look at an example: A story elicitation of the following randomly selected words:

Target words / phrases: hairband, toffees, branch, air conditioner, hinge

Elicitation story: Let me tell you a story about my friend Lucy. Lucy has beautiful long hair, but when she is at work, she doesn’t want it to get into her eyes, so she wears something to keep her hair off her face. It’s plastic
and goes over the top of her head. What is it?

Hairband – drill for pronunciation and write the word on the whiteboard

Well, Lucy was sitting at work, on her break, and she wanted something sweet to eat, but she doesn’t like chocolate, so she has some sticky sugary sweets that she chews and chews. What kind of sweet does she like?

Toffees – drill for pronunciation and write the word on the whiteboard

Anyway, Lucy started feeling really hot, and she tried to turn on the machine that puts out cold air in the summer and keeps us cool – the….

Air conditioner – drill for pronunciation and write the word on the whiteboard

…but she couldn’t make it work. She checked the box inside and out, and found a big piece of tree was stuck into the outside of the machine. It was a long thick piece of wood that had blown down in a storm. It was a…

Branch – drill for pronunciation and write the word on the whiteboard

She called a workman to come and fix the air conditioner, but he couldn’t open up the box outside the window because the special piece of metal which lets you open the top of the box, like on a door, had been smashed by the branch. She needed to buy a new…

Hinge – drill for pronunciation and write the word on the whiteboard

Along with the story, gesture, mime and pictures could be used to further fix the target concepts of these words before they are presented to the students.

3) Connect to similar words

Another effective way of generating connections between words is by focusing on collocation. Investigating words that are often found together in high frequency phrases or chunks of language can highlight patterns of usage that go way beyond word lists and studying words as individual items, out of context.

For example, if you are teaching in the context of festivals and holidays, we often teach a list of holiday names such as Christmas, New Year, Easter, Thanksgiving, birthday, anniversary, Halloween
However, by looking at collocations with those festival names, we can learn more deeply about some of these holidays. For example, which of the above festival titles can be followed by the word ‘cake’? Which can be followed by ‘party’? or ‘present’? What does each of these collocations tell you about the festivals themselves?

4) Investigate word families

Why teach one word, when there are six or seven similar words which come from the same stem? Many learners, especially those from Asian language backgrounds, find the differences between noun, verb and adjective forms challenging. Generating word families with all forms of the word (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and other phrases and collocations) can clarify when and why we use words with certain endings (-ation for nouns, -able for adjectives, -ly for adverbs) and differentiate similar forms for use by students.

The organisation of a word family chart or table also lends itself to a range of word games and puzzles (tic tac toe, four in a row, blockbusters, jeopardy and bingo are all based around blocks or squares which have to be ‘won’ by players, so why not play for words of different classes, guessing or defining to win members of the word family?

5) Recycle regularly

Finally, revisiting new language (especially new vocabulary) regularly is essential if students are to retain what you teach them. Keep a word box in your classroom, with weekly undles of cards containing words you have learnt this week. At the end of the week, get out the cards and play collecting or defining games (happy families, Pictionary, charades, back-to-the-board, etc.) to recycle newly learnt words and phrases in different ways.

As the course of study goes on, mix in words from different weeks to provide extra opportunities to make contact with new language, and your learners will retain them and be ready to use them in the long term.

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About the Author

Tom Garside

Tom worked as EfA’s former Director of Teacher Training, and has over 18 years of teaching and training experience in Europe, New Zealand and China. He holds a degree in Linguistics and French, Cambridge CELTA and DELTA qualifications, a Post-Graduate Diploma in TESOL and an MATESOL. He previously trained teachers in Europe as part of the European Union Comenius teacher development project where he provided initial training for the Trinity CertTESOL and in-service training for native and non-native-speaker teachers in a wide range of teaching situations. He is the author of Tesol: A Gateway Guide for Teachers of English.

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