Panayotis used to be one of my Proficiency students. When I took over his class, he had already taken the examination twice… and failed both times.

There were few words for which Panayotis could not provide synonyms, antonyms, but translation was his forte! Always keen to share his treasure trove, as he could so easily outshine the others, he used to exasperate me by regularly undoing all the hard work of trying to persuade my class that translation was rarely a good idea.

Yet, despite all this treasure trove of words in his head, his oral work was halting and inaccurate and his writing even worse of a shock.

Like most of our learners who “know” the words, he was mainly preoccupied with quantity. Once he had the meaning of the word “pinned down”, he was satisfied that he ‘knew’ it and moved on to “learn” another word.

A perennial problem with vocabulary learning, this is not the only one. Students come to our classes with a number of set attitudes and it is often these attitudes that we have to battle in order to help them become successful language users. Here are a few, some perhaps already familiar to you:

  • If I write the meaning in Greek/Italian/Japanese, I will remember it.
  • If I study and memorize the word lists in my notebook, I will be able to communicate well.
  • I have to know all the meanings of a word; teachers who give me all the meanings are better. They are the ones who know their job.
  • If I do not know a word, I cannot understand the rest of the sentence or paragraph.
  • I cannot speak unless I know all the words I need.

These attitudes reflect the simplistic view that a language is merely a finite collection of grammatical structures and lexical items. If we know the rules of grammar and the meaning of the words, then we can communicate in that language.

Yet, we know beyond the shadow of a doubt, that there is more to a language than that. We know that there are rules of use governing spoken and written discourse without which communication becomes extremely difficult or ineffective.

Who is to blame? The teachers or the learners?

The fault may be on one or the other side, or even both. Students come to our classes with a set of attitudes, expectations and strategies for learning vocabulary that may not be the best ones.

Teachers, on the other hand, have for generations believed that it is “their job” to explain and that their job is done with explanation.  Some inappropriate teaching strategies and their possible results follow on

Teaching Strategy

Possible Result

Words are presented in isolation  –  context & field are not given use; tenor/style, register are not given  prominence Students have problems with which form to use; or they choose the wrong tenor/style’ connotation and register are largely ignored
All uses/meanings of a word are presented & recorded at the same time There is memory overload and confusion; the learners cannot decide which word, which meaning to use unprompted.
No dictionary training is given to  students; no guidance as to when and how to use dictionaries Dependence on the teacher; uncontrollable dictionary delving; inability to use dictionaries efficiently; student panic and look up every word
Words are assumed to have been ‘learnt’  once they have recorded in a vocabulary  notebook Words are easily forgotten once they are recorded in lists and students cannot use them for talking or writing
Vocabulary presentation is limited to   teachers talking through glossaries or  explicating vocabulary in lecture style Students do not acquire strategies for recording, recalling and revising vocabulary covered in class
Vocabulary practice is limited to testing  the students’ memory; no time is given to              revision/ consolidation through oral & written practices in class Frustration when, once outside the class and confronted by native or non-native users, students cannot access or recall the words they need in order to communicate effectively
Vocabulary is recorded either alphabetically or ‘by the unit’. Thus, completely  unrelated words are lumped together with no unifying theme or link to help memory Students have problems when trying to find vocabulary they have covered for use in productive skills, e..g. writing a topical report, prepare a presentation; they usually end up using bilingual dictionaries

Dictionaries & Learner Training

Training learners in the use of dictionaries is important in fostering learner autonomy and this has started to receive a lot of attention. Published materials which try to help learners find their way around a dictionary and use it to best effect now exist, so there is plenty of help available to the teacher and the learner. Also, learner training material is now available, both in coursebooks as well as in study skills publications.

Words in Text & Training Learners to be Good Guessers

Training learners to use context clues in order to guess the meaning of words is another important learning strategy; yet we do have to persuade them that this is a valuable step toward independence for activities of this kind to work and for learners to feel comfortable and happy about not having an exact mother tongue equivalent, synonym or definition for each and every word.

There are numerous activities to train students to guess words from the surrounding context, some more and some less guided. Some examples follow:

  • The teacher provides a list of definitions and students ‘hunt’ through the text to find the word that matches the meaning.
  • The teacher provides a list of near synonyms or antonyms and students do a similar task as before.
  • Students are asked to examine certain words closely and to try to guess their meaning from the shape of the word.
  • Students explore the logical connections of ideas in a text and use these to guess the meaning of unknown items.

Problems with the right forms – the Grammar of Words

Often students are familiar with one form of the word but do not know its grammar, so they use it incorrectly. Some work with derivatives, i.e. building up charts with all the derivatives of a word and sentence rewriting activities using another form of a word,, might help learners expand their vocabulary and raise grammatical and syntactic awareness at the same time.

Collocation – the company words keep

Collocation, i.e. which other words precede/ follow a particular word, is another serious problem, intensified by the tendency to record words in isolation. Again, there is plentiful material to help the teacher and with the advent of the Lexical Approach and its interest in collocation, concordancing and phrase teaching, there is plenty of material available, much of it freely available on the world wide web.

Connotation – Words with an Attitude

The learner who calls you ‘very skinny’ is clearly not paying you a compliment even if s/he has the best intentions. Lists of words related in meaning can be sorted under headings such as POSITIVE, DEPENDING ON CONTEXT & NEGATIVE so that Ss can have a clear record of this. These types of activities are also valuable way of revising vocabulary covered in class and can be used as preparation for oral or writing activities.

Suggested Overall Teaching Strategy

Words need to be encountered and observed operating in context, which is how we managed to amass a huge number of words, naturally, correctly and appropriately when we learnt our mother tongue.

Yet, thousands upon thousands upon thousands of class hours are wasted every year (in my view, of course) with teachers ‘explicating’ the vocabulary in course books or multiple choice items in very great and unnecessary detail. The mind reels!

Imagine if all these hours had been usefully employed to expose students to stretches of natural discourse/ authentic texts in which language appears in context. We learn words, i.e. they are firmly embedded in our mental lexicons, after we have encountered them in context several times. If instead of doing this we do ‘busy work’ like lecturing students about vocabulary, how much change is there of that happening?

We store words in groups that have related meanings, much like the famous Roget’s Thesaurus (an excellent reference book by the way for teachers and advanced learners). Doesn’t it seem logical then that classroom practice activities should exploit this ability of humans so that we can strengthen instead of weaken the networks in our brain?

Practical activities need to be included in lessons giving learners:

a. opportunities for exploring and discovering meaning for themselves

b. activation of images and associations to make words memorable

c. opportunities to strengthen networks and files where these words will be eventually (hopefully) stored for later recall

d. practice (including chances to make mistakes! – a valuable step in the learning process) in using these words for themselves.

You can find a lot of useful activities related to vocabulary practice and real use in a post on Using Companions which was posted in this blog some time ago.

Vocabulary learning is one of the two most important building blocks of language acquisition. Without words, we cannot communicate any ideas or information.

Yet, vocabulary teaching techniques have remained firmly entrenched in traditional approaches perpetuating styles of learning which are learned and scholarly but which do not really respond to the demands of the communative era.

Using Web 2.0 and bringing new technologies into our lessons

The wonder of the new Web 2.0 activities on the web available on various websites which offer free vocabulary practice may get some teachers to think that the mere use of these technologies is sufficient to make vocabulary learning more effective and more memorable.

There is, of course, an element of truth in this. Learners who are working on vocabulary through more motivating tools than just a teacher explicating and lecturing about vocabulary, may have a higher chance of retention.

But tools must be chosen carefully and selection needs to be made on the same principles used by a teacher in the classroom.

Tools which merely explain, which offer practice out of context and which encourage the same views as a traditional teacher in the grammar-translation era (which, unfortunately, still lives on) are merely perpetuating the same set of learning habits.

Instead, do please look for websites and Web 2.0 applications which will encourage learning language in chunks, promote guesswork, help the learners organise vocabulary in semantic groups or fields to help them create work networks in their mind and to help with easier access and recall.

Some useful Web Tools for Vocabulary Learning

Below you can find some useful vocabulary links in related posts, websites and specific tools.

  • Vocabulary 2.0: 15 tips, tools and resources, posted by Shelly Terrell, contains some great ideas on how to use some Web 2.0 tools in the classroom productively.
  • Breaking News English a website with free materials for teachers produced by Sean Banville, includes dozens of lessons where the vocabulary is taught with and through the text.
  • Listen a Minute is another great website by Sean Banville where the students can work with vocabulary in context.
  • Train your learners, especially advanced learners, to notice words, simply by googling them and observing them in action.
  • Teach them how to use corpuses such as The TIME Corpus of American English
  • How to Use the American Corpus in the Classroom – this is a tutorial which shows you how to use the corpus in the previous entry. If you scroll down the page you will also see some suggestions for activities
  • WordSift is a wonderful online tool which makes wordclouds from texts, highlights the most frequent topical words and offers up images and the Visual Thesaurus dictionary tool to check out related vocabulary, all in one page. You can learn how to use it by watching/listening to this wonderful online tutorial by Russell Stannard From the tutorial, you can also see how this tool is very useful for looking at genre-specific vocabulary
  • Follow Randall’s wonderful collection of vocabulary lessons and let him inspire you with ideas on how to deal with vocabulary

But above all, forget the notion that you are a walking dictionary and allow your learners to take over and deal with their own vocabulary learning.

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