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Teaching Vocabulary

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What does it mean to know a word?

Vocabulary is crucial for getting meaning from a written or oral text. To understand a text, learners need to know words, and 'knowing a word involves knowing: its spoken and written contexts of use, its patterns with words of related meaning…' . When teaching vocabulary it is then necessary to consider aspects like denotation, polysemy, connotation and sociocultural aspects when teaching a second or foreign language so that learners are able to get meaning from texts.

    • What it means
    • The form
    • How it is pronounced
    • How it is spelt
    • If it follows any unpredictable grammatical patterns
    • The connotations that the item may have
    • The situations when the word is or is not used
    • How the word is related to others
    • Collocation or the way that words occur together
    • What the affixes (the prefixes and suffixes) may indicate about the meaning

Decomposing learner's task

We can not give effective vocabulary teaching unless we know what difficulties and problems that L2 learners are encountered with in learning new words. Specifically, there are three areas where students may experience great difficulty in vocabulary learning: word remembering and retention, word recognition in context and active and accurate word production in speech and in writing. Vocabulary can not be successfully taught unless we have developed a good understanding of the nature of learners' difficulty in these three areas.

With hundreds of thousands of words in the English language, teaching vocabulary can seem like a very daunting prospect. Remember though that the average native speaker uses around only five thousand words in everyday speech. Moreover, your students won't need to produce every word they learn, some they will just need to recognize. Selecting what to teach, based on frequency and usefulness to the needs of your particular students is therefore essential. Once you have chosen what to teach, the next important steps are to consider what students need to know about the items, and how you can teach them.

Presenting new words

Apart from the methods we discussed in the class, such as illustration, mime, synomyms, anotnyms, definition, translation, examples, etc. There are also alternative ways of presenting new words, such as

  • Give your students a few items of vocabulary and tell them to find the meaning, pronunciation and write an example sentenced with the word in. They can then teach each other in groups.
  • Prepare worksheets and ask your students to match words to definitions.
  • Ask students to classify a group of words into different categories. For example, a list of transport words into air/sea/land.
  • Ask students to find new vocabulary from reading homework and teach the other students in the class.
  • Review the vocabulary you teach through a game or activity and encourage your students to do the same at home
  • Encourage autonomy in your learners. Tell them to read, watch films, listen to songs etc and note the useful words
  • Have a section of your board for vocabulary items that come up as you are teaching. Use different colours for the word / the phonemics / the prepositions / the part of speech

Remembering vocabulary

There are many things we can do to make the learning process more memorable for our learners. Using pictures, interesting contexts and stories can help memory and giving the students the opportunity to practise the new vocabulary in personalised and meaningful tasks are also essential tools. The idea is that if the students are asked to analyse and react personally to new information, it will help them process the language more deeply, facilitating their ability to retain it in their long term memory. This also is a powerful argument for using guided discovery techniques that require the students to find the meaning of vocabulary (with help and guidance from the teacher) and to own the learning process.

Further Resources and Recommended Readings

This site contains may interesting activities and games for classroom vocabulary teaching, and some tips of incorporating vocabulary teaching into EFL classes on this webpage.

This paper, written by Paul Nation, a widely recognized specialist in vocabulary teaching and learning, proposed many helpful ideas of teaching EFL words.

This paper gives a very brief introduction to The Lexical Approach.

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