Four approaches to teaching vocabulary

This article is not so much about techniques you can use to make sure your students learn words etc as about the overall approach you take in choosing what language to cover in your classes and how to do so.

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net

1. Really learn a little vocabulary

This is perhaps what is most typically seen as good practice in ELT (English Language Teaching) – picking what language you want the students to learn (or letting them pick it themselves) from word lists, the textbooks, authentic texts etc and revising it various fun ways until they know it thoroughly and are likely to remember it for quite some time to come. Learning it thoroughly nowadays means not just remembering the meaning but also common collocations, pronunciation, different parts of speech, level of formality etc. Ways of practising it until they are ready to remember it include sticking to one topic for a few lessons in the hope that the same vocabulary comes up again and again, giving discussion questions with the vocabulary in the questions or designing them so that it is likely to come up in the answers, card games like pelmanism, speaking games like Taboo, regular revision tests, and having a Word Bag of vocabulary that the class is still working on.

This approach is suitable for most EFL classes at least some of the time, but you will need to choose the vocabulary carefully (or give the students guidance on what vocab they choose) so that they are not expending a lot of effort on words that they don’t really need (yet) while more important vocab is still waiting to be seen for the first time. If you aren’t careful, this approach can also lead to ignoring the difference between words that students will need a passive knowledge of and words they will want to be able to use. As with grammar, sometimes when students have “noticed” the vocabulary what they most need is some time and space to subconsciously absorb it and lots of examples of it in use in reading and listening texts before they consciously study it again and try to produce it. It might be that students would be more likely to see and hear that vocabulary by moving up to the next level or into authentic materials, and so need a lot of vocabulary to get them to that point as quickly as possible rather than trying to get mastery of “the basics” as suggested by this approach. There is also the potential problem of the whole class being held back while one student still struggles with a word they have a mental block on. The same is true of one student quickly learning a word (perhaps because of a similarity to L1 or because they formed a personal connection to it) and having to wait for the rest of the class to catch up. The teacher will also have to be careful to ensure that vocabulary practice activities include other skills and language rather than using up the class time that would otherwise be used for grammar, listening, etc. There is also the chance that seeing a word they are having difficulty with for the tenth time will make them hate it and so less likely to learn it, or that finally learning something they are having problems with uses up time they could have learnt ten other items of vocabulary in. Even with students who never use English outside class, they are also likely to need different vocabulary from each other to read about and talk about their hobbies, describe their different kinds of homes and families, etc.

Below are some alternatives that can help tackle the potential problems above (perhaps in conjunction with this approach rather than replacing it).

2. Touch on as much vocabulary as you can

This is one way of taking the opposite approach to the one above- accepting that students will learn different vocabulary (and, like grammar, not necessarily the things the teacher has decided the lesson is about) and will see and hear totally different language in their reading, listening etc outside of class. The teacher aims to make students get a basic understanding of and “notice” as much new language as possible in the class and for homework. The teacher will then move onto the next language point, confident that at least some of the language will have been particularly memorable to each student and that there will be a high chance of at least some of that language coming up in the next week or month in each student’s reading, listening etc outside class. The teacher can therefore predict that each student will learn more language this way and with more ease than the approach above.

This approach is most suitable for classes where students are getting a lot of exposure to English outside class but aren’t noticing most of that language and so are not progressing as quickly as they could, especially if those students have exposure to and use very different English from each other outside class. This is often true of students who are living in English-speaking countries and have reached a comfortable intermediate level (or sometimes lower), can survive in their daily life, and so are not really pushing themselves. The same can be true of students who watch lots of English language TV and read in English but do so without a dictionary and so don’t seem to be rapidly expanding their vocabulary through just reading and listening. Even with students who you are sure can gain most from this approach, you might want to explain your philosophy to them so that they don’t get the impression that they are “doing” lots of vocabulary but learning hardly any of it. They might also need advice on choosing vocabulary from that vast selection to learn, so that the more conscientious ones don’t feel overwhelmed. This approach could also lead to a neglect of the methods for learning vocabulary that are dealt with below.

This approach is obviously totally unsuitable for students who are getting no exposure to English outside the classroom, so if that is the case with your classes (often true for children and teenagers in EFL settings), you will need to work on giving them that exposure or switch to an approach more like the one described in Really Learn a Little Vocabulary above. It is possible to combine the two approaches by the teacher covering a large amount of language and each student choosing language they find memorable, interesting, useful for talking about their own lives and hobbies etc, and then using their own personal selection of vocabulary when the class do vocabulary practice exercises and games. This obviously takes a lot of organisation, but could be easier if you do something like have a Word Bag for each table in the class (if they always sit in the same places) rather than one for the whole class. Students could also test each other on the vocabulary in their partner’s personal dictionary or list of words to learn.

3. Use vocabulary to teach how to learn vocabulary

This is another way of tackling the problem that students will learn and need different language from each other. With this approach, you take each vocabulary point that comes up not primarily as a chance to teach the target language but as a way of teaching something about vocabulary and how to learn it that they can take away and use with the language they come across, look up in their dictionaries etc outside class. The best way to organise and think about this is by adding another syllabus to the textbook vocabulary one so that your new vocabulary syllabus says “Compound nouns- using dictionaries”, “Phrasal verbs- guessing meaning from context”, “Antonyms- using English in your vocabulary lists rather than L1” etc.

This has become a more standard way of tackling vocabulary in textbooks etc over the last few years and has been tried with most kinds of classes. The main potential problems are that it can take up a lot of classroom time without adding any extra actual language, and that students who already feel like they are successful language learners might think that it is patronising. It is often ignored that teaching study skills is at least as difficult as teaching language and takes the same individualised approach to classes, revision, efforts to make it interesting etc. If you are sure your students will not actually use the skills you introduce them to, you might want to use your class time mainly to give them the actual language with other approaches mentioned here.

4. Help them pick it up

Some teachers and researchers think that extensive reading (reading for pleasure) in English is such a good way of picking up vocabulary and other parts of the language that it is by far the most useful use of classroom time. This is also said to fit in with the concept of having a “silent period” at the beginning of language learning, similar to that of a baby learning L1. Not many classes have spent lots of classroom time with students silently reading, however, and now because many researchers believe that helping students “notice” the language is a shortcut to learning and because of practical issues such as trying to monitor what an unmotivated student is getting out of sitting there silently with a book there is generally a more pragmatic response to such ideas. Nonetheless, even adult language learners will have plenty of stories of finding themselves able to understand or sometimes use language that they had never consciously studied or even noticed, and this is an aspect of language learning that we can sometimes use in class. An obvious use of this is using picture books and action songs with very young learners, but the most important thing to think about with both kids and adults is guiding our students towards useful reading and listening outside the classroom and motivating them to access it. One way is to use graded readers in class and then offer them to the students to take home, perhaps talking about the books in future classes to keep them motivated and to recycle the language. A similar thing can be done with a “book club”, with all students reading the same book at the same time and using that for discussions, roleplays etc in class. Other sources of English outside class that students can hardly avoid include English language notices in the subway, English used in computing, the internet, and local English language listings magazines and newspapers. They might also be interested in books that have recently been adapted into films.

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net
July 2009 | Filed under Lexis
There are links to more than 400 articles and 1000 worksheets plus 1500 blog posts by Alex Case on TEFLtastic blog.