Teaching Vocabulary

by Sophia McMillan
(Shane Training Centre, Japan)


Vocabulary is: All words make up our vocabulary. All languages have words. Words come in different forms and perform different jobs. Each language will have rules over how words can change, which words work with which, how words sound.


When teaching vocabulary it is important that learners know:
 the meaning of the words (this can include when we should/not use it
 the form of the words (what it looks like, where it goes in a sentence & what it sounds like)

It is important that teachers repeat (through drilling, elicitation and examples) and recycle (through activities, games and tasks) vocabulary to make learning fluent.

There are 2 types of vocabulary teaching:
 Productive (Active) vocabulary – this is what the learner needs to speak &/or write. They need to understand, remember and use it in the lesson. There will be more focus on practice, production & pronunciation.
 Receptive (Passive) vocabulary – what the learner needs to read &/or listen to. They need to understand & remember it but not necessarily produce it. It needs to be taught and features of pronunciation are still important but learners will not need it to complete tasks etc.

Generally speaking an individual has a higher receptive vocabulary. The key to both types is the importance of meaning – paramount in all teaching.

Lexical Terminology
It can be useful for learners if you put new words into groups or lexical sets. As although some words have similar meanings they have different forms, sounds, appropriacy etc which will affect understanding.

While the following terms are not necessarily useful for learners it can help teachers in teaching vocabulary.

 Word class: words grouped according to type (e.g. nouns; verbs; adjectives)
 Word family: a root word & all its inflexions (e.g. Play / Player / Playful / Replay etc)
 Affixes: add-ons (pre/suffixes) to words that change meaning (e.g. care + ing = caring)
 Derivative: a word that results from an affix to a root word (E.g. Watch (root word) + ful = Watchful (new word / different meaning = derivative)
 Collocation: the way words are used together (record collocates with set / break / off / on etc)
 Homonyms: words which sound & look the same but have different meanings (e.g. bat / bat; shed / shed; punch / punch)
 Homophones: words that sound the same but have a different form (e.g. horse / hoarse; bear / bare)
 Homographs: words that have the same form but different sounds (e.g. lead (pipe) & lead (singer); live (abode) & live (in person).
 Polysemes: a word with more than one meaning (e.g. hold – hold a party; hold attention; hold a work permit; foot – foot the bill / foot of the mountain etc)
 Synonyms: words which are similar in meaning (but seldom the same) (e.g. compare ‘old’ ‘antique’ and ‘ancient’)
 Antonyms: words which are ‘opposites’ (e.g. old = new; old = young etc)
 Hyponyms: words which share a ‘kind of thing’ relationship (e.g. hammer, saw & screwdrivers are kind of tools therefore hyponyms or co-hyponyms).
 Superordinate: the headword of a set of hyponyms (e.g. tool is the superordinate for hammer, saw & screwdriver; saw is the superordinate for hacksaw, chainsaw etc.)
 Lexical fields: words which share a thematic relationship (e.g. Xmas – crackers, presents, Christmas tree, carols etc.)
 Connotation: associations made with words (e.g. Notorious & famous are synonyms but have different connotations)

Selecting Vocabulary
While usually the course book or end of course test dictates what vocabulary is taught, there may be instances where we as teachers need to decide whether a new word is useful to teach.

When selecting vocabulary it is important to consider the following:
 False Friends – words that sound like one in the learner’s L1 but have completely different meaning in English. For example, 'embarassada' = pregnant (Spanish); Consento = socket (Japanese).
 Importance of Context – words do not have meaning until placed in context. For example the opposite of light could be: dark, heavy, strong or it could be a noun.
 Connotation/Register – the important point is how/when these words are used rather than their grading from richest to poorest. Have participants think about which words would be used with their boss, bank manager, friends etc.
 Grammar – it is often important to teach words in relation to their structure. For example, to warn… someone / someone not to do something / someone against doing something / someone about someone/something / someone that something will happen.
 Collocation – words sometimes go together due to cultural norm e.g. we say peace and quiet but not quiet and peace.
 Pronunciation – mobile stress, the stress moves with different word forms. For example photograph / photography / photographer / photgraphic.

When considering whether a new word is useful for to teach for active production it is important to consider the following points:
 Frequency – how often a word is used; probably the most important criterion
 Range – can the word be used in a number of contexts, e.g. 'light' for example
 Familiarity – will the learners understand the concept e.g. ‘double glazing' to a learner from central Africa
 Use – a word such as adaptor is infrequent, but could be useful for a learner visiting a foreign country

The following should be considered when presenting a lexical item:
1) DENOTATION (meaning)
2) CONNOTATION (cf slim/thin/skinny/emaciated)
3) SPELLING (elicit from learners & board)
4) PHONOLOGY (stress & pronunciation)
5) SYNTAX/STRUCTURE (e.g. suggest + ing)
6) MORPHOLOGY (e.g. 'heir' relates to heiress/inherit/heritage etc)
7) REGISTER ("Cop a load of this"/"Take a look at this")
8) L1 (false friends/cultural problems)
9) COLLOCATION (e.g. wide awake/fast asleep)
10) DISCOURSE (use)

This is why saying "Do you understand?" at regular intervals is not regarded as an acceptable professional strategy!

When presenting new vocabulary the following is a good guideline:
1. Elicit vocabulary
2. Ask relevant concept questions
3. Drill vocabulary chorally/individually
4. Pronunciation & presentation
5. Board stage
6. Practice activity

Vocabulary Activities
 Anagrams: Rearrange the letters of words and learners put them back into the correct order to form words. Example LUARBACYVO = VOCABULARY!

 Hangman: Learners guess letters to a mystery word and fill in the blanks (e.g. BOARD = __ __ __ __ __ ).

 Pictionary: Divide the class into teams and give one member of each team a word written on a card. Ask them to draw the word. If their team guesses correctly they win a point.

 Tic-Tac-Toe: Draw a standard grid on the board and put a word in each square. Learners throw a sticky ball or indicate the square and have to use the word to form a correct sentence or give a definition.

 Word Search: On the board/paper, make a grid and hide a lexical set. Learners try to find all the words. This could also be done by learners in pairs, making grids for each other.

 Storytelling: Board some words and have the learners use them to tell a story – either in groups or collectively.

 Scrabble: Give, or have the class choose, seven letters and have them create as many words as possible from them. This can be a competitive activity and longer words can be awarded more points. Useful for teaching/practicing prefixes/suffixes.

 Synonym/Antonym dictation: Divide the class into groups and quickly read 5-10 words that are synonyms or antonyms to words on a given list. Groups should remember or write the words heard and connect them to the words on the list. The fastest group wins.

 Parts of Speech Review: Board the parts of speech (noun, verb, adverb, adjective, other). In pairs learners classify words on a list into the appropriate category. Alternatively learners roll a dice and throw a sticky ball and have to list that many parts of speech (e.g. 6 nouns etc)

 Word Webs/Vocabulary Trees: Put a word on the board and ask the class to come up with as many words as they can that they associate with the word. This can be done in their notebooks and then come to the board to put their ideas up as feedback.

Click here to post comments

Join in and write your own page! It's easy to do. How? Simply click here to return to Post your Lessons & Classroom Games for Teachers.