Teaching English Vocabulary

Teaching English vocabulary is important. Just as important as teaching grammar and pronunciation. I still meet English teachers who tell me that teaching vocabulary is a waste of time - the same attitude holds for teaching English pronunciation

I disagree with this view and believe, from my own experience, and from the research I've read, that a focus on teaching English vocabulary is an important part of the English class. Devising activities specifically for vocabulary practice can help deepen the students' understanding of the words, and establish them more firmly in their memory.

In this article I focus on the principles of teaching vocabulary, but from a practical angle. I hope these ideas will help you develop your own ESL vocabulary activities. If you are looking for a list of activities read my article on ESL Vocabulary Activities.

A basic principle of teaching English vocabulary is to teach words in relationship to other words. So taking advantage of synonyms, antonyms, homonyms [threw and through, river bank and savings bank], complements [single-married, morning-afternoon-evening-night], hyponyms [dragonfly, butterfly and bee are hyponyms of insect] is important.

My university library - remember to encourage extensive reading

Using stories, poems, aphorisms, jokes and songs gives meaning to words - helping make them easier to remember. Extensive reading is one of the greatest aids to vocabulary development. Reading adventure novels was how I learnt a lot of Spanish vocabulary, and I encourage my students to read graded readers and popular novels in a genre they love. However, for this article I will focus on ideas that can be applied to the classroom.

How People Learn New Words

I've met language learners who have learnt a lot of vocabulary by simply going through a dictionary, page by page and learning 10 new words a day. This can work - and did in two cases I came across - but it is a hard and mechanical method. Most people will fail with this.

Similarly, a great many books try to teach English vocabulary in this way. I've seen high school students of English on buses and metro systems around the world with their heads buried in books which only contain list upon list of vocabulary. This may be a good way of cramming new words for an exam, but it's unlikely to result in long term learning - let alone an ability to use them in context.

An interesting experiment by Wilson and Bransford, [quoted in Gairns & Redman - Working With Words], shows the importance of meaningful ESL activities. They used 3 groups of students. The first group were given a list of 30 words and told they had to learn them, and would be tested on them. The second group were merely told to rate each word according to its pleasantness or unpleasantness. They were not told that they would be tested on them later. The third group were given the same list of words and told to decide which things on the list would be important or unimportant if they were stranded on a desert island. They did not know they would be tested on the vocabulary.

When tested the first two groups had similar levels of recall. The third group remembered the new words the best. These results obviously have implications for teaching English vocabulary. Wanting to learn a list of words is not enough. New ESL vocabulary needs to be actively used in meaningful and interesting ways if you want to increase your students ability to remember new words. This experiment can be tested by any teacher in class, by comparing the learning of lists with the learning through interesting and meaningful tasks.

Ideas on Teaching English Vocabulary

When teaching English vocabulary, vary the way in which you introduce it. Use realia when possible, pictures, drawings on the board, antonyms, demonstration, readings and stories. When teaching English vocabulary, it helps to teach words in groups, especially when the groups of words often occur together. For example, when teaching the word 'economy,' it's useful to teach related words such as economical, economize, economist etc.

Whichever way you teach vocabulary, it's important that you provide interesting ways for the students to practice the words, otherwise their attention will diminish, along with any learning.

There are ways of teaching English vocabulary which are natural and work to some extent, but are problematic. Giving a synonym is easy to do, and the vast majority of teachers will do this - myself included. The only problem with it is that there are no true synonyms. Every word has its own history and character, and usually its own usage. Therefore, care is needed when explaining vocabulary by giving synonyms. An explanation of the word's usage, and actual classroom practice using it are necessary.

Likewise, verbal explanations are natural and help, as long as the students are given practice using the new words. Sometimes the teacher ends up talking too much, and the students can be lost in a sea of explanation, without a clear idea of how to use the word.

Translation is an over used technique. I can't count the number of times that I've walked past English classes and not heard more than one or two words of English being spoken. I once overheard half an hour of an elementary school English class, and I only heard two words of English used. Translation has its place, and for some words, it is the most practical way. Try explaining: 'just,'or 'oak,' to a class without translation - assuming you are not standing in an oak forest with just one pine. However, overusing it does not benefit the students at all; even if it makes them, and the teacher, feel more comfortable. At higher levels there are other problems, apart from the lack of practice. Two languages seldom, if ever, have exact translations of words - apart from the most common words - and using only translation, and not going on to give an explanation of usage, and practice in using the words is of extremely little use, and can even be misleading.

Rote learning is the opposite of using meaningful ESL vocabulary activities, but it has its place. For the learning of simple lists, like the days of the week, or numbers, there is no need to overcomplicate things. Learning by rote for these things is effective, but for much other ESL vocabulary it is not, and will not lead to the same level of deep memorization or understanding that the repeated use of interesting tasks in the classroom will.

This leads on to the important point of recycling vocabulary. When teaching vocabulary it's extremely important to recycle vocabulary taught earlier; even much earlier. If the teacher waits for the coursebook to review vocabulary, then much may be forgotten, as most books are simply not up to this task.

Vocabulary needs to be taught in context, and the students need to be given practice using the vocabulary for deeper learning to take place. An example is if you teach 'redwood' it may be a good idea to teach verbs and adjectives related to redwood. These may be: ancient, towering, enormous, grow etc. Students can record the words which go together, together in their notebooks.

Teaching English vocabulary through interesting activities and language play will lead to the deepest learning. Using ESL stories as a vehicle for practicing new vocabulary is a good idea. However, don't forget that the story is important in itself. If the story is uninteresting, then it will no longer work as a way of helping the students master new vocabulary.

ESL listening activities, such as 'Spot the Nonsense,' and others, described in warmers, fillers and coolers can also help, especially when reviewing previously learnt vocabulary. For practical ESL activities for teaching English vocabulary, see these articles:

ESL Vocabulary Activities 

Vocabulary Games for ESL Students 

Top 10 Activities for Teaching Vocabulary - Part 1 

Top 10 Vocabulary Activities - Part 2