Teaching vocabulary: five useful tips

In an EFL / ESL context, what if teaching vocabulary is actually not the same as teaching new words? Here are 5 tips to help you.

Up until fairly recently, I didn’t pay too much attention to how I taught vocabulary. My main concern was to help students understand and produce grammatical structures as accurately as possible. Teaching vocabulary was some sort of byproduct of whatever grammar or skills work I happened to be doing at the time.

Cut to 1997, when teaching vocabulary gained more prominence in my career. Way back then, I began teaching and devising courses in which grammar was supposed to play a less central role. It looked like the ever-swinging ELT pendulum had finally swung toward teaching vocabulary – or so I thought at the time. So, guess what, I had to find a way to teach words more effectively, which, in hindsight, was perhaps the wrong way to phrase the problem. I was trying to find a way to teach words when there’s so much more to teaching vocabulary than words.

When teaching vocabulary, why focus on “issue” when, in fact, it’s “address a key issue” that ought to be stressed in class? Why simply tell students that “cut down on” means “reduce” instead of practicing the whole chunk “cut down on the number of (hours online)” “cut down on the amount of (sugar I eat).”

These are insights I derived from the work of a man called Michael Lewis, whose ideas on teaching vocabulary and sheer impact on ESL and EFL will only be adequately assessed a few years from now, I believe. Though I could have done without some of Lewis’ contentious and sometimes slightly dogmatic views, especially on grammar acquisition and the role of production in class, his books have taught me something that still informs my practice to this day:

When teaching vocabulary, a lot of useful/usable, high-frequency vocabulary is not made up of “new” words, but of combinations of “old” words.

This means that having an “advanced” command of vocabulary does not necessarily mean knowing 10 ways of walking or, say, what sounds different animals make. Progress at higher levels entails mostly – though not exclusively, of course – learning ‘old’ words in new chunks and contexts. Here’s a simple example:

Way –  I found a way around the problem / You have a way with words / If I had my way,  I’d…/ A is way better than B.

All these phrases and sentences are made up of words students already know, of course. What is “new” is the way they’re combined. Seems logical, right? Trouble is, these “old” words used in new ways don’t usually leap off the page as much as “new” words do, so when teaching vocabulary to ESL / EFL learners, we often ignore them. And without our intervention, students are far less likely to notice a phrase like “I found my way around the problem” or “my expectations were met” than, say, “I was flabbergasted” or “He lives down in the boondocks”.

So, in this sense, when teaching vocabulary to ESL / EFL learners, part of our job as teachers and course designers is to make the invisible visible, as it were. Here are 5 simple tips:

Tip 1. When teaching vocabulary, point out patterns and ask students to write them down and find other examples. Ask questions like: What’s the verb before “expectations” in the second paragraph? Again, when teaching vocabulary, don’t assume students are noticing collocations and chunks for themselves.

Tip 2. After students have read a text and done comprehension exercises, have them choose three interesting phrases (rather than words) they would like to learn for active use. Tell them these phrases should not contain any unknown vocabulary. That way, students are more likely to notice phrases like “jump to conclusions”, “needless to say” or “I’ve been meaning to call you”, which again, are made up of “old words”, which in themselves aren’t particularly noticeable. By the way, check out this 2010 post on noticing lexical chunks – it’s a lot of fun, I promise, and it connects interestingly with this post on teaching vocabulary.

Tip 3. When teaching vocabulary, instead of asking, “Is there anything you don’t understand in paragraph 2?” try “Is there anything  you’d like to learn for active use?”

Tip 4. When teaching vocabulary, take responsibility for pointing out to students which lexical items are most useful and train them to do the same. For example, choose a mix of high frequency/useful/usable and less useful vocabulary from any given text and tell students to rate each phrase as:

*** very useful   ** useful   * interesting for recognition only

Then carry out a class survey to discover which lexis students found more useful.

Tip 5. When teaching vocabulary, encourage your EFL / ESL students to record their new phrases as they find them rather than in a generic form. For example: “The odds that he will come are pretty slim” rather than “odds.” Incidentally, if you have time, check out this post on the word “odds” and the overlap between teaching vocabulary and grammar.

Thanks for reading and, by the way, regardless of the contentious title (which hopefully caught your eye and gave you an insight or two into teaching vocabulary), I do believe B2/C1 students need to learn “new” words, too.

ELT has had enough of dogmas and one-size-fits-all solutions, thank you very much. Teaching vocabulary should be no exception.

Thanks for reading.

19 thoughts on “Teaching vocabulary: five useful tips”

  1. Sandra Romani says:

    Dearest Luiz,
    What you’re saying in this article makes a lot of sense to me.
    I’ve been intuitively working like this with aprivate student, and things are working out really well.
    He brings me a lot of articles to discuss because he needs to give lectures based on those articles. His English is very good, but he had a big problem making himself understood, exactly because he was trying to use avocabulary that was too sophisticated and not very clear to the listeners. Therefore, I decided to focus on the vocabulary that is more useful and meaningful to him. Every class we choose 6 new chunks, such as meet the specifications, take responsibility for… And so forth. You know what, the guy is much more fluent now, more relaxed using words he
    had learned before in a more natural way.Bjo enorme, saudades

    1. Luiz Otávio says:

      Dear Sandra,
      And the beauty of it all is that by focusing on these pre fabricated chunks, he’ll be picking up lots of grammar, too. Isn’t it funny? Sometimes the best way to help students with their grammar inaccuracies is NOT to focus on grammar per se. Some ELT gurus call this “form defocus”. Makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?
      Beijo, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

  2. Inara Couto says:

    I agree with you on so many levels! I’ve just read your Betty White post, with the many “invisible” chunks that would certainly go unnoticed if it weren’t for the teacher’s /materials designer’s guidance. One thing that called my attention was that the chunks you chose did not all belong to a certain lexical category. They were there because they are frequent, they are colloquial, they are useful. I’ve had a few battles in my professional life advocating that we do not need, and indeed should not, IMHO, present vocabulary primarily in clusters of related lexis, but rather highlight them as they appear in text, the way you did with the video. How do you see the balance between presenting vocabulary in semantic clusters versus presenting them “in their natural habitat”?

  3. Luiz Otávio says:

    Dear Inara,
    Thanks for stopping by. Here are a few random thoughts:
    1. I think lexical sets are generally easier to remember and retrieve. It feels as if semantically related items strengthen one another, doesn’t it? So, as far as retention and retrieval are concerned, there’s a lot to be said for presenting lexis in thematic groups.
    2. It’s also easier for the teacher / course designer to design (semi) communicative tasks that will enable students to put lexical sets in circulation. I remember teaching a North Star lesson years ago built around addition vocabulary: get hooked on / I’m addicted to / I need to cut down on… REALLY challenging. The production task was a role play (“Imagine you’re in a support group bla bla bla) and, to my surprise, most students used most of the items REALLY WELL, partly because they had to, I imagine – In other words, the task required the use of the lexical set.
    3. So in this sense, “scattered” chunks may be harder to harder to group together and deploy in communicative / semi communicative tasks.
    4. That doesn’t mean, though, that we should dismiss them out of hand, I think. After all, (1) there are lots of “non production” activities that are still highly personal in nature and might contribute to concept-checking and long-term retention (“Fill in the blanks and then make each sentence true for you bla bla bla”); (2) we can still propose role-play like activities and ask students to use some of the new, thematically-unrelated lexis, assuming it’s high frequency and easy to use across a good range of contexts.
    5. Also, some people would argue that the consciousness-raising effect of noticing + re-noticing (over and over) the new expressions would be enough to help students deploy them in communication in the long run, when the need arises, without any sort of pushed output. In that sense, thematically-unrelated lexis is potentially as easy to teach as lexical clusters – as long as it’s useful and high frequency. After all, the more high frequency, the more likely it is to appear in the input.
    6. Something that’s just occurred to me: We’ve got to be careful with the amount of pointless hair-splitting that badly-devised tasks involving lexical sets might generate. You know, things like presenting chunks and words that mean NEARLY the same and so on and so forth.

  4. Lavinia Haddad says:

    Dear Luiz,

    your website is very useful, besides giving us excellente tips, it saves us some time in class preparation. It’s getting better and better! Thanks!

  5. Luiz Otávio says:

    Lavinia, thank you for your kind words!

  6. Ana Maria says:

    Luiz, I thought this would be another insomnia night just browsing and… there you were! Needless to say you ‘ve become my fave night\early morning pal. We met in 2000 during the CI training in Butantã. What a great experience to visit your page!

    1. Luiz Otávio says:

      Ana, thank you so much!

  7. Julio Palma says:

    Hello Luiz. I liked your post. I hope to use all of these recommendations on my teaching.

    1. Luiz Otávio says:

      Thank you, Julio!

    1. Luiz Otávio says:

      Thank you, Gloria!

  8. Hi, Luis i found your tips helpful too, but i am still emphasizing that students have to know new words, instance imagine that you are reading an article and you might find some words that you don’t know the meaning. In this case how to deal with it? Em fim, gostei das dicas. Obrigado


    1. Luiz Otávio says:

      Hi, Mataraje,
      Thanks for stopping by.
      I’d say you need to strike a balance between words and chunks / recognition and production. So, for example, if a text is full of “new words”, you might want to draw students’ attention to them, but not necessarily for active use. Sometimes, inferring meaning / recognition is enough, you know.
      Um abraço!

  9. That’s all very well but ELT folks have been talking about it for more than 20 years. All I can read in the post is a quotes and a few paraphrased ideas from the Lexical Approach and Collocations by Michael Lewis. What we really need to talk about is examples, lessons plans etc where these ideas come to life. The reason why these great claims are still mulled over for years and years is lack of practical examples – or scarcity of those – and much talk about theory. I’ve seen very few teachers who actually walk the walk as convincingly as they talk the talk… Easier said than done

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