Vocabulary learning

Vocabulary learning

Knowing words and phrases is the most important aspect of language learning. Vocabulary knowledge correlates better with proficiency than grammar. You can say something with words alone, but not grammar.

Vocabulary learning nearly always features as part of a course, whether it be learning from printed lists or practising using apps such as Quizlet or Memrise. Vocab testing is common, either done formally or informally with instant quizzes, for example.

On this page, first I'll suggest a way to learn and practise vocabulary which may be new to you. Then I'll list lots of ways traditional lists can be exploited.

1. Using sentence builders (substitution tables)

First, a reminder that research lends support for the efficiency of word learning when it comes to simply knowing what words mean. But it’s well established in the literature (notably through the work of Paul Nation), that ‘knowing a word’ is much more than knowing its meaning or knowing how to write it down accurately in a test. Really knowing words also means knowing what they sound like, what other words they keep company with, when and how they are used, how they relate to other forms of the word (e.g. play - player - playing), not to mention their relationship with synonyms, antonyms and first language words. Gianfranco and I have written a good deal about this in our books and blogs.

In addition, every minute spent learning isolated words could be spent using these words in context, in connected, meaningful sentences or chunks. Rehearsing this language in this connected way is more likely to enable students to later retrieve useful chunked language in order to make meaning. This sort of ‘chunking and chaining’ of language is one way we speak and write fluently. Learning words together with other words in meaningful multi-word units or whole sentences builds a deeper understanding of vocabulary and produces more ‘bang for your buck’ in terms of communicative usefulness. Put differently, memorising chunks and sentences provides better ‘surrender value’ - more learning for the time spent.

In addition, it may be actually more enjoyable, creating more motivation, more self-efficacy and more learning.

In practice, here is one way to do it. Provide pupils with a sentence builder they are familiar with, or even one similar but not identical to one you have used in class. Tell the class to practise reading aloud as many sentences as they can in, say, 15 minutes. Suggest they record their work on to their phones. Suggest also, that within the time they allocate, they close their eyes and say the sentences from memory. (Closing eyes is a good way to avoid distraction.) Advise them, furthermore, to divide their time up so that their practice is spaced out, e.g. between other bits of homework.

Then, in class, tasks could include:

You could no doubt think of more variations.

To me, this process seems more enjoyable and productive than the traditional single word vocabulary test. All the practice done in the process will leave long-term memory traces - chunks of language students cab call upon when trying to converse or write. As I sometimes say, the alternative approach of learning isolated words which may later be glued together using grammatical rules doesn’t work for most learners.

2. Learning with lists

Thank you to teachers who shared some of the ideas below.

Many of us work with text books which contain lists of vocabulary. Vocab learning can be a pretty dull task to do and an uninspiring homework to set. Then you have to deal with the students who do not do their learning or who simply cannot set words to memory very easily. Doing a vocab test of the traditional kind has its uses, of course, but they can be dull to administer and they work best only with the brightest classes.

By the way, I used to doubt the whole value of vocab learning, believing that vocab was “acquired” by regular use rather than by rote learning. Without entering a debate on conscious versus unconscious learning in language learning, many believe that learning by heart can have a place. Put simply, consciously learned vocab can, I would argue, make the crossover into one’s “acquired” competence. Needless to say, we need to revise vocab from one lesson to the next, otherwise most children will forget words.

So what can we do with lists of words apart from telling a class to go away and memorise them?

  1. Cover the words and test – or get someone to test you.
  2. Use a word fan – make a fan (fold the paper several times) & write the English on one side/French on the other & so on.
  3. Concentrate on the difficult words & link them to something you know eg. clay keys (the word for key is clé – pronounced clay).
  4. Write the words out over and over – English with French and vice versa – do more and more from memory each time.
  5. Make up a rhythm – tap out the words as you say them.
  6. Record the words onto a digital device and listen to them.
  7. Spell out the words with the French alphabet.
  8. Read the words out loud – fast/slow/loud/quiet.
  9. Break up the words – mus/ique prof/es/seur.
  10. Invent a song/poem with the words in.
  11. Sort the wordsby gender/groups/patterns - fruit/vegetables/which adjective follows which rule or colour code them.
  12. Group them alphabetically.
  13. Jumble up the letters & try & rearrange them in the correct order & then give the English.
  14. Write the words on postit notes and stick them up around the bedroom.
  15. Write out the words with letters missing – vowels? – then gap fill.
  16. Design a wordsearch with the words in.
  17. Play a partner game: each person gives a word; the first one unable to give a word loses.
  18. Play a mime game in pairs: each partner does a mime and partner has to guess the word. Works well with objects.
  19. “Running reporter”: a vocab list is put somewhere far away (e.g. back of class). In teams of two, one student runs to the list and tries to memorise as many and as accurately as they can and then run back to report to the team mate who then writes it down. First pair to finish list all correct win.
  20. Ask each student to write ten words in English from the list they had to learn (they can use their list so it makes them revise). Pass the list to partner and each translates their partner's list. Then they check their partner's translation with the book again.
  21. Read aloud vocab list to class. Students repeat. It seems obvious, but speaking aloud words can help fix them in pupils’ minds. You can make this fun (and improve pupils’ pronunciation) by whispering, raising the voice, creating a rhythm or even singing. Pull faces, get the class to watch your lips.
  22. Get students to cover up the target language words. You then supply the first syllable or sound of a word and they have to complete it with the rest of the word. This can be amusing. Pupils can produce their responses orally or in writing.
  23. Then do the same, but supplying the last sound or syllable of the word.
  24. Give oral definitions of words. Students write down the answers. This is harder, but provided good listening practice.
  25. Play word association. (This can lead off into all sorts of directions, but works well with large fields of similar vocab e.g. food and drink.)
  26. Use synonyms and antonyms to elicit words.
  27. Make up anagrams of words. Alternatively, pupils make up anagrams to test their partners.
  28. Do aural anagrams. The teacher spells out words with the letters jumbles up. Studenst guess the word as fast as they can. You can make it a team game.
  29. Make up a code-breaking task for the class. There are examples on this site.
  30. Get students to make up a simple crossword or acrostich.
  31. Makevoneoenormouscwordafrombtheulistlyouahaveisetrtheeclass. Place added letters between the words. the added letters could spell out another.
  32. Play strip bingo (see Gaames that Work for a description of this.
  33. Play word bingo.
  34. Play a dominoes game - make up dominoes with words + definitions or translations.
  35. Hot seat game. Create two or more teams. One person sits in front of their team, facing away from the board. The team ahve to help their hot seater guess a word from the lost on the board, using synonyms, definitions, gesture etc.
  36. Collocations: produce pairs of related words, cut them up, students have to put the words together.
  37. Running to the board games. Write up words on board in a random pattern. Create two teams, give each pupil a number so each team has a person with the same number. Give a definition or translation and call out a number. First student to rush to the board and touch the word gets a point.
  38. Alternatively, get two students to stand by the board and do the same activity. Change pairs every few minutes.
  39. Play a spot the difference game.
  40. In pairs, one student turns their back while the other draws a word with their finger on the firts person's back. The first person tries to guess the word.
  41. In pairs one student spells out a word in the air and the partner has to guess it.
  42. Keep a vocabulary book.
  43. Instead of a traditional test, just ask pupils to write out as many words as they can remember from the list.
  44. On paper, give the first letter of each word to be learned. Pupils have to complete the list.