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Teaching Vocabulary to Learners of English As a Foreign Language

Vocabulary is clearly an essential part of language learning and teaching vocabulary in a productive way is something which must be at the forefront of our minds as teachers of English. Teaching new words to learners of English as a Foreign Language at first seems quite a straightforward proposition. You provide the appropriate word and meaning much like an automatic dictionary and move on. However, the teacher is far more than merely a speaking dictionary.

There are many things to think about when teaching vocabulary.

How many words should you try and teach students in one class? How do you decide which new words you should teach to your students? What criteria do you use to decide which words are most useful? How do you guide the students themselves in recognising which words are most useful for them? What is the importance of active and passive vocabulary? Why are frequency and coverage important? Why is register important? Do all students need to learn the same words?

How many new words should you think about teaching in a class?

There is no definitive figure here of course, as every student is different, but lower level students can generally manage about 5-8 new words of vocabulary a day. At higher levels usually a few more.

What new words should you teach to your students?

Even if you wanted to, you clearly can’t teach students every word in the English language. There are upwards of 500,000 words in English so you clearly only know a fraction of them yourself. A typical B2 (Upper Intermediate) learners’ dictionary contains about 55,000 words of vocabulary. The average native speaker probably uses less than 20,000 words actively. Reducing huge quantities of words to manageable learning is a significant challenge for ELT and one of the great challenges for teaching vocabulary is which words to choose.

What criteria do you use in choosing what words to teach?

Frequency and Coverage:

Choose words to teach that are frequently used. Telling students about how often words are used or in what situations you might use them (formal, informal, academic, spoken or written English etc) is something invaluable that they often can’t get from a dictionary. Clearly, the most frequently used words will be the most valuable to learn. The words taught also need to be assessed in the light of topic, function, structure, teachability, needs and wants.

Polysemic Words and Word Building:

In English, many words are polysemic – have more than one meaning – and can be used as nouns, verbs or part of a phrasal verb. It is important to bear in mind these alternative meanings and uses when teaching new words. It would appear logical to learn these polysemic words as a priority. The important point to remember when explaining meaning is that context will show which of the various meanings and uses is intended.

Word formation is an essential part of vocabulary teaching, for example, the way that root forms of words change to form adjectival and adverbial forms with the addition of prefixes and suffixes. Learning about word formation raises students’ awareness of the language they use. Teach students word building skills. For example, if you teach the verb ‘to advance’, you might also teach the adjective ‘advanced’ and the noun ‘advancement.’ This gives the student extra vocabulary immediately but it also indicates broader patterns within the language. For example, you can point out that ‘ment’ is a common noun ending. (Others include ‘ness’ ‘ence’ ‘ation’ ‘ism’ etc.) Typical adjective endings would include ‘ed’ ‘ing’ ‘ent’ ‘ive’ ‘ical’ etc.

How do words lead onto other words? How can you point students towards patterns in the language?

Another important aspect of teaching vocabulary is ‘word grammar’, some words trigger/collocate certain grammatical patterns. Countable/uncountable nouns are an example of this, the former can be used with both singular and plural verbs, while the latter with only singular verbs. Other nouns are neither countable nor uncountable but have a fixed form and collocate with only singular or plural verbs, e.g. people (plural), the news (singular).


Register refers to a particular style of language relevant to a particular situation or context. For example the way a doctor talks to a patient about a prognosis/diagnosis will differ in style from the way the same doctor will relate the same information to a fellow colleague. Similarly, the way we speak in a job interview will differ from the style of language we use in conversation with close friends. Students need to be aware how certain words fit into different registers. When explaining vocabulary, bear in mind that explanations need to include relevant aspects of context and usage, e.g. ‘mate’ is a synonym of friend but is used colloquially typically for males.

Topic Area Words:

You could select a theme such as ‘weather.’ The ensuing vocabulary would include: rain, sunny, cold, windy etc. This is particularly useful if the student is interested in a particular topic or if a topic area has a direct relation to their life or job. Not all vocabulary or topic areas are of equal importance to every student.

Passive and active Vocabulary:

New words enter the Passive Vocabulary of students. Students may understand meaning, especially in the specific context where they see a new word used but as yet cannot use the word independently themselves. To ensure words enter the students’ Active Vocabulary, regular revision in meaningful situations is essential. It is estimated that a student needs to encounter a word 10-12 times before it fully enters their Active Vocabulary. Vocabulary, in the same way as Grammar, is learned through use. It is therefore very important to give students opportunities within the classroom to use the new vocabulary themselves. Students remembrance of words is relative to the degree which they have used the word, thus the more we get students to use words in a task of some sort – finding opposites, transformation etc – the better they will remember them. Similarly, if we involve students in presenting new words the better they will remember them. Hence, acting out definitions in a dramatic way – trip, stagger etc – should lead to deeper learning of the words. Sense memory becomes involved, taste, smell, touch etc, which further enhances recall. Discovery techniques where students have to find out the meanings of words themselves will be more effective than standard teacher presentation of new vocabulary.

There may be many words that students will not need to use actively themselves at a particular stage in their learning career and therefore they can remain in the students’ Passive Vocabulary. For example, at Beginner level it is enough to know ‘big’ and ‘small’. At Intermediate levels, you might begin to use ‘huge’ ‘massive’ ‘tiny’ ‘minute’ etc. At Advanced levels, you might use words like ‘vast’ or ‘minuscule’ to give a different shade of meaning or to adopt a more formal or academic tone. The point is that at Beginner level it is clearly not practical or useful spending time trying to get the student to use a word like ‘vast’.

Vocabulary Testing:

Vocabulary testing has several forms, and as with all techniques in ELT the more variety in the classroom the better.

Examples include:

1. Multiple choice Questions

2. Matching (opposites/complements)

3. Odd one out

4. Writing sentences

5. Dictation

6. Close/gap-fill (with and without wordlist)

7. Sentence completion


In the classroom, the teacher remains central to the effective acquisition of new vocabulary. Every student is different so their language learning needs and vocabulary requirements are different too. As a teacher, you are interacting with students face to face on a human level. You have an expertise about who the student is and what is useful for them to learn that no dictionary or computer programme could ever have.

Source by Colm Maguire

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