A way with words: Helping students
practice and retrieve vocabulary
November 8, 2013.
‘Without grammar, very little can be conveyed, without
vocabulary, nothing can be conveyed.’
- David Wilkins
Greater priority to the teaching of grammatical structures
Choice of words: easily demonstrated or fitted into the ‘structure
of the day’
A major ‘re-think’ of the role of vocabulary
Swan and Walter, 1984 – vocabulary acquisition is the largest
and most important tasks facing the language learner’
VOCABULARY, LEXIS AND GRAMMAR
Read the text and then, in pairs, define the
‘Irina was fast asleep when the alarm went off. She opened her
eyes with difficulty. Her head was throbbing – she had a
headache; but she still had to get ready to teach at her school.
After she had finished her breakfast, she put on her coat and
headed to the bus stop. When she got to the staffroom, she
found that all the other teachers were having a meeting about
Svatislav Melaschenko, the new head of the school. They were
unhappy about him because (Vlamir said) his new power had
gone to his head...’
What does the word ‘head’ tell you about eliciting and teaching
How do you decide which meaning of a word or words to
Which do you prefer, teaching individual words, or
collocations, idiomatic phrases and lexical chunks?
Now watch part of an episode of Friends
and describe the problem with the letter
Some of the difficulties learners may
Functions X form
Words may look/sound the same but have quite
Words can have same or similar meanings but be used
in different situations or for different effects
How do I select vocabulary items to teach?
Most frequent and useful items
How to present vocabulary
Those are some common techniques. What are the advantages
and disadvantages of each? Discuss:
Realia / pictures
How would you present the following
groups of words? Discuss
punch / slap / smack / hit / kick
witch / castle / heroine / cruel / brave / cast a spell
classical / folk / jazz / pop / ethnic
doctor / accountant / engineer / social worker / lawyer
promote / resign / retire / lay off / give the sack
woollen / cotton / nylon / leather / plastic
The four aspects involved in remembering
How do students remember words?
1. Arousal and affect (A&A)
2. Cognitive Engagement (CE)
3. Retrieval and Use (R&U)
4. Repetition of Encounter: meeting words again and again (RofE)
Students need to re-encounter a word between six and
sixteen times in order to remember it!
1.The lexical item list
2.Word Web -Memory map or mind map
5. Desert Island words
Students look at a list of the words and phrases they have
studied. They can be asked which five words they would take
with them to a desert island and why.
Also, they can put in the fridge (they’ll keep them for later), the
dustbin (they don’t need the words), or their suitcase (they
want to use them now)
6. Odd one out
Give students groups of words and ask them to decide which
is the odd one out
airplane, bicycle, bus, car, train
Give students a list of 10 words (or any other number). They
have to use five (or any other number) in a story.
They might prepare the stories in groups and then one group
tells another and this group retells. The stories will be told a
8. Information Gap
(Ex. Describing people)
Students look at the same picture but student A has some of
the names behind the picture and student B has the other
Students have to find out which of the following names apply
to which of the numbered people.
9. Recall and Share
Write up on the board in a ‘scatter’ about ten or twelve words
that you want to review.
Tell students they have half a minute to ‘photograph’ the
words. Erase the words and ask them to write down as many
words as they remember.
Join students in twos or threes and see if they can manage to
remember all the words.
10. True or False (A&A)
Write up on the board ten or twelve items that you want to
review in a ‘scatter’
Each student chooses any one of the items and writes down
two sentences in which he or she relates in someway to himor herself. One sentence must be true and the other false.
The other students will guess with is true and which is false
11. Would you make a good witness?
It can be used with different kinds of pictures, containing
people, clothes, food, etc
Show the picture to class for twenty seconds and students ask
each other what they remember about the picture
Ex: What were they wearing?
How old were they?
What did they look like?
(Wright et al, 2006)
Some other ideas
Record lexical items in useful ways
Revisit lexical item pages
Collect lexical items
Sort and classify items
Chunk and collocation spotting
Redesign your pages
When an error comes up, review a range of
Record real language
Challenge students to upgrade language
Give collocations rather than definitions
Guess the collocation
Noughts and crosses
Back to board
Do your students use dictionaries?
Is using dictionaries part of the classroom work?
What are the advantages and disadvantages of
allowing your students to use dictionaries?
Have you ever had students who overused them?
How did you deal with this situation?
(Harmer, 2007; Ur, 2012)
‘Vocabulary cannot be taught. It can be
presented, explained, included in all kinds of activities, and
experienced in all manners of associations... But utlimately it is
learned by the individual. As language teachers, we must arouse
interest in words and a certain excitment in personal
development in this area... We can help our students by giving
them ideas on how to learn, but each will finally learn in a very
personal selection of items, organized into relationships in an
(Wilga Rivers – in: Thornbury, 2002)
Strategies that successful learners use
They pay attention to form
They pay attention to the meaning
They are good guessers
They take risks
They know how to organize their own learning – keeping a
record of new words, using dictionaries, memorizing
techniques, among others.
Harmer, Jeremy. The Practice of English Language Teaching. Essex:
Pearson Education Limited, 2007.
Harmer, Jeremy. Essential Teacher Knowledge. Essex: Pearson
Education Limited, 2012
Scrivener, Jim. Learning Teaching. Oxford: Macmillan Education,
Thornbury, Scott. How to Teach Vocabulary. Essex: Pearson
Education Limited, 2002.
Ur, Penny. Vocabulary Activities. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Wright, Andrew; Betteridge, David; Buckby, Michael. Games
for Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University