Once is not enough
For vocabulary to become an active part of a learners lexicon they:
- need repeated comprehensible exposure over time
- need to have some kind of active participation in the learning
- need to remember the meaning but also the way it used.
Estimates vary of the number of encounters between 6 and 30! Whatever the number, it is clear that
once is not enough.
It's not enough that students simply see the words, they need to understand their meaning. The fact
that they were seen and understood in a previous lesson, does not mean they will be remembered
The repetition in a short space of time (for example a class or a unit of work) may not lead to
vocabulary becoming a part of a learners' lexicon in the long term. The process may need to take
place over a year.
This has implications not just for learning vocabulary but also for when students conduct self-
assessment and are able to say with confidence they "can do" something in English. This presents a
problem for the way we use, for example, portfolios. Perhaps they should be used in conjunction
with end-of-year exams. Alternatively the portfolio could become a place to record and organise the
language students need which will help them fulfil 'can do's’.
Teachers should also consider how they use workbooks, other extra materials and tests so that it
helps the process of revision over time. For example, daily tests of vocab from previous lesson; set
workbook unit after the coursebook unit is finished; review unit after 4 units; a test the week after
the revie, etc..
More effective learning of vocab occurs when students notice the vocabulary and are engaged with
trying to get meaning and use vocabulary in personal ways - especially for the ordinary mass of
More than the meaning
Getting the general meaning is often easy and can be most effectively supplied through translation.
The 'subtleties' of meaning are actually more down to the way words are used in combinations with
other words and are best learnt through good examples. Several authors have suggested that
examples which are longer than a sentence are best. This is because they help show and build up the
networks of vocabulary and grammar that surround a word.
This has implications for teaching and learning in that the teacher needs to be constantly drawing
attention to vocabulary and how it's used either orally or through exercises. The teacher needs to
move on from just meaning and ask questions to students which engage them with meaning and the
surrounding co-text (What verb goes with strike? Why would you go on strike? How does a strike
start? How does it end? etc…) Teachers need to give fuller examples - not just single words in base
forms - and encourage students to do the same. Use the board. Gap words in the example and elicit
them from students. (The bus drivers are …… strike at the moment. They're demanding a 5% pay
Look at the statements about learning vocabulary. Then discuss these
questions in small groups.
1 Are there any statements that surprise you?
2 What are the implications for learning of each statement?
3 What could you do to take account of this information?
• On average, educated native speakers know 17,000 word
families. A word family is a base word (such as accept) plus words
formed from this base word (for example: accepted, accepting,
acceptable, acceptability, acceptance and unacceptable).
• Non-native speakers studying in English speaking universities
know around 13,000 word families.
• Normally you have to see / hear and understand a word several
times before you can use it - often between six and eleven times!
• You remember some words in English quicker than others
because you link them with a word in your own language or to a
• You forget 50% of what you learned after one hour. After nine
hours, you forget 60% - and after a week you forget 80%.
• On average, people initially recall a maximum of seven single
items at any one time, but these items could be pairs of words or
expressions - and you can also recall more words if you learn them in
sentences or in a logical order.
• You remember more at the beginnings and endings of lists.
• The deeper and more actively you think about a word, the easier it
is to remember and use.
From Outcomes Upper-Intermediate
(Dellar and Walkley published by Heinle Cengage)
go on strike
dustpan and brush
mop and bucket
spill some wine
pour some water
have a filling
change the batteries
the computer's crashed
it's very crowded
fill in a form
sort out the dirty washing
I couldn't get to sleep
It's a bit tight
That's a nice top
it's the wrong way round
throw it in the bin
a traffic jam
they rejected my credit card
be covered in bites
be in a rush
Ten revision activities (and opportunities to re-teach/expand)
Write questions which get students to think about how the word is used or discussion based on the word. For
example: Why would you need a mop? What often goes with a mop? Where do you keep it? Note that preparing
these kinds of questions on a sheet for when you go through the answers of an exercise can be reused for a quiz at
a later date. Do it on a computer and you could build up a kind of database to cut and paste.
Get students to make a list of words expressions they want to learn over the following week. They could do this
at home or they could do it at the end of the lesson. Take it in and correct it. get students to write it out afresh on
a clean piece of paper. Give them a week to learn them. You could also use these lists for some of the following
3. Choose three expressions
Students choose 3 expressions from their notes, mingle and discuss:
a. why you like them
b. why you think they are useful
c. what they mean!
d. when you used them.
4. Act or draw
Make a list of words / expressions and hand them out. In pairs, Student A acts or draws
one of the words and Student B guesses. With lower levels let Student B see the list of
5. Team games
Divide class into 2 teams. One person from each team sits at the front of the class with
their back to the board. Write a word / expression on the board. Each team explains the
word to their team member at the front of the class. The first person to guess gets a point.
A quicker (but perhaps less fun way is for the teacher to simply explain the word/or
expression and the team shout out or write down their answer.
Another variation is to have a word on the board and students can only shout out
collocates rather than explanations.
Get students to translate the expressions they learnt in the previous lesson and compare
with someone from the same language group.
At a later date students could use their list of translations to test each other. One points to
the translation and the other says the English.
7. What do you remember about the text
a. read out a text students have studied. Stop mid sentence / collocation / expression
and let students shout out the rest of the sentence.
b. get students to discuss what they remember in pairs and/or whole class.
Reformulate what they say reminding them of the new language they saw.
c. get students to complete a collocation / expression grid based on a text they
studied. Cut it up and use it at a later date for students to reconstruct the text.
8. Repeat activities they've previously done.
Get students to look back at the relevant activity / language. Let them ask questions about
anything they've forgotten. Make them close their books and repeat the task. You might
also then do a further practice / extension with students personalising the task / language.
9. Organising / grouping language
Make a list of language taught and get students to organise the words / expressions into groups. You can:
a. provide the groups yourself. Sometimes they may be slightly bizarre - rooms in the house or countries.
b. say how many groups but not the titles.
c. allow students complete free range.
In all cases students can discuss their groupings in pairs / groups.
Students could keep a journal where they try and use new vocab.
They could write their own examples which are true for them.
They could try and write a short story connecting them (though note this can sometimes lead to rather unusual