How to Teach Vocabulary

“Without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed.” David Wilkins


We have been talking about the importance of having an extensive vocabulary-that is, knowing lots of words. But what does it mean to know a word?

At the most basic level, knowing a words involves knowing:

  • It’s form

  • It’s meaning


How to present vocabulary

At the very least learners need to learn both the meaning and the form of a new word. We shall deal with each of these components in turn. But it’s worth pointing out that both these aspects of a word should be presented in close conjugation in order to ensure a tight meaning and form fit. The greater the gap between the presentation of a word’s form and its meaning, the less likely that the learner will make a mental connection between the two.

Let’s say the teacher has decided to teach a related set of words – for example, items of clothing: skirt, trousers, jacket, socks, dress, jeans. The teacher has a number of options available. First, there is the question of how many words to present. This will depend on the following factors:

  • The level of the learners (whether beginners, intermediate, or advanced)

  • The learners’ likely familiarity with the words (learners may have met the words before even though they are not part of their active vocabulary)

  • The difficulty of the items – whether, for example, they express abstract rather than concrete meanings, or whether they are difficult to pronounce

  • Their “teach ability”- whether, for example, they can be easily explained or demonstrated

  • Whether items are being learned for production (in speaking and writing) or for recognition only (as in listening and reading). Since more time will be needed for the former, the number of items is likely to be fewer than if the aim is only recognition.

Furthermore, the number of new words presented should not overstretch the learners’ capacity to remember them. Nor should the presentation extend so far into the lesson that no time is available to put the words to work.

Course books tend to operate on the principle that a vocabulary presentation should include at most about a dozen items.

However, claims for desirability of much higher vocabulary learning targets have been made, especially by proponents of teaching methods that subscribe to “whole person learning”, such as accelerated learning and suggestopedia (a method first developed by George Lozanov in Bulgaria). Teachers following these methods use techniques of relaxation and suggestion, in order to predispose the learner to massive amounts of input, including literally hundreds of words in a session. Some of these claims may be excessive, but it may also be a fact that conventional teaching methods underestimate the learner’s capacity to retain new vocabulary. Incorporating into lessons some of the basic principles of human memory may be a means of extending the somewhat conservative targets set in course books.

Having decided on the number of items to teach, there is then the choice of the sequence of presentation either:

  • Meaning first, then form, or

  • Form first, then meaning

In the first option the teacher could, for example, hold up a picture of a shirt (the meaning), and then say It’s a shirt (the form). In a “form first” presentation she could say shirt a number of times, have the students repeat the word and only then point to the picture. Both approaches are valid. There is an argument that presenting the meaning first creates a need for the form, opening the appropriate mental “files” and making the presentation both more efficient and more memorable. On the other hand, “form first” presentation works best when the words are presented in some kind of context, so that the learners can work out the meaning for themselves.

The next set of choices relates to the means of presentation – whether to present the meaning through:

  • Translation

  • Real things

  • Pictures

  • Actions/gestures

  • Definitions

  • Situations

And whether to present the word in it’s

  • Spoken form, or

  • Written form

And in what order (e.g. spoken before written) and how soon (e.g. delaying the written form until the spoken form has been thoroughly learned).

There are also decisions to be made concerning the degree of learner involvement. For example:

  • Should the teacher provide both the meaning and the form herself?

  • Should the teacher present the meaning and attempt to elicit the form?

  • Should the teacher present the form and attempt to elicit the meaning?

  • Should the learner repeat the form, and if so, when?

How to illustrate meaning

An alternative to translation – and an obvious choice if presenting a set of concrete objects such as clothes items – is to somehow illustrate or demonstrate them. This can be done either by using real objects (called realia) or pictures or mime. The use of realia, pictures and demonstration was a defining technique of the Direct Method. The Direct Method, in rejecting the use of translation, developed as a reaction to such highly intellectual approaches to language learning as Grammar-Translation. Here, for example, is advice for teachers from a popular Direct Method course of the 1940s:


How to teach the names of objects

The usual procedure is as follows.


The teacher first selects a number of objects, in batches of say from 10 to 20 (..) The objects may be


  1. Those that are usually found in the place where the lesson is given, e.g. door, window, knife, match, book; or parts of the body or articles of clothing.

  2. Those collected specially for the purposes of the lesson, e.g. a stick, a stone, a nail, a piece of wire, a piece of string etc.

  3. Those represented by picture, such as those printed on picture cards or wall charts, or by rough drawings on the blackboard.

The teacher shows or points to each object in turn and names it. He says the name clearly three or four times (..) When the pupils have had sufficient opportunity to hear the words and sentences (and to grasp their meaning) they are called upon to say them. In the first instance they may repeat after the teacher.


Such an approach is especially appropriate if teaching beginners and with mixed nationality classes, where translation is not an option. It is also a technique that has been reclaimed by practitioners of Total Physical Response (TPR), a method that promotes initial immersion in a high quantity of comprehensible input. In making use of the immediate environment of the classroom, and of things that can be brought into the classroom, the intention is to replicate the experience of learning one’s mother tongue. A TPR lesson typically involves the teacher demonstrating actions, using real objects, and then getting the learners to perform the same or similar actions in response to commands.

Typical classroom commands might be:

Point to the apple.

Put the banana next to the apple

Give the apple to Natasha.

Offer the banana to Maxim.


(plastic fruit and vegetables are ideal for this kind of activity.)

Visual aids take many forms: flashcards (published and home-made), wall charts, transparencies projected on to the board or wall using the overhead projector, and board drawings. Many teachers collect their own sets of flashcards from magazines, calendars, etc. Especially useful are pictures of items belonging to the following sets: food and drink, clothing, house interiors and furniture, landscapes , exteriors, forms of transport plus a wide selection of pictures of people, sub-divided into sets such as jobs, nationalities, sports, activities and appearance (tall, strong, sad, healthy, old, etc.) Not only can such pictures be used to present new vocabulary items, but they can be used to practise them.

The use of pictures or objects as prompts for vocabulary teaching can be enhanced if some basic principles of memory are taken into account, including the principle of distributed practice. In teaching a set of, say, ten clothing items, it is important to keep reviewing the previously introduced items, preferably in a varying order- something like this:

Present shirt, Present jacket, Present trousers, Review shirt, Review trousers, Present dress, Review jacket, Present sweater, Review dress, Review shirt, Present socks, etc.

Another principle underlying effective memorization is, as much as is possible, to allow learners to work at their own pace. In this way they can form associations and think of mnemonic devices that are personally relevant, and appropriate to the degree of difficulty the word is causing them. This is more likely to happen if they are working on their own or in small groups. But by building pauses into a teacher-led presentation, the teacher can provide learners with time to “catch up” and to reflect.

Here, by the way of example, are some activities using flashcards:

  • The teacher shows cards one at a time, end either elicits or says the word it represents. As a rule of thumb, about ten unfamiliar words is probably sufficient. Periodically the teacher backtracks and changes the order. Finally, stick all the cards on the board and write the words alongside (or ask learners to come up and write them).

  • Stick a collection of picture cards (e.g. clothes) on the board and number them. (If you are working round a large table, place the cards face up on the table.) Invite learners to ask you about the words they are unfamiliar with. For example! What’s number 6? Check to see if someone else knows before giving the answer. When students are sufficiently familiar go through them all, asking, What’s number 8? Etc. As a check, turn the card around, one at a time, so that they can’t be seen, and again ask What’s number 8? Finally, write the words on the board alongside each picture.

  • Stick a selection of cards on the board and allow learners to use bilingual dictionaries to find the words they represent. They can then write the words adjacent to the pictures.

  • Give pairs or groups of three a selection of cards each. They can use bilingual dictionaries to find out the words for each picture. Then, representatives from each group can “teach” the rest of the class the words they have discovered, using the visual aids.

  • Show the class a wall chart or a large picture containing many different items (e.g. a street scene or an airport) for a short period of time, say ten seconds. Individually or in pairs, the learners then have to write down as many words – in English – as they can remember having seen represented in the picture. Allow them to use dictionaries. Show the picture again for another few seconds, to let them extend their lists of words. Reveal the picture for the checking stage: the individual or pair with the most correct words is the winner.

How to explain meaning

Of course, reliance on real objects, illustration, or demonstration, is limited. It is one thing to mime a chicken, but quite another to physically represent the meaning of a word like intuition or become or trustworthy. Also, words frequently come up incidentally, words for which the teacher won’t have visual aids or realia at hand. An alternative way of conveying the meaning of new words is simply to use words – other words. This is the principle behind dictionary definitions. Non-visual, verbal means of clarifying meaning include:

  • Providing an example situation

  • Giving several example sentences

  • Giving synonyms, antonyms, or superordinate terms

  • Giving a full definition

All of the above procedures can be used in conjunction and also in combination with visual means such as board drawings or mime. Although a verbal explanation may take a little longer than using translation, or visuals or mime, the advantages are that the learners are getting extra “free” listening practice, and, by being made to work a little harder to get to the meaning of a word, they may be more cognitively engaged. Obviously, it is important, when using words in order to define other words, that the defining words themselves are within the learners’ current range. Doctor Johnson’s definition of a net in his famous dictionary is an example of what not to say in the classroom: Anything reticulated or decussated at equal distances with interstices between the intersections!

A situational presentation involves providing a scenario which clearly contextualizes the target word (or words). Here, for example, is a situation for teaching embarrassed! embarrassing:

Catherine saw a man at the bus top. His back was turned but she was sure it was her brother, so she tapped him on the shoulder with her umbrella and shouted “Look out! The police are after you!” The man turned around. He was a complete stranger. SHE WAS TERRIBLY EMBARRASSED. IT WAS A VERY EMBARRASING EXPERIENCE.

Reinforcing a situational presentation with pictures, board drawings, or gesture makes it more intelligible, and perhaps more memorable. More memorable still is the situation that comes directly from the experience of the people in the room – whether the teacher or students. In other words, the teacher could tell her own story of when she was embarrassed, and then invite the students to tell their own. Again, the extra “free” speaking and listening practice justifies the relatively long time spent on just one or two items of vocabulary.

An alternative to the situational approach is to provide students with example sentences, each one being a typical instance of the target word in context. This is not dissimilar to the way concordances can be used. From the cumulative effect of the sentences the students should be able to hypothesise the meaning of the target word – using induction: the mental process of hypothesizing from examples.

One advantage of this approach is that the learners hear the word several times, increasing the likelihood of retention in memory. Another advantage is that they hear the word in a variety of typical contexts (rather than just one) so they can start to get a feel for its range of uses as well as it’s typical collocations. Finally, they get information on the word’s form and grammar – whether, for example, it is irregular or transitive, or countable. It may seem to involve quite a lot of preparation for the teacher, but consulting dictionaries and corpora for examples of the target words in context can help reduce planning time.

In reality, most teachers draw on a range of techniques – situations, synonyms, examples, is an extract from a lesson in which the teacher uses a variety of means- including words that the students are already familiar with.

Finally, it’s worth emphasizing that learning the meaning of a word- or learning anything, for that matter- is a process of gradual approximation. Even in our first language, it may take a long period of “fuzziness” before we feel comfortable about using certain words. It is probably asking too much of teachers to expect them to clarify every nuance of a word’s meaning at first encounter. Better that they orientate their learners in the general direction of a word’s meaning, while equipping them with the skills and the motivation to continue exploring the further reaches of that word’s “semantic space”.


How to highlight the form

Words seem to be stored and accessed primarily according to their overall syllable structure and stress. Hence it is easy to confuse tambourine and trampoline because they have the same general shape, despite some differences of individual sounds. This suggests that highlighting the stress and general shape of the word is a useful aid to retentions and deserves as much attentions as the individual sound.

There are a number of ways of highlighting the spoken form of the word. Essentially these are:

  • Listening drills

  • Oral drills

  • Boardwork

Having established the meaning of a new word, the teacher can model it using listening drills. A drill is any repetition of a short chunk of language. In this case, it is the teacher, who does the repeating, so as to accustom the learners to the phonological features of the word. Customarily, this takes the form of a clear but natural enunciation of the word, usually preceded by some sort of cue, such as “Listen...” This is repeated two or three times. To draw learners’ attention to the syllable structure and stress of the word, this modeling process can be accompanied by some kind of visual stimulus, such as using the fingers of one hand to represent the different syllables.

To withhold production indefinitely is likely to frustrate learners, whose instinct is often to have a go at repeating a new word themselves. And nothing gives learners a better feel for the shape of a word than saying it – even if the teacher’s intention is to reach the word for recognition only. It may be appropriate, therefore, to get learners to vocalize the new words, after they have first subvocalized them, by means of choral or individual repetition, i.e. drilling.

There is an important reason for being introduced to the written form as soon as possible. Crucial clues to meaning are often much easier to identify in the written form than in the spoken form of the word. In speaking, sounds tend to merge, or are even dropped entirely, such that even in carefully articulated speech a word like handbag sounds like hambag, and police station comes out as plee station. In the absence of key morphological information (like hand and police) learners have nothing to attach the new word to – or nowhere to “file” it – and therefore find it difficult to understand and remember. So the effort involved in learning it is that much greater. Many experienced teachers will be familiar with the surprised look of recognition on students’ faces once they see the written form of a word they have been laboring to make sense of. Depriving them of this form may be counterproductive.


How to involve the learners

The word “presentation” has connotations of teacher as transmitter and learners as passive recipients, of language facts. Learners need to be actively involved in the learning of words. One technique of learning new vocabulary is elicitation. A standard elicitation procedure is for the teacher to present the meaning of a word (e.g. by showing a picture) and asking learners to supply the form:

T: (showing picture of waterfall) What’s this? Tomas?

S:   Cataract?

T:   Not exactly. Elena?

S:  Waterfall?

T:  Good.

Alternatively, the teacher can supply the word, and elicit a definition synonym or example:

T:  What’s waterfall? Anyone?

S:  Like Niagara?

T: Yes, exactly.

This second procedure going from form to meaning is typical of text-based vocabulary work. It also occurs when words come up naturally in classroom talk.


The rationale underlying elicitation is that:

  • It actively involves the learners in the lesson

  • It maximizes opportunities

  • It keeps the learners alert and attentive

  • It challenges better learners who might otherwise “turn off”

  • It acts as a way of checking the learners’ developing understanding

  • In the case of form-first presentations it encourages learners to use contextual clues



Prolonged elicitation sequences can end up being very frustrating for learners if they simply don’t know the answers the teacher is seeking – a cross between a quiz show and a police interrogation. Finally, if all or most of the teacher’s questions are elicitation questions, the quality of teacher-students talk can become compromised. After all, in the outside world, we seldom spend a lot of conversational time asking questions for which we already know the answer (like What’s a waterfall?) There are times when learners need exposure to “real” questions such as What’s the biggest waterfall you’ve ever seen?

This suggests that another important way of involving learners is to have them personalize the new words. Personalisation is simply the process of using the new word in a context that is real for the learner personally. The point was made that “memory of new words can be reinforced if they are used to express personally relevant meanings. There are many ways of doing this. Here are some ideas:

  • Ask learners to write a true sentence using the new word, preferably applying it to themselves or someone they know – more easily done with words like frightened and embarrassed than perhaps words like waterfall. To help, provide a sentence frame, such as The last time I felt frightened was when … Or the biggest waterfall I have ever seen …

  • Learners write questions for other learners, incorporating the new word. For example: What makes you embarrassed/frightened? They exchange questions, write the answers, and then report to the rest of the class.

  • Ask learners to make an association network centered on the new word. That is, they connect the word to other words that they associate with it, however far-fetched, drawing a diagram in the manner of the example opposite. They then compare their networks with those of other students, asking about, and explaining, the associations.

  • If teaching a lexical set such as food items, or forms of transport, or jobs, or kinds of film, ask the learners to rank the items in order of personal preference – from most preferred to least preferred. For example, drama, thriller, musical, western, costume drama, horror movie … Then in pairs, they compare and explain their rankings.


Finally, an alternative to teach presentation – and one that maximally involves learners – is peer teaching, i.e. learners teaching each other vocabulary: one way of doing this is through an informative gap activity. This is an activity in which information is distributed between students in pairs or small groups. In order to complete a task, students must exchange information in order to “fill the information gap”. If the information also includes words whose meaning is known only to individual members of the group, the information exchange will require members to teach each other those words.



  1. Thornbury, S. How to Teach Vocabulary, (Pearson Education, 2002)

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