Teaching English Vocabulary

The ‘Teacher Dictionary’

Vocabulary is an essential part of language learning and teaching vocabulary in a productive way is something which must be at the front of our minds as teachers of English. Teaching new words to students at first seems quite a straightforward idea. You provide the appropriate word and its meaning and then move. However, the teacher is far more than merely a speaking dictionary.

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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?
  • What criteria do you use to decide which words are most useful?

  • How do you guide students 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.

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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 five hundred thousand words in English so you only know a fraction of them yourself. A typical B2 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 and deciding which words to teach is one of the great challenges for language teachers. It is important to consider the criteria you use when 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 often can’t be gotten from a dictionary. The most frequently used words will be the most valuable to learn. 

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Polysemic Words and Word Building

In English, many words are polysemic, ie. have more than one meaning. They can be used as nouns, adjectives, verbs or as part of a phrasal verb. It is important to think about 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 also an essential part of vocabulary teaching. An example is 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 and it is very useful to teach students word building skills.

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For example, if you teach the verb to advance’, you would also teach the adjective advanced and the noun advancement. This gives extra vocabulary immediately and also indicates broader patterns within the language. 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? A very important aspect of teaching vocabulary is ‘word grammar’ – some words trigger or collocate certain patterns. Countable and uncountable nouns are an example of this. The former can be used with both singular and plural verbs, while the latter only with 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

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 will differ in style from the way the same doctor will relate the same information to a fellow colleague. The way we speak in a job interview will differ from the style of language we use in conversation with close friends. 

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Students need to be aware of 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 more colloquially and more typically for males.

Topic Area Words

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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 ten-to-twelve times before it fully enters their active vocabulary.

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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. 

There will be many words that students will not need to use actively themselves at a particular stage in their learning and therefore they can remain in their passive vocabulary.

Conclusion

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.


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