V is for Vocabulary teaching

2 06 2013

Slovenian girl and teacherA teacher educator in Norway reports on how she has used ideas from my book How to Teach Vocabulary (2002) on an in-service course for local primary and lower secondary school teachers. Mona Flognfeldt writes: ‘I have shared with my students a lot of input that I have learnt from you, and a lot of our students have put their new insights to immediate practical use in their classrooms. … As a part of their course, these students have also learnt to make their own blogs.’ These blogs have become the vehicles whereby they report on how they ‘have tried out various activities and types of tasks in their attempts to help their students enhance their vocabulary in English’.

Reading the blogs I am struck by the way these teachers have implemented, in their own classes, a reflective task cycle as part of their ongoing professional development. This has involved background reading and discussion, classroom experimentation, reflection and – by means of the blogs – sharing with their colleagues the insights that they have gained.

To give you a flavour, here is a sample of the kinds of activities these teachers tried. I have grouped them according to five guiding principles of vocabulary acquisition. (Apologies in advance to those whose blog posts I haven’t included, but readers who are interested can find them at the link below).

1. The Principle of Cognitive Depth: “The more one manipulates, thinks about, and uses mental information, the more likely it is that one will retain that information.In the case of vocabulary, the more one engages with a word (deeper processing), the more likely the word will be remembered for later use” (Schmitt 2000: 120).

I picked out 8 words from the text that I wanted my pupils to learn. Then I had my pupils identifying the words in the text. Task 2 was a selecting task where the pupils had to underline the words that were typical for India. They shared their work with a partner, explaining their choices. As task 3 they were matching the words with an English description from a dictionary. They also found antonyms and synonyms. Task 4 was a sorting activity where the pupils had to decide whether the words were nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbs. Finally, as a ranking and sequencing activity I had my pupils rank the words according to preference, to decide how important they thought knowing each word was. They discussed their ranking with a partner. (Mette B.)

Slovenian  two girls2. The Principle of Retrieval: “The act of successfully recalling an item increases the chance that the item will be remembered. It appears that the retrieval route to that item is in some way strengthened by being successfully used” (Baddeley 1997: 112).

My Vocabulary activity was “Categories” … The students worked in groups of four or five. They were handed out a piece of paper where five columns were drawn up. Each column was labelled with the name of a lexical set: Food, transport, clothes, animals and sport. I called out a letter of the alphabet (e.g. B!). The students wrote down as many words they knew began with the letter to a time of limit which was around 2-3 minutes. The group with the most words won (I did not demand that the words were spelled correctly. (Gunn)

There is also pictionary, where you divide the class into two groups, and one member of each team goes to the SmartBoard. The teacher flashes them a card with a word, phrase or expression and the pupils have one minute to make their team say the word on the basis of their drawing on the SmartBoard; no other clues are allowed. (Vanessa)

 Slovenian boy student 023. The Principle of Associations: “The human lexicon is believed to be a network of associations, a web-like structure of interconnected links. When students are asked to manipulate words, relate them to other words and to their own experiences, and then to justify their choices, these word associations are reinforced” (Sökmen 1997: 241-2).

Make true and false sentences about yourself using eight of these words.

I believe this is a good activity for deeper processing of words, because the learners have to relate to the words and phrases personally. I have tried it out in class and found it a motivating activity both for me and for my pupils. We all got to know each other better by sorting out the activities they liked more and liked less. This was a concrete task, easy for them to relate to and to make up sentences from a given pattern. The activity guessing what is false and true is fun and easy to understand. They have to use what they already know about each other to decide whether the statements are true or false. (Anne Katrine)

 4. The Principle of Re-contextualization: “When words are met in reading and listening or used in speaking and writing, the generativeness of the context will influence learning. That is, if the words occur in new sentence contexts in the reading text, learning will be helped. Similarly, having to use the word to say new things will add to learning”  (Nation 2001: 80).

I showed them the list of words on the projector and introduced the task to them. Their first task was to translate the words and write them in Norwegian. … When the pupils had finished this, they were asked to use at least five words/expressions from each column to write a paragraph on US politics. The task had to be finished before the lesson the week after. This sentence or text creation task required the pupils to create the context for the given words and phrases. In addition to the meaning of the words, the pupils also needed to think about word tense, grammatical behaviour and so on. (Sturla)

Slovenian male teacher5. The Principle of Multiple Encounters: “Due to the incremental nature of vocabulary acquisition, repeated exposures are necessary to consolidate a new word in the learner’s mind” (Schmitt & Carter 2000: 4).

The class was supposed to work with reading comprehension, but before starting the reading, the pupils were given a pre-reading task related to vocabulary in the text. … After a while, the teacher went through the task with the class, asking for the matching words and the definitions. The teacher repeated the answers to model the correct pronunciation.

Then the class was instructed to read the article and use the worksheet on vocabulary while reading and after reading when they were asked to answer questions from the article. This way the vocabulary was met several times.  (Anette)

Finally, the last word goes to Mette B. ‘I have also had the pleasure of practising Thornbury’s ways of putting words to work this year. What amazes me the most is how positive even the pupils with elementary skills respond to these types of activities’.

Music to my ears!

Again, heartfelt thanks to Mona and her trainee teachers.

Slovenian girl studentReferences:

Baddeley, A. (1997)  Human Memory: Theory and Practice (Revised edition), Hove: Psychology Press.

Nation, I.S.P. (2001) Learning Vocabulary in Another Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schmitt, N. (2000) Vocabulary in Language Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schmitt, N. & Carter; R. (2000) ‘The lexical advantages of narrow reading for second language learners’, TESOL Journal, 9/1, 4-9.

Sökmen, A.J. (1997) ‘Current trends in teaching second language vocabulary,’ in Schmitt, N. and McCarthy, M. (Eds.) Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thornbury, S. (2002) How to Teach Vocabulary, Harlow: Pearson.

Illustrations from Grad, A. (1958) Vasela Angleščina, Ljubljana: DZS.

Mona’s blog, with access to her trainee teachers’ blogs, can be found here: http://monaflognfeldt.wordpress.com/2012/11/05/vocabulary-acquisition-and-development/



34 responses

2 06 2013
Laura Adele

Perfect timing for me to be reading this blog as I have been trying to improve my way of teaching vocabulary. In the past, I’ve focused more on how to teach grammar than on teaching vocabulary; however, the most frequent comment I get from students in the intensive EAP is that they need to learn more vocabulary. The tips here from other teachers are useful reminders of different approaches for students to learn new words.

Now that I am temporarily teaching in China, I’ve been trying out different ways for students to practice new vocabulary, but I can’t tell yet if what I am doing is working well. One activity I do is ask students to choose a text to read from VOA. Then I have them use the AWL highlighter and choose 5 academic words. Afterwards, they find collocations to those words and make flashcards on Quizlet to share with the rest of the class and study them. I’m also encouraging them to write sentences and use a learner’s dictionary only. I think this is better than having long word lists with their Chinese translations, but I still feel like there’s a lot for me to learn on how to teach vocabulary well.

Any tips on how to teach words along with their most frequent collocations?

2 06 2013
Hana Tichá

Hello! Using corpora is one of the effective ways of teaching useful collocations. It sounds like a cliché, I know….. everybody talks about corpora and how great they are, but they can come really handy – even at less advanced levels of proficiency. Right now I’m looking at BNC and trying to find the most frequent right collocates of the word ‘vocabulary’ (I want to express the fact that my students’ vocabulary is not large). And here it is – ‘limited’ vocabulary. As I had to look it up myself (I felt the need to search for it), and I also used it in my own sentence (generative use), it’s likely that I’ll remember it and retrieve it when necessary.

2 06 2013
Hana Tichá

Sorry, I mean left collocate :-)))

3 06 2013
Scott Thornbury

Nice example, Hana. A good site for instant information on collocations is Just the Word (http://www.just-the-word.com/ – check it by keying in ‘vocabulary’). Most good learners’ dictionaries will also list the main collocates of commonly occurring words. Thus, the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary gives wide and limited as collocates of vocabulary.

3 06 2013
Hana Tichá

Thanks for another useful tip, Scott. Collocation is a big issue – not only for learners but also for non-native language teachers. This site looks helpful and quickly accessible.

3 06 2013
Scott Thornbury

Hi Laura,
Sounds like you’re serving your learners’ vocabulary needs very well. Re collocations: given that a collocation is the strong association of two or more words, then any activities that help ‘cement’ that association should be helpful. For example: students should be encouraged to record words with a prototypical collocate or two ( like Hana’s example of ‘limited vocabulary’), and to revisit these by masking the collocates and trying to retrieve them, by doing lots of matching activities (like pelmanism), by tests of the type: ‘He’s fluent but he’s got a l_____ vocabulary, and so on.

21 02 2014

Hi Laura, you can try teaching them a language using a video dictionary app like Subcommune. The app provides video examples of words and collocations. You can watch subtitled videos through this application which can help both you and your students to learn pronunciations of a language and also its collocations.

22 02 2014
Laura Adele

Thank you, Diane. I will check it out!

2 06 2013
Ramesh Krishnamurthy

Hi Scott – excellent article, as usual. However, you may want to correct the typo in your opening sentence, where you seem to have made ‘Teacher’ into a verb? 🙂

2 06 2013
Scott Thornbury

Oops! Thanks, Ramesh – corrected!

2 06 2013

Your timing is perfect for me, too. Like Laura, I’ve been focusing on vocabulary teaching lately. looks like I’ll be rearranging my reading queue to add your book! (Next up is a book on using corpora, thanks to C is for COCA.)

3 06 2013
Scott Thornbury

Hi Kathy… pleased to hear it! A good text on using corpora is From Corpus to Classroom: Language Use and Language Teaching, by Anne O’Keeffe, Michael McCarthy and Ronald Carter (Cambridge).

3 06 2013

Influenced by the price (not the best selection criterion, I know!), I grabbed another Cambridge book “Using Corpora inthe Language Classroom” by Randi Reppen. It looks like your recommendation covers the topic more extensively and would serve as an ongoing reference. And Reppen recommends it right at the end of the first chapter in the “additional reading” list. Guess I should bite the bullet! Very happy to see that it’s available electronically.

3 06 2013

PS: I just stumbled on an online presentation by Reppen on the topic via the New School. I’m a kid in a candy shop!!

2 06 2013
Barry O'Leary

Hi Scott,

Another great post, nice one. Just done a DELTA so very familiar with your books and blogs. Must say I have become a changed teacher after reading about your theories and activities. Really admire your work. I’m hoping to start a vocabulary project with my students next term so this blog really helped. Thanks


3 06 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Barry… good luck with your vocabulary project! (Frankly, there are few areas of language learning as worthy of researching as vocabulary).

2 06 2013

The timing couldn’t have been better! I ordered your book last week, received it two days ago and been working through it with post-it notes and stabilo 🙂 Similarly to the Norwegian teachers I keep thinking of activities where the principles of successful vocabulary learning can be implemented. Makes the reading interesting, creative and very personal too. I have my own students before my eyes while reading.
Thank you!

3 06 2013
Scott Thornbury

Wow! I’m impressed. (And who said that methodology books are going out of fashion!)

2 06 2013

Love this blog.
I have used your book on teaching vocabulary as I think it is the best.
When are you coming to the UK to give us some of your excellent teaching??
Much appreciated.

3 06 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Anne. Next trip to the UK won’t be until IATEFL in Harrogate, I suspect. But who knows?

3 06 2013

Excellent blog, Scott and congratulations to Mette and to the others you quote. Very interesting, and encouraging to see how teachers are drawing on ideas not just from your extremely useful book on vocab. learning, but on the on-going work on corpora.

One too often gets the impression that things in ELT are not moving, that there are so many obstacles in the way of innovation that the best thing is to just follow a coursebook, This blog is very uplifting.

4 06 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Geoff. Yes, I too take great comfort from the fact that there are teachers out there being proactive in terms of adjusting and adapting their own practices, and doing this in a principled way. (I have to say, too, at the risk of sounding patronizing, that their English is pretty damned impressive).

3 06 2013
J.J. Almagro

Little help,
My students are EFL adult learners. Lexis work is somehow informed by the guiding principles of vocabulary acquisition. Everybody seems to be aware of the importance of word volume and their laws of attraction. However, word recording is still monolithic, unfinished business. Random wordlists are deeply rooted and cherished vintage from previous courses. Lewis’s ‘lexical notebooks’ seem to be too much engineering for them. The principles are compromised…

4 06 2013
Scott Thornbury

Word recording is monolithic – well, less so, now that there are digital means of recording – and reviewing – vocabulary. Have you tried Anki? http://ankisrs.net/

4 06 2013

thanks for the post, Scott!
Just wanted to say that your book on vocabulary has long been a source of inspiration for me . First I just knew and used some of your ideas and concepts as acquired from the trainings in my language school, then I read your book and got some more great ideas and activities, and then I designed a training for new teachers based on your book when i became an ADOS. At the training I referred to different techniques and examples from your book, as well as to your talk on narrow reading, and to how our memory works. I also showed some of your ideas in practice (e.g. a thing I do quite often to recycle vocab is post-its pelmanism) and then asked the teachers who attended to develop their own plans and materials based on what they learned. The results were impressive, and I know now that they use what you offer in your book too!

4 06 2013
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Svetlana. I didn’t mean this post to turn into a celebration of my book! But it’s always good to get feedback from practising teachers and in a variety of contexts, too. (The worrying thing is that developments in publishing might mean that books like How to Teach Vocabulary will soon be a thing of the past 😦 )

6 06 2013

Dear Scott,
Can I ask a question? All those very helpful guidelines mentioned in the post are about how to teach vocabulary that has already been selected and specified. But what was that selection based on? Student’s choice? Coursebook or teacher’s choice? Or whether a word stands for a concept that the student has already formed through his mother tongue or it is something totally new? How do these factors affect uptake of vocabulary units? Are there any findings from a research you might have heard of?
Thank you so much!

6 06 2013
Scott Thornbury

Hi Svetlana… good question.Regarding vocabulary selection, I guess there is a sixth principle – let’s call it The Principle of Frequency First. Here’s how Nation and Newton (1997: 239) express it: ‘Clearly the 2,000 high-frequency words of English should receive attention first because without these it is not possible to use English in any normal way. These words deserve considerable time and attention. Once learners can use them, the decision as to which level to move to next [e.g. academic vocabulary, technical vocabulary etc] depends on the use that the learners will make of English’ [in Coady and Huckin (eds.) Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition, Cambridge].

23 06 2013
Chi C. Allison

One of the few studies that attempted to capture degrees of lexical knowledge through more sensitive measurement procedures was carried out by Schmitt (1998), who tracked the acquisition of eleven words over the course of a year for three adult learners with advanced proficiency in English. More specifically, he measured four kinds of word knowledge: spelling, associations, grammatical behaviour and meaning. Although the study is not related to extensive reading, it offers a measurement battery sensitive to small gains of word knowledge, which was used as a model for our study. One of the conclusions drawn from his results was that “students can possess other kinds of word knowledge even when they can demonstrate no meaning knowledge” (Schmitt, 1998: 301). Schmitt highlights the need to focus on individual words and to be able to measure the degree or depth of knowledge for each of these words, in order to reach a better understanding of vocabulary acquisition.

6 04 2015

Oh Dear Scot I´m working on my thesis. The teaching of lexis to EFL secondary students , input and its effect on lerning. I need help ¡¡¡

24 03 2016

Dear Scott,

I need your advice. I have just started observing teachers as part of my job. Unfortunately, they have all adopted this approach of teaching vocabulary in isolation. They have a lead-in to activate schemata and immediately after that they give students about 8 new words and their definitions to match. Then they drill the vocabulary. I don’t know why they assume that this is the best way to teach vocabulary. Usually, definitions are very complicated for me to grasp when learning a new language. I won’t be able to grasp the meaning of the word until I see it in a sentence. I’ve already read two books on teaching vocabulary and haven’t seen that can justify this approach. Please advise. I’m losing my sleep over this.

Thank you

16 04 2016

Dear Scott,

I’m doing a DELTA assignment (essay and lesson) on ungradable adjectives and it would be great to have your opinion, as it seems to be a more complex area of lexis that I thought, especially regarding the use of modifiers.

In ‘About Language’ you talk about qualitative adjectives, which can have degrees (e.g. very soft) and classifying adjectives, which don’t normally have degrees, e.g. *very Victorian.
Parrott (2010) divides ungradable adjectives in those describing extreme qualities (e.g. starving) and absolute qualities (e.g. alive).

Here are my questions/thoughts:
1) are classifying adjectives and Parrott’s ‘absolute qualities’ the same or at least overlap somehow?
2) could it be said that if classifying adjectives describe a class/type (not a quality) they cannot be modified (e.g. *a slightly married woman, *an extremely foreign country) but if they refer to a quality they can be modified? e.g. a slightly foreign accent.
3) would it make sense to widen the category of qualitative adjectives to include qualities that can be gradable, e.g. very tasty, or at least intensified, e.g. absolutely delicious? Seems to me that the concept of ‘quality’ is key: it’s the quality perceived by the speaker (not the word itself) that gets graded or intensified, whereas if describing the class of sth we don’t use modifiers at all.

Here are some tricky examples comparing ‘foreign’, ‘dead’ and ‘married’:

In ‘His accent sounds slightly foreign’ foreign is used to describe a quality and therefore can be graded. In this case there is a downtoner, but I wouldn’t say it can be intensified (‘very/absolutely foreign’ just sounds wrong).

‘Dead’ seems to work the other way round: it could be intensified, e.g, ‘This plant is completely dead’, but sounds strange with a downtoner, e.g. ‘slightly dead’.

‘Married’, on the other hand, wouldn’t have any modifier at all (*slightly/very/completely married), but I’d say that ‘married’ is more rigidly classifying which would explain why using a modifier sounds unnatural.

Collocations often depend on linguistic conventions (e.g. we simply don’t say ‘This is completely delicious’), but is it possible to pinpoint some rules or tendencies that go beyond the ‘very+gradable/absolutely+ungradable’ rule?

Most reading I’ve done doesn’t go much in depth, I don’t know if what I said makes sense but I would be genuinely honored to have your opinion on this!

Many thanks


27 11 2019
William Linn

I’m wondering how much new vocab to introduce in a lesson.

I’ve always heard 6-8 new words, which I think is based on research about people being able to hold 6-8 pieces of information in their short-term memory. However, I’m not really sure if the research on short-term memory is applicable to this question.

There’s also the fact that our lessons can range from 2 hours to 6 hours, and it would seem strange if the same 6-8 word standard held for long and short classes alike

Finally, I mentioned the 6-8 word rule of thumb to my former SLA professor and she scoffed at it, saying that many more words could be introduced, but I never got a reference from her, and I haven’t been able to find any research on this.

Thanks for your help!

27 07 2020
Mahmoud Heikal

I am Mahmoud Heikal from Egypt…a MA candidate in ELT and I am interested in Vocabulary…My comment is not on this blog…it is a question to Scott about the relation between unplugged teaching or dogme approach and vocabulary…how is dogme or unplugged teaching important in vocabulary learning and teaching?…I need Scott’s opinion about this idea.

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