Word for Word

<![CDATA[Panayotis used to be one of my Proficiency students. When I took over his class, he had already taken the examination twice… and failed both times.

There were few words for which Panayotis could not provide synonyms, antonyms, but translation was his forte! Always keen to share his treasure trove, as he could so easily outshine the others, he used to exasperate me by regularly undoing all the hard work of trying to persuade my class that translation was rarely a good idea.

Yet, despite all this treasure trove of words in his head, his oral work was halting and inaccurate and his writing even worse of a shock.

Like most of our learners who “know” the words, he was mainly preoccupied with quantity. Once he had the meaning of the word “pinned down”, he was satisfied that he ‘knew’ it and moved on to “learn” another word.

A perennial problem with vocabulary learning, this is not the only one. Students come to our classes with a number of set attitudes and it is often these attitudes that we have to battle in order to help them become successful language users. Here are a few, some perhaps already familiar to you:

  • If I write the meaning in Greek/Italian/Japanese, I will remember it.
  • If I study and memorize the word lists in my notebook, I will be able to communicate well.
  • I have to know all the meanings of a word; teachers who give me all the meanings are better. They are the ones who know their job.
  • If I do not know a word, I cannot understand the rest of the sentence or paragraph.
  • I cannot speak unless I know all the words I need.

These attitudes reflect the simplistic view that a language is merely a finite collection of grammatical structures and lexical items. If we know the rules of grammar and the meaning of the words, then we can communicate in that language.

Yet, we know beyond the shadow of a doubt, that there is more to a language than that. We know that there are rules of use governing spoken and written discourse without which communication becomes extremely difficult or ineffective.

Who is to blame? The teachers or the learners?

The fault may be on one or the other side, or even both. Students come to our classes with a set of attitudes, expectations and strategies for learning vocabulary that may not be the best ones.

Teachers, on the other hand, have for generations believed that it is “their job” to explain and that their job is done with explanation.  Some inappropriate teaching strategies and their possible results follow on

Teaching Strategy

Possible Result

Words are presented in isolation  –  context & field are not given use; tenor/style, register are not given  prominence Students have problems with which form to use; or they choose the wrong tenor/style’ connotation and register are largely ignored
All uses/meanings of a word are presented & recorded at the same time There is memory overload and confusion; the learners cannot decide which word, which meaning to use unprompted.
No dictionary training is given to  students; no guidance as to when and how to use dictionaries Dependence on the teacher; uncontrollable dictionary delving; inability to use dictionaries efficiently; student panic and look up every word
Words are assumed to have been ‘learnt’  once they have recorded in a vocabulary  notebook Words are easily forgotten once they are recorded in lists and students cannot use them for talking or writing
Vocabulary presentation is limited to   teachers talking through glossaries or  explicating vocabulary in lecture style Students do not acquire strategies for recording, recalling and revising vocabulary covered in class
Vocabulary practice is limited to testing  the students’ memory; no time is given to              revision/ consolidation through oral & written practices in class Frustration when, once outside the class and confronted by native or non-native users, students cannot access or recall the words they need in order to communicate effectively
Vocabulary is recorded either alphabetically or ‘by the unit’. Thus, completely  unrelated words are lumped together with no unifying theme or link to help memory Students have problems when trying to find vocabulary they have covered for use in productive skills, e..g. writing a topical report, prepare a presentation; they usually end up using bilingual dictionaries

Dictionaries & Learner Training

Training learners in the use of dictionaries is important in fostering learner autonomy and this has started to receive a lot of attention. Published materials which try to help learners find their way around a dictionary and use it to best effect now exist, so there is plenty of help available to the teacher and the learner. Also, learner training material is now available, both in coursebooks as well as in study skills publications.

Words in Text & Training Learners to be Good Guessers

Training learners to use context clues in order to guess the meaning of words is another important learning strategy; yet we do have to persuade them that this is a valuable step toward independence for activities of this kind to work and for learners to feel comfortable and happy about not having an exact mother tongue equivalent, synonym or definition for each and every word.

There are numerous activities to train students to guess words from the surrounding context, some more and some less guided. Some examples follow:

  • The teacher provides a list of definitions and students ‘hunt’ through the text to find the word that matches the meaning.
  • The teacher provides a list of near synonyms or antonyms and students do a similar task as before.
  • Students are asked to examine certain words closely and to try to guess their meaning from the shape of the word.
  • Students explore the logical connections of ideas in a text and use these to guess the meaning of unknown items.

Problems with the right forms – the Grammar of Words

Often students are familiar with one form of the word but do not know its grammar, so they use it incorrectly. Some work with derivatives, i.e. building up charts with all the derivatives of a word and sentence rewriting activities using another form of a word,, might help learners expand their vocabulary and raise grammatical and syntactic awareness at the same time.

Collocation – the company words keep

Collocation, i.e. which other words precede/ follow a particular word, is another serious problem, intensified by the tendency to record words in isolation. Again, there is plentiful material to help the teacher and with the advent of the Lexical Approach and its interest in collocation, concordancing and phrase teaching, there is plenty of material available, much of it freely available on the world wide web.

Connotation – Words with an Attitude

The learner who calls you ‘very skinny’ is clearly not paying you a compliment even if s/he has the best intentions. Lists of words related in meaning can be sorted under headings such as POSITIVE, DEPENDING ON CONTEXT & NEGATIVE so that Ss can have a clear record of this. These types of activities are also valuable way of revising vocabulary covered in class and can be used as preparation for oral or writing activities.

Suggested Overall Teaching Strategy

Words need to be encountered and observed operating in context, which is how we managed to amass a huge number of words, naturally, correctly and appropriately when we learnt our mother tongue.

Yet, thousands upon thousands upon thousands of class hours are wasted every year (in my view, of course) with teachers ‘explicating’ the vocabulary in course books or multiple choice items in very great and unnecessary detail. The mind reels!

Imagine if all these hours had been usefully employed to expose students to stretches of natural discourse/ authentic texts in which language appears in context. We learn words, i.e. they are firmly embedded in our mental lexicons, after we have encountered them in context several times. If instead of doing this we do ‘busy work’ like lecturing students about vocabulary, how much change is there of that happening?

We store words in groups that have related meanings, much like the famous Roget’s Thesaurus (an excellent reference book by the way for teachers and advanced learners). Doesn’t it seem logical then that classroom practice activities should exploit this ability of humans so that we can strengthen instead of weaken the networks in our brain?

Practical activities need to be included in lessons giving learners:

a. opportunities for exploring and discovering meaning for themselves

b. activation of images and associations to make words memorable

c. opportunities to strengthen networks and files where these words will be eventually (hopefully) stored for later recall

d. practice (including chances to make mistakes! – a valuable step in the learning process) in using these words for themselves.

You can find a lot of useful activities related to vocabulary practice and real use in a post on Using Companions which was posted in this blog some time ago.

Vocabulary learning is one of the two most important building blocks of language acquisition. Without words, we cannot communicate any ideas or information.

Yet, vocabulary teaching techniques have remained firmly entrenched in traditional approaches perpetuating styles of learning which are learned and scholarly but which do not really respond to the demands of the communative era.

Using Web 2.0 and bringing new technologies into our lessons

The wonder of the new Web 2.0 activities on the web available on various websites which offer free vocabulary practice may get some teachers to think that the mere use of these technologies is sufficient to make vocabulary learning more effective and more memorable.

There is, of course, an element of truth in this. Learners who are working on vocabulary through more motivating tools than just a teacher explicating and lecturing about vocabulary, may have a higher chance of retention.

But tools must be chosen carefully and selection needs to be made on the same principles used by a teacher in the classroom.

Tools which merely explain, which offer practice out of context and which encourage the same views as a traditional teacher in the grammar-translation era (which, unfortunately, still lives on) are merely perpetuating the same set of learning habits.

Instead, do please look for websites and Web 2.0 applications which will encourage learning language in chunks, promote guesswork, help the learners organise vocabulary in semantic groups or fields to help them create work networks in their mind and to help with easier access and recall.

Some useful Web Tools for Vocabulary Learning

Below you can find some useful vocabulary links in related posts, websites and specific tools.

  • Vocabulary 2.0: 15 tips, tools and resources, posted by Shelly Terrell, contains some great ideas on how to use some Web 2.0 tools in the classroom productively.
  • Breaking News English a website with free materials for teachers produced by Sean Banville, includes dozens of lessons where the vocabulary is taught with and through the text.
  • Listen a Minute is another great website by Sean Banville where the students can work with vocabulary in context.
  • Train your learners, especially advanced learners, to notice words, simply by googling them and observing them in action.
  • Teach them how to use corpuses such as The TIME Corpus of American English
  • How to Use the American Corpus in the Classroom – this is a tutorial which shows you how to use the corpus in the previous entry. If you scroll down the page you will also see some suggestions for activities
  • WordSift is a wonderful online tool which makes wordclouds from texts, highlights the most frequent topical words and offers up images and the Visual Thesaurus dictionary tool to check out related vocabulary, all in one page. You can learn how to use it by watching/listening to this wonderful online tutorial by Russell Stannard From the tutorial, you can also see how this tool is very useful for looking at genre-specific vocabulary
  • Follow Randall’s wonderful collection of vocabulary lessons and let him inspire you with ideas on how to deal with vocabulary

But above all, forget the notion that you are a walking dictionary and allow your learners to take over and deal with their own vocabulary learning.
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20 replies

  1. Marisa,

    I completely agree with you that “Words need to be encountered and observed operating in context, which is how we managed to amass a huge number of words, naturally, correctly and appropriately when we learnt our mother tongue.”

    My students are so used to the traditional way of teaching. When they ask for vocabulary lists with translations they quickly find out that I don’t work that way. I hardly remember any words that I learned through memorizing lists. Moreover, in the real world the students will have to know how to use the word correctly in a particular context. With English this is very difficult because word meanings change depending on the idiom or the way that the word is used. This meaning also changes depending on the country. Many of my students have visited both the UK and America and they quickly learn that vocabulary is used differently in both countries. You have listed great ways to teach vocabulary.

  2. Great post with lots of ideas for vocabulary. Ive been trying get my students to use vocabulary more in conversation, rather than just storing it in memory, and moving onto the next word.

    I like Wordsift as well — excellent resources. I also suggest my adult students simply try a Google image search for some vocabulary. Google Wonderwheel is another quick resource if they’re already at a computer.

  3. Dear Shelly,

    Thanks for commenting and for your great post where you have included lots of exciting tools for use with vocabulary work.

    Part of our job, it seems, has to do with convincing our students that what they are asking us to do is not always the best way for them to learn well.

    This is particularly difficult in the local context – Greece – which is full of meddlesome parents with lots of faith in tranlation, lists and memorization.

    Their pressure on the school is so great that school owners find that in order to keep those students they have to pander to the parents, even if their children are doing well!

    I don’t know if other parents behave the same way.

    Any feedback welcome here.



  4. Neil,

    Nice idea to get students to Google for related images and thanks for pointing out Google Wonderwheel – I hadn’t seen that one before!

    I played with it for a few minutes just now and it looks interesting. If you keep the query simple, it even begins to look like visuwords or even a little bit like the visual thesaurus. How do they then use the words?

    I would be interested to know!

    And thanks for your comment

    Marisa 🙂

  5. I have them use it more as a way to get out of the dictionary. I try to have the students use different websites and methods to learn vocabulary that we then practice in class.

    Unfortunately, the Business English program I teach with doesn’t allow computers in the class — mostly focused on speaking practice. So, I can show them some websites during their lab time or coffee breaks.

    Hoping to begin using more technology with Business English students in the next few months after I become a freelance teacher.

  6. I am not a walking dictionary! je ne suis pas un dictionnaire ambulant ! this is very good to be reminded, I fully agree with you. My main difficulty with vocabulary as a teacher is to find ways to help the students to re-use the same vocabulary in different contexts and topics, in a new unboring way, so that the re-using process eventually captures the words into the memory net.
    As a learner, my main difficulty is the same, from the other point of view : to find occurrences of the words I used to know but that are now forgotten, to go to particular areas of the language to see or hear the words reappear at the surface.

  7. Alice,

    I think that one of the problems you are mentioning (finding ways of reusing…) may stem from the fact that on the whole, on training courses and in the books or vocabulary resource websites, vocabulary tends to be presented and seen as a separate entity from the language skills. Same thing happens to grammar, by the way.

    So, in looking for material and activities to encourage reuse and recycling of vocabulary you have covered in previous lessons, instead of looking for ‘vocabulary’ activities, why not look for speaking, listening, reading, writing activities in which the students will be ‘encountering’ the vocabulary receptively and will be ‘experimenting’ with it productively.

    That is why in my post above, if you noticed, I have not listed so much by way of exercises, matching, games, etc. My own belief is that these types of activity are checking rather than use activities.

    It is in integrated skills work that vocabulary can be seen and used in action.

  8. It seems that I did not make myself understood. I do not search for “vocabulary” activities, but of course reading, writing, speaking, listening activities where the words would reappear naturally. This can be done by sticking to the same theme, with different perspectives and points of view, but it has to be thought out carefully, I do not find it so easy nor obvious. And the training course I attended was not very explicit about how to tackle vocabulary, apart from vague general ideas ie including vocabulary into the whole of language. The best activity I found so far is a reading activity : the horoscope ! the words are rearranged everyday in a different manner but they are often reused. My favourite horoscope is the one in the free newspaper “20 minutes”.This is a sort of “fil rouge” : the students learn a lot of personality/character related vocabulary together with very common and everyday French expressions.
    I always say to my students that language is a whole, not a “saucisson”, but, having said that, I found that vocabulary is often the “parent pauvre” of teacher training.

  9. An excellent post. Generally teaching vocabulary out of context is not a mistake I’ve seen most teachers make.

    I find that, as you said, the greatest difficulties are learners’ preconceived notions. I’ve got a private student right now whose mother wants her to take the TOEFL (she’s at a low pre-int level at the moment), so she gets lists of TOEFL vocabulary and sits and memorizes their translations, which believe you me, simply cannot work for Turkish and English even if she was able to recall them for use.

    We couldn’t meet for 3 weeks and of course she forgot quite a bit of stuff. Her mother was upset she had forgotten as she “had been studying” the whole time. You can tell them what works time and time again and they just blow it off, especially parents.

    What I’ve never understood is the students see how easily they remember when things are taught in context, yet they still come to class with lists of translations in their hand. It’s just like the students who have had 15 years of grammar education and can’t speak a word, but demand more grammar in the classroom. I just don’t understand the mentality.

    I think it’s so important like you said in the above comment. Don’t set out to teach vocabulary. Provide skills-based activities where the vocabulary will be used. The students will pick it up much easier and get skills practice to boot.

  10. Neil,

    This post is not specifically about using more technologies for vocabulary acquisition and retention; it’s about escaping from certain traditions, including those within versions of the communicative approach where words are shown, highlighted, explicated in isolation and then practised in isolation and out of context. There are numerous paper and pen (or no materials at all) activities which would be just as good, some even better, than the online suggestions in this post.


    Interesting idea about the varied topical vocabulary focuses in horoscopes; my only reservation in overusing this text type would be motivation focused if done too much – but if you have a class interested in this theme I don’t see why not use it.

    I love your “language is not a saucisson” metaphor! This is exactly what I’ve tried to say here!


    I am not against teaching the meanings of words or phrases; we need shortcuts. It’s the follow up or lack of productive and receptive work with this vocabulary which bothers me. Haven’t materials writers and publishers cottoned on to the fact that all those endless gapfills, matching, etc. exercises they produce do nothing more than check?

    Yes, I think your last sentence says it all, indeed!

  11. It occurs to me that I never mentioned what happened to Panayotis…

    Unfortunately, he failed again… I was not able to save him, as he was simply not willing to change the way he studied or perhaps not able to any more.


  12. A very interesting post – particular thanks to you for WordSift and Neil for the Wonder Wheel links – they look like great sites, particularly given Wordle’s plight.

  13. Thanks Marisa – this is something that has been troubling me and something I am working on improving, bit by bit. One thing I have tried to get across is the importance of the WHOLE word – learning collocations, register, synonyms, translations, part of speech and so on. The other idea I have focused on is allowing learners to select their own vocabulary for testing. It works well in conjunction with extensive reading, which I think is an excellent way to establish deeper word knowledge. I wrote more about it here http://www.livesofteachers.com/2009/10/10/what-does-it-mean-to-know-a-word/ and I’m looking forward to taking what I learnt from the last year’s experience and building on it in the upcoming academic semester.

  14. Darren,

    Choice is good, both for the learning as well as for the testing – I am all for this idea as long there is not official examination in sight!

    After all we do have our own idiolect in our own language, don’t we, so why not in the foreign language as well.

    Certain reservations to this notion have to do with lower levels of instruction – some vocabulary, especially vocabulary of high frequency which helps and supports the learning of other words, is not or should not be a matter of choice, always as far as I am concerned, of course.

    Another point the occurs to me is the notion of whole word learning which you describe. It looks to me as if it has to do with the recording of this vocabulary rather than encountering same. I may have misunderstood of course.

    If I haven’t, I just wanted to say this: take a word, any word in English, and give it to a native speaker who is not a teacher. Ask them to supply all the information you might ask your students to record.

    It’s a very interesting experiment and one I often use with my trainees to make them aware of the fact that we have the ability to use words without necessarily consciously being able to articulate all the information which is typically asked of EFL students in their language classes.

  15. Incidentally, Darren, this experiment works with students who are word freaks just to show them that preoccupation with recording atuff ABOUT words and learning ABOUT them is not necessary in order to be able to USE words.



  16. Sorry Marisa, got caught up but I wanted to come back and respond.

    I agree with you, in the main. I should set a little context – most of my learners have a fairly broad vocabulary as far as passive recognition goes.. after the exam hell of high school and getting into a (if I say so myself) good university, they have devoured huge lists of English words, in translation. As you say, they are unable to use most of them… and as the words have been memorized rather than learnt they are rapidly disappearing. Changing the style of learning and introducing the element of choice is a step towards (I think) better learning habits. Production is not always necessary (plenty of words I recognise I have never said, nor written). But it is something we can work towards in the class and in homework.

    I should just point out how wonderful extensive reading is, as a tool for consolidating vocabulary in use.

  17. Darren,

    Your last remark about extensive reading is absolutely spot on! I agree entirely, not just for consolidating but for enriching and expanding vocabulary!


    Guilty as charged! Insanely long posts are my specialty… Some people have the talent to say as much as I did in much less space… I’m working on it!


    Thanks to both for commenting


  18. Dear Marisa,

    One of my new students this week proved to me, once again, that every learner learns a little differently:
    When we did various activities incorporating new words, e.g. writing words on cards and playing with them, grouping them etc., and one involved putting them on post-its and sticking them in likely places, adding visual context.

    This one student told me that wouldn’t work art all for her. She can’t write anything she wants to remember on a post.it, because she has conditioned herself in her many years of organizing her office to externalize her memory completely when she notes things down like that. Creating a post-it note is a sure fire way to forget, she doesn’t think twice about the content of the note. For her, the context has to be firmly anchored in an internalized image.

    By contrast, another participant has been subscribing to a service called One Word A Day for a long, and routinely uses post-its to keep her favorite words stuck to her computer screen for a while before putting them in her notebook. She remembers where the words were, which ones they were next to.

    Learners have very different concepts of “context”. Fascinating.

    • Hi Anne,

      It’s absolutely true that not all learners tick quite in the same way. The teacher then has to choose whether to “fall in” with the way the particular learner declares they learn best, or to try and train them to work in other ways, too.

      The same argument holds true for the “natural order of acquisition”; fall in with the natural order or not?

      There are no certainties here. I think this is one of the big questions of curriculum design, but I must say I have seen learners being trained to work in other ways if it is done persuasively and systematically. Mind you, this is not real research evidence, just observations of what some teachers have been able to achieve!

      This is, indeed, a fascinating topic and hope you will have more to say later about these particular learners.

      Thanks for sharing these stories


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