How can we achieve successful vocabulary learning in the EFL classroom?
Here are 7 key points to focus on when introducing new lexis to our students
1. Choosing what to focus on.
Many teachers rely mainly on the syllabus for the selection of the new vocabulary items they will be presenting to their class. It is important, however, to step away from the coursebooks and also focus on the lexis found in the authentic texts or even the listening tasks we give to our students.
The words/phrases/lexical chunks we will decide to teach need to be meaningful and useful to our learners. We also need to consider our learners’ level and their specific needs. In exam oriented classrooms, we may need to pay more attention to lexical items our learners may encounter in the language tests or we may want to focus on enriching their vocabulary In order to foster their speaking and writing skills. Our students’ L1 background will also determine where our attention should be shifted. The majority of Greek learners of English for example are usually perplexed by phrasal verbs and, as a result, their teachers focus more on this specific field.
Focus should be given not only on the meaning of the new words, but also on their pronunciation, their spelling, the grammatical patterns they may form, their synonyms/antonyms and the positive or negative connotations these may have in the TL.
Our main goal is to help our learners effectively develop their interlanguage by picking up new words and phrases that they will eventually begin to use actively in their TL output. In order to successfully acquire this new lexis, our learners must understand the meaning, memorize the word, successfully retrieve it and use it appropriately.
2. The importance of context and collocations
Whenever possible (depending on our lesson’s aims) we should try to find ways to introduce the new lexis in meaningful context (through authentic texts, listening tasks or even the use of authentic language in the activities we give out to the class). We do not want our learners to simply pick up new words. They need to encounter these new items in their authentic target language environment.
Thornbury (2002), Harmer (2001) and many other specialists in the language teaching field stress the importance of introducing learners to lexical chunks and collocations. For successful vocabulary acquisition to take place, it is better for some words to be taught together with their ‘partner-words’ in a ‘strong, frequent and typical pattern of use’.
3. Using a variety of techniques – Task authenticity
Vocabulary teaching techniques can vary depending on our students’ level, their age and their specific needs. They can be teacher-led or student-centered, where learners are given a more active role by trying to discover the meaning of the new lexis. During the lesson planning stage it is important to dedicate some time on the vocabulary we will be introducing to our class and brainstorm on the different techniques that we could use to help our students memorize it. We should think of how the meaning of these items would best be presented to our learners who may be encountering it for the first time.
Below you can find (and download) a list of interesting techniques on vocabulary teaching depending on the nature of the lexical items we are introducing our learners to.
4. The importance of eliciting the vocabulary
As Hedge (2000:126) points out, our main role as teachers is to ‘build independence’ in our learners by teaching them good strategies for independent vocabulary learning. Sometimes, however, we may have to provide some extra guidance and help in this process by eliciting the meaning of the new words from our students and by providing some further explanations.
Eliciting keeps our students involved and creates a desire and curiosity in them to discover the meaning of a new word . It also provides a way of actually testing whether a lexical item is part of our learners’ vocabulary and of giving them some credit if they already know the word.
Eliciting can also be done with the help of the rest of the students when unknown words pop up. If a student asks the meaning of a word, we can check if anyone else in the class knows it and can explain it or give an example. This is extremely beneficial as it keeps the rest of the students alert and increases STT (student talking time).
5. Recycling and repetition
It is important to note here that if our learners are taught one word in a specific context they might not be able to understand it in another (ex. “round the corner”, “I’ ll be round later”). Or they may have picked up a new word but not use it as part of their active vocabulary. Recycling and repetition are therefore crucial to successful vocabulary learning and for input to become intake. However, recycling should not mean testing but giving the students opportunities for further practice in order to incorporate the new words to their mental lexicon.
Drilling as well as focus on the pronunciation and the spelling of the words should also form part of the recycling process as our learners need to fully master all aspects of a word in order to use it properly in the future.
6. Catering for the different learner styles
For effective learning to take place, we must always try to address the needs of all of our students and their different learning styles. Kinesthetic learners for example will acquire knowledge differently from visual learners. Some students will learn through interaction whereas others will need to see the words written down in order to memorize them. We must therefore provide our learners with a variety of resources and tasks that will enable them to make use of their different intelligences and abilities.
7. Turning passive vocabulary into active
We must always try to create the perfect circumstances for input to become intake and eventually output. We must expose our students to authentic input and to give them the opportunity to encounter the new lexical items plenty of times in order to recognize them and memorize their meaning and use in the language. We must also provide them with plenty of opportunities in order for them to successfully use these words in meaningful and authentic tasks and to appropriately begin to incorporate them in their speaking and writing.
Last, but not least let us always keep in mind that motivation is key to successful learning. If our learners do not feel motivated they will encounter difficulties picking up new knowledge. Keeping our learners’ attention alert and their motivation levels up through active involvement, through interesting and relevant tasks is therefore crucial to effective vocabulary teaching.
Harmer, J. (2001). The practice of English language teaching. Longman.
Hedge, T. (2000). Teaching and learning in the language classroom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Penny Ur. (2012). A course in English language teaching. Cambridge University Press
Thornbury, Scott. (2002). How to Teach Vocabulary. Longman.