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Seven steps to vocabulary learning

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Have you ever considered why a learner (even an advanced one) can hear a difficult English word or phrase literally thousands of times and still not use that word in the way that a native speaker does?

You might expect that, after having been exposed to a word in ten, twenty, or maybe at the very most thirty, contexts, a learner will gradually piece together the word's meaning and start to use it correctly, appropriately and fluently.

  • Classroom context
  • Seven steps to vocabulary learning
  • Conclusion


Classroom context
Of course we cannot expect a learner to acquire difficult words in the same way as a young child acquires their first language, but, perhaps as teacher we can somehow help learners to arouse their 'learning monitor' by, for example, providing rich contexts containing the target language and by giving our learners time to reflect on what the language item means. In this way teachers can use the EFL classroom to replicate the real world and nurture strategies to help students understand and produce difficult language items which often seem beyond their grasp.

Seven steps to vocabulary learning
Here are some practical steps that I have used to help my students. As an example I want to focus on one very tricky word ('actually') and suggest ways that a student can understand what it means, and, thereafter, be able to use it more fluently. This model (which consists of seven steps) can be used for any difficult word/phrase.

Step 1
I get my students to listen to the word or phrase in authentic-sounding dialogues
Here are the dialogues I use for 'actually':

  • Do you want a chocolate?
    No, thanks. I'm on a diet actually.
  • Do you want a coffee?
    Actually, I'm a bit pushed for time.
  • Could I just borrow your book for a moment?
    Actually, I'm just about to use it in class. Sorry.
  • How's John doing?
    Actually, he's doing all right!
  • Ready to go?
    Yeah…erm…actually I'm going to take my umbrella. It looks like it might rain.
  • I see you're still following your diet! (meant sarcastically)
    Actually, I've lost a couple of pounds since we last met.


I think the students need at least six contexts to start to understand all the different nuances of meaning of a difficult target item.

Step 2
I give my students plenty of time to study the word in these contexts, so that they can work out what the meaning / function is. I either get them to study the contexts individually and then get them to compare their thoughts in pairs or groups or I get them to discuss in pairs / groups straight away. I prefer the first option, because, this way, each student gets more time to think for him / herself.

Step 3
I discuss the meaning in plenary. I do this in two stages. First, I simply say "So what do you think?" Then, after having heard their thoughts, I ask concept questions that uncover the heart of the meaning.

Examples of concept questions for actually might be:

  • Is the speaker saying something quite important?
  • Does the speaker give the other person the answer they want / expect?
  • Is the speaker asserting him/herself?
    Answers: a) important; b) not; c) standing up for him/herself


After doing such concept question work, I use a summing up concept statement, like this one: "So we use 'actually' after someone asks us a question (often a request or offer), and we don't give them the answer they want or expect."

Step 4
I provide a phonological model (including pronunciation, stress, and intonation) in a surrounding sentence.

Most native speakers devote three syllables to 'actually', the stress is on the first syllable, and there is a rise/fall/rise intonation pattern (which signals the conflict in the situation).

Step 5
I provide a prompt - to elicit use of the word in a natural way.

Here are some prompts I use for actually:

  • "So what do you think of __________ ?" (London) I use a facial expression to show that I expect a positive response.
  • "Would you like a cigarette?"
  • "Shall we go out for a meal tonight?"
  • "How's your friend Bill?"


If I don't get the response I want, I repeat and try to get another student to help. Then, if necessary, I get individual students to repeat the response until they feel completely comfortable with it.

Step 6
I set up a simulation, providing students with the chance to say the word in a natural situation. I distribute the following scenario and get two of my stronger students to act it in front of the class and then I get all the students to act it in closed pairs (rotating roles). This is an example scenario I have used for 'actually'.

John and Mary are in a pub.
1. John asks Mary if she'd like an alcoholic drink.
2. Mary declines this (as she doesn't drink alcohol).
3. John buys her some mineral water.
4. Mary suggests sitting down.
5. John agrees.
6. John asks if it's OK to light a cigarette.
7. Mary says she's got a bronchial problem. (etc.)

Step 7
I set up a review schedule, in which words are elicited and practised. It's always important to review such lessons in the future, but each time I do this, I spend less time on it, and insert bigger gaps between the inclusion of this language item in the review sessions. Ultimately, I reach the point where I just need to say to someone "Fancy a chocolate?" and I automatically get the response "Actually I'm on a diet."

Students who are living in an English-speaking country are often happy learning what difficult words and phrases mean through their everyday study or work lives, but for the majority of students, learning a language is a slow and painful process, and we must try to do something to accelerate the pace of learning. My students should, I believe, benefit from the teaching procedures I've described in this article. If they learn words and phrases in this systematic way in class, they are not only likely to achieve more communicative success in class but also to become more aware of how they learn and the knowledge they need to acquire to learn words more successfully.

Further reading
Giorgi and Longobardi The Syntax of Noun Phrases, Cambridge University Press
Miller and Weinert Spontaneous Spoken Discourse, Oxford University Press

Paul Bress