Vocabulary and autonomy

This article looks at ways to improve your students' abilities to both explore, store and use vocabulary.

The general aim is to involve the students in a more autonomous fashion in their learning, rather than simply having them presented with word lists selected by the teacher or syllabus.

  • The role of vocabulary teaching
  • How can teachers help their learners?
  • Self-initiated independent learning
  • Formal practice
  • Functional practice
  • Memorizing
  • Best approach
  • Practical activities
  • References


The role of vocabulary teaching
In the context of learning English as a foreign language, a learner is forced to be autonomous and independent and make conscious effort to learn vocabulary outside the classroom simply because the exposure to the target language is limited in class. So teachers cannot rely on their Ss 'picking up' lexical items. This makes explicit vocabulary teaching necessary. However, vocabulary is notoriously difficult if not impossible to teach because of the complexity of its linguistic, semantic and psycho-cognitive aspects.

How can teachers help their learners?
First of all, ways of presenting new vocabulary should be varied. In order to improve the efficiency of vocabulary learning (memorizing and retrieving lexical items) students should be encouraged to make use of learning strategies that are at their disposal, and be taught, either implicitly or explicitly, new strategies for vocabulary learning. According to one research (Pavicic, 1999) strategies can be divided into four groups

Self-initiated independent learning
These strategies involve planned, active and motivated learning and exposure to language outside the classroom (media).

Examples of strategies

  • Word grouping
  • Making notes of vocabulary while reading for pleasure/watching TV
  • Word cards / Leafing through a dictionary
  • Planning
  • Recording and listening
  • Regular revision


In this group cognitive strategies which include direct manipulation of lexical items are connected to meta-cognitive strategies that make the use of cognitive ones more effective. The aim is communicative use of vocabulary.

Formal practice
These strategies promote systematic learning and vocabulary practice. The aim is accurate reproduction and is often connected to the tasks of formal instruction.

Examples of strategies

  • Loud repetition
  • Bilingual dictionary
  • Testing oneself
  • Noting new items in class.


Functional practice
These strategies are based on context as a vocabulary source. They also include exposure to language, but without making a conscious effort (incidental learning). They also have a social aspect, i.e. interaction.

Examples of strategies

  • Remembering words while watching TV/reading
  • Using known words in different contexts
  • Looking for definitions
  • Listening to songs and trying to understand
  • Using words in conversations
  • Practice with friends.


This group includes a number of memory strategies based on inter-, intra-lingual and visual associations.

Examples of strategies

  • Using pictures, illustrations
  • Associations with L1 (cognates or key word method)
  • Looking for similarities between words
  • Visualisation


Best approach
There are no universally useful strategies and they contribute to vocabulary learning in different ways. Students use a number of strategies, often simultaneously. The efficiency of vocabulary learning depends on how students combine individual strategies. If students combine and employ individual strategies from different groups they will be more successful in developing the target language lexicon. Thus, the ideal combination would be that of strategies from all four groups.

The teacher should create activities and tasks (to be done both in and outside class) to help students to build their vocabulary and develop strategies to learn the vocabulary on their own. Students experiment and evaluate and then decide which to adopt or reject since strategies are not intended to be prescriptive.

Practical activities
Here is a selection of practical activities that direct learners towards using strategies of vocabulary learning.

The useful alphabet (self-initiated independent learning)
Each student gets a letter and has to find 5, 10 or 15 words s/he thinks would be useful for them. They then report to the class, perhaps as a mingle activity, using word cards (on one side they write the letter, on the other the information on the word - spelling, pronunciation, definition).

 Word bag (formal practice)
This is to get your students to write down new words they hear in class.

At the beginning of the term/course divide students into groups of about 5 and give each group a number (e.g. 1-6). At the beginning of each class give each group about 10 cards on which they write the number of their group and the new words they hear in class. At the end of each class they put their cards into the "word bag" and every 2 weeks you check whether they still know those words and which group has the most cards. In the end there are two winners: the group that has the most cards, and the one that knows more words.

Especially for you (functional practice)
The teacher prepares a list of words. Each student gets one word which is prepared especially for him or her. The trick is that each student gets a word whose initial letter is the same as the initial of the student's first name, e.g. Linda gets listless. Each student must look it up in the dictionary during the class and after a few minutes report to the class. E.g. "My name is Linda and I'm listless. That means that I am ... (definition)...". For homework students can do the same using their surname.

Word tour (memorizing)
Instructions for your students: 'Think of a town or city you know well. Imagine that you are organising a sightseeing tour. Think of 5 places you would include on your tour and write down the order in which the tourists would visit them. Learn your tour off by heart so that you can picture it in your mind. Whenever you have 5 new English words to learn, imagine these words are the tourists on your tour and picture the words in the places on your tour like this. Tour: Trafalgar Square; Buckingham Palace; Houses of Parliament; Westminster Abbey; Downing Street. Words to learn: apron; dustpan; vacuum cleaner; feather duster; broom. Imagine Nelson on his column in Trafalgar Square wearing an apron, the queen brushing the floor in Buckingham Palace and using a dustpan...

Literature reference
Ellis, G., B. Sinclair (1989a) Learning to Learn English: A Course in Learner Training (Student book). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ellis, G., B. Sinclair (1989b) Learning to Learn English: A Course in Learner Training (Teacher's Book). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
French Allen, Virginia (1983) Techniques in Teaching Vocabulary. Oxford: OUP.
Gairns, Ruth and Stuart Redman (1990) Working With Words: A Guide to Teaching and Learning Vocabulary. Cambridge: CUP.
Morgan, Rinvolucri (1993) Vocabulary. Oxford: OUP.
Pavicic, Visnja (1999) Strategije ucenja engleskog kao stranog jezika /Learning Strategies in English as a Foreign Language/ [unpublished master thesis] University of Zagreb.
Wordflo Your Personal English Organiser . Longman, 1998.
Wright, Jon (1998) Dictionaries. Oxford: OUP.

Visnja Pavicic, MA, Pedagoski fakultet [Faculty of Education], University of Osijek, Croatia


Submitted by acd.nina on Sat, 02/04/2012 - 16:25


The article incorporates all the best ways to learn and teach English vocabulary.

The part Practical activities is especially interesting.

I think that Memorizing through Associations with L1 is an excellent practice. Personally, I used to apply this strategy with my students. It always help!

The very comment you made - everything has its value - is itself a noteworthy evaluation as far as English Language Learning is concerned. Pondering over a new observation or a new word or a new explanation is important both for the teachers and learners. Approach and mindset play a key role in fixing what we remember and what not whenever we come in contact with a new word. As far as my experience is concerned, it is easier to remember those words that interest us!

Submitted by sanwang411 on Mon, 04/22/2013 - 07:45


I have difficulty in teaching vocabulary. Try my best to find ways to help my students. These may be effective ways to learn vocabulary. I am going to apply them to my teaching.

Submitted by Vivek Patil on Thu, 05/02/2013 - 13:41


 These are really Innovative ideas. Definately will help in vocabulary development

Submitted by teacherbob on Wed, 07/31/2013 - 04:49


These activities and strategies look interesting... but these are really learner training - providing ideas that may lead to learner autonomy but without students making informed choices about what they learn and how they learn, these activities are student-centred but not learner-led. Don't get me wrong - I like these activities, I have used some and I would use the others. These ideas are a great start and thank you for sharing them. However, if the teacher is providing the vocabulary and the activities, where's the autonomy? Why not start by asking the students about vocabulary learning? For example: - where they find the vocabulary they learn - how they choose what to learn and what not to learn - how they memorize the vocab - how they practice what they memorized - how they review what they memorized - how successful each stage (finding, choosing, memorizing, practicing, reviewing) has been - the challenges of any of the stages Maybe some learners have better ideas than us teachers can think of! They can share and try out any activities that sound relevant to their learning needs. Of course, the activities above could still be introduced, but a reflective element would encourage more thinking - more consideration about the suitability of the activity to each learner - and an opportunity to decide whether the activity will be used again or rejected. That is the learners taking control. Reflection questions could cover, for example: - What they thought about the activity - the advantages of the activity - the disadvantages of the activity - any modifications they would make - whether they would use it again For autonomy to flourish, decision making about which vocabulary to learn and what activities are 'the best' needs to be encouraged in the learners themselves. It's up to us teachers to nurture that considered decision making in learners in a way that is befitting to the context and the learners.

Submitted by AndrewWeiler on Wed, 10/16/2013 - 06:37


There are some good points raised here, but one which hasn't which I believe is critical for most people is personalising the vocabulary to aid memory. Common sense tells us that if we are talking about something we believe in, are invested in, relate to, etc, it is going to stay with us better. What we know about the importance of linking in memory tells us the same. So with vocabulary I would suggest getting students to personalise it. My house has 2 levels...c/f...The house has 2 levels. ( or my sister's house, etc etc ) It's a small shift but what it does is to engage the students more so they are working at relating the new language to their life, not to some abstract ideas. Some people don't need this, because they process words in different ways. But most people would benefit from this practice in many ways. A side benefit is improved engagement, a gold standard in language learning.

Submitted by AndrewWeiler on Thu, 01/09/2014 - 02:09


Why a lot of people struggle learning/teaching vocabulary is that they remain reliant on either crude memorization (including the sexier versions of flash cards etc) or translation. Neither of these ways relate to how memory functions best or how we learned vocabulary when we were at our most powerful (in our first years). The reality is that awareness, perception, noticing and linking are keys to learning new words, etc and apply to all people, irrespective of language, culture etc. These powers all humans are endowed with but too often they are all but absent from how many see language education and hence so many struggle. Memorization, like how you might want to remember a phone number or name don't really relate much to a creative and complex skill like speaking a language. I have written about each of these powers but as this post relates to vocabulary I will provide a link to that post, which incidentally is the most popular link on my site...http://www.strategiesinlanguagelearning.com/how-to-remember-vocabulary/ (The archive facility is being currently repaired..so you might need to do an onsite search for other areas...soon to be fixed)

Submitted by Khuraman Safarova on Sat, 01/18/2014 - 17:07


to remember new words,you d be better know the sinonymous and antonyms of these words.It makes I ll use at my lessons WORD BAG and WORD TOUR. especially for homework, thanks for it.

Submitted by debdulal chakrabarty on Sat, 08/30/2014 - 11:24


Among all other important insights about 'vocabulary', one interesting aspect has to be noticed. More often than not, a particular 'word' could be easily learn t when the same is pronounced a number of times by the teacher himself. A student memorizes the teacher's way of pronouncing the 'new word', the body languages attached while uttering the word and then directly co-relates the same to the word thus learn t. From my experience I thought it to share with all of you. My best regards to the writer for this important writing.

Submitted by Ephrem Palathingal on Sat, 02/13/2016 - 15:27


"See and learn" and the rest is the individual's memory doing the trigger. The brain has audio/video memory in separate cache is up to the neuroscientist to decide. But the retrieving data is based on such ...this is my experience and experiment.

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