Working with vocabulary

Vocabulary is crucial for getting meaning from a written or oral text. Without knowledge of key vocabulary in a text, a learner may have serious trouble understanding the message.

Teaching the meaning of individual words, however, will not ensure that learners can read a text with understanding. 'Words enter into meaningful relations with other words around them…' (Sinclair 1996:76).

To understand a text, learners need to know words, and 'knowing a word involves knowing: its spoken and written contexts of use, its patterns with words of related meaning…' (Carter, 2001:43). When teaching vocabulary it is then necessary to consider aspects like denotation, polysemy, connotation and sociocultural aspects when teaching a second or foreign language so that learners are able to get meaning from texts.

  • Denotation and polysemy
  • Connotation
  • Sociocultural context
  • References & further reading


Denotation and polysemy
'The meaning of a word is primarily what it refers to in the real world, its denotation.'(Ur 1997:61) For example, the denotation of the word cat is an animal with soft fur, and whiskers. Nevertheless, words can have many different meanings; in fact, one word in English often has more than one denotation. This phenomenon is called polysemy. The word issue, for instance, refers to a subject that people discuss or argue about, but it also refers to a magazine that is published at a particular time. To solve this problem of polysemy, students need to see and practise words in context, since it is the context that allows them to understand the meaning of a word. Felicity O'Dell (1997) suggests the following activities to deal with polysemy:

  • finding one word to fit all the gaps in a set of sentences which illustrate a range of meanings of a polysemous word
  • finding a word that fits two synonyms or definitions
  • explaining puns in newspaper headlines
  • explaining jokes
  • matching two halves of jokes
  • choosing which meaning fits a particular context
  • ordering meanings in a dictionary extract in terms of usefulness/interest.


Connotation, on the other hand, refers to 'the associations, or positive or negative feelings it evokes, which may or may not be indicated in a dictionary definition.' (Ur: 1997:61). This means that words can suggest different things depending on the context they occur in. A learner who fails to understand the connotation of a word will probably fail to get the message of the text.

To handle connotation O'Dell (1997) suggests the following exercises:

  • asking students to give their own connotations for particular words
  • classifying words with a positive, neutral or pejorative association
  • finding words in a text that show attitude
  • explaining straight meanings, unusual headlines, metaphors, puns
  • discussing words in a text with regard to their connotations
  • adding words to a text
  • changing the attitude conveyed in a text.


Sociocultural context
Another important aspect to consider is sociocultural context which refers to the fact that the language used by a sociocultural group is closely connected with its values, attitudes and beliefs. Consequently, learning a language involves understanding and interpreting the culture of which it is part. It is important, therefore, for students to develop the ability to interpret texts from perspectives other than their own.

Some of the activities suggested by O'Dell (1997) to deal with sociocultural context are the following:

  • asking students to compare words and expressions used in various English-speaking contexts with those used in their own L1 context
  • students comment on the sociocultural associations of lexis in a given text
  • students write glosses for text
  • students research a given set of items with sociocultural associations
  • quizzes focusing on sociocultural lexical items
  • true or false questions
  • explaining newspaper headlines, adverts, graffiti.


References/Further Reading
The Cambridge Guide to Teaching English to Speakers of Other languages. Carter, R., Nunan, D. (2001). Cambridge University Press.
The Practice of English Language Teaching. Harmer, J. (2001). Essex: Longman.
Aspects of Word Knowledge and Vocabulary exercises. O'Dell, F. (1997) Extract from MA dissertation, Institute of Education. University of London.
Units of Meaning. Sinclair, J. (1996). Textus 9, 75-106
A Course in Language Teaching. Ur, P. (1997) Cambridge University Press.

Carmen Gloria Garrido Barra, EFL Teacher, Concepción, Chile

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