This article looks at what needs to be taught when teaching vocabulary and ways to present and teach vocabulary.

Richard Frost, British Council
  • Introduction
  • What a student may need to know about an item
  • Ways to present vocabulary
  • Alternative ways of teaching vocabulary
  • Other things to consider

With hundreds of thousands of words in the English language, teaching vocabulary can seem like a very daunting prospect. Remember though that the average native speaker uses around only five thousand words in everyday speech. Moreover, your students won't need to produce every word they learn, some they will just need to recognize. Selecting what to teach, based on frequency and usefulness to the needs of your particular students is therefore essential. Once you have chosen what to teach, the next important steps are to consider what students need to know about the items, and how you can teach them.

What a student may need to know about an item

  • What it means
    It is vital to get across the meaning of the item clearly and to ensure that your students have understood correctly with checking questions.
  • The form
    Students need to know if it is a verb / a noun / an adjective etc to be able to use it effectively.
  • How it is pronounced
    This can be particularly problematic for learners of English because there is often no clear relation between how a word is written and how it is pronounced. It is very important to use the phonemic script in such cases so the sts have a clear written record of the pronunciation. Don't forget also to drill words that you think will cause pronunciation problems for your students and highlight the word stresses.
  • How it is spelt
    This is always difficult in English for the reason mentioned above. Remember to clarify the pronunciation before showing the written form.
  • If it follows any unpredictable grammatical patterns
    For example, man-men / information (uncountable) and if the word is followed by a particular preposition (e.g. depend on)
  • The connotations that the item may have
    Bachelor is a neutral/positive word whereas spinster conjures a more negative image.
  • The situations when the word is or is not used
    Is it formal/neutral/informal? For example, spectacles/glasses/specs. Is it used mainly in speech or in writing? To sum up is usually written whereas mind you is spoken. Is it outdated? Wireless instead of radio.
  • How the word is related to others
    For example, synonyms, antonyms, lexical sets.
  • Collocation or the way that words occur together
    You describe things 'in great detail' not 'in big detail' and to ask a question you 'raise your hand' you don't 'lift your hand'. It is important to highlight this to students to prevent mistakes in usage later.
  • What the affixes (the prefixes and suffixes) may indicate about the meaning
    For example, substandard sub meaning under. This is particularly useful at a higher level.

Which of these areas you choose to highlight will depend on the item you are teaching and the level of your students. Now it's time to think about how we can get the meaning across.

Ways to present vocabulary
There are lots of ways of getting across the meaning of a lexical item.

  • Illustration
    This is very useful for more concrete words (dog, rain, tall) and for visual learners. It has its limits though, not all items can be drawn.
  • Mime
    This lends itself particularly well to action verbs and it can be fun and memorable.
  • Synonyms/Antonyms/Gradable items
    Using the words a student already knows can be effective for getting meaning across.
  • Definition
    Make sure that it is clear (maybe check in a learner dictionary before the lesson if you are not confident). Remember to ask questions to check they have understood properly.
  • Translation
    If you know the students' L1, then it is fast and efficient. Remember that not every word has a direct translation.
  • Context
    Think of a clear context when the word is used and either describe it to the students or give them example sentences to clarify meaning further.

Again which you choose will depend on the item you are presenting. Some are more suitable for particular words. Often a combination of techniques can be both helpful and memorable

Alternative ways of teaching vocabulary

  • Give your students a few items of vocabulary and tell them to find the meaning, pronunciation and write an example sentence with the word in. They can then teach each other in groups.
  • Prepare worksheets and ask your students to match words to definitions.
  • Ask students to classify a group of words into different categories. For example, a list of transport words into air/sea/land.
  • Ask students to find new vocabulary from reading homework and teach the other students in the class.

Other things to consider

  • Review the vocabulary you teach through a game or activity and encourage your students to do the same at home
  • Encourage autonomy in your learners. Tell them to read, watch films, listen to songs etc and note the useful words
  • Have a section of your board for vocabulary items that come up as you are teaching. Use different colours for the word / the phonemics / the prepositions / the part of speech
  • It is a good idea to teach/learn words with associated meanings together
  • Encourage your students to purchase a good dictionary and use class time to highlight the benefits of one
  • Teach your students the grammatical names for the parts of speech and the phonemic script
  • Always keep a good dictionary by your side in case a student asks about a word you don't know
  • If you don't and have never heard of the word, tell the student you will check and get back to them. Do get back to them
  • Give extra examples sentences to the students if they are unsure and encourage them to write the word in an example sentence (maybe for homework)


Submitted by raniaboudoumi on Thu, 12/28/2023 - 11:44

Very useful!

Submitted by Shaxzodaxon on Fri, 11/04/2022 - 14:12

Dear Richard Frost, my name is Shaxzodaxon, from Tashkent city of independent Uzbekistan. I am language student at the Kimyo international university of Tashkent. I found the above article very useful and interesting. These methods can help to improve students' knowledge.Before reading it I knew some of them. Your article presents and teaches vocabulary in an unusual format for many teachers. Moreover format to teach,help for majority learners. I will definitely use your method.
Thanks for your reply.

Submitted by Editorbloke on Mon, 01/14/2019 - 20:25

I found the above quite useful, but must take issue with the following statement: 'Bachelor is a neutral/positive word whereas spinster conjures a more negative image.' I think it would be more accurate to consider both words as 'old fashioned' in terms of contemporary usage. A single male is usually described as 'unmarried' and 'bachelor is seldom heard, except for comedic purposes, which are often used in a derogatory fashion, as in term 'confirmed bachelor', to mean somebody who is gay. 'Spinster' is also is seldom heard outside of comedy routines and again, the more common description would be 'unmarried', given that the term 'single' is more likely to mean somebody not in a relationship, whether legally married or not. Even when both words were in popular usage,I'm not convinced the term 'spinster' was any more negative than 'bachelor and both words were simply descriptive, rather than pejorative.

Submitted by celiapi on Tue, 02/17/2015 - 00:00

To memorize vocabulary I ask my students to build their own dictionary. With younger students I usually ask them to build a dictionary with pictures, they can draw or make collages. With older students they build a dictionary with definitions both in english (synonyms) and in L1

Submitted by Shakhlo_205 on Thu, 02/17/2011 - 05:41

 I liked your article very much.These methods can help to improve students' knowledge.Before reading it I knew some of them.But now I learnt  much more with your help.Thank you.

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