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Successful techniques in efl vocabulary instruction

As the greatest linguist David Wilkins says “Without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed”, vocabulary is the basic factor necessary for mastering a language. Only by accumulating a large number of vocabulary words students can speak fluent English and read quickly.

As experienced teachers, everyday in our classroom we are faced with teaching vocabulary in various ways for a variety of purposes.

There is a number of different methods and approaches how to teach a foreign language, including vocabulary. Some of them are more popular and more often used than others. Also, it is up to the teacher which techniques he or she decides to use but always the effectiveness of teaching should be considered. To my mind, every teacher tends to use and prefers some technique that he or she finds interesting.

It should be noted that, one of the first vocabulary learning strategies for any classroom is how to ask for words you do not know in English, and how to ask the meaning of English words you do not understand, so phrases like “What’s the word for…in English?“How do you say …?,” and “What does…mean?” are useful to teach at the basic levels. As students progress, another useful strategy they can use to paraphrase: “It’s a kind of…,” “It is like a…,”and “It is for…-ing X” etc.

Additionally, even from the elementary level, it is important to include vocabulary lessons not just single words, but also larger “chunks” such as collocations, phrases, or expressions, even whole sentences and strategic vocabulary, as well as grammatical patterning, idioms, and fixed expressions.

Nation, like most researches lists the different things learners need to know about a word before we can say that they have learned it. These include:

  • The meaning(s) of the word;
  • Its spoken and written forms;
  • What “word parts” it has (e.g.any prefix, suffix, and “root” form);
  • Its grammatical behavior (e.g.its word class, typical grammatical patterns it occurs in);
  • Its collocations;
  • Its register;
  • What associations it has (e.g.words that are similar or opposite in meaning);
  • What connotations it has;
  • Its frequency.

One more an important vocabulary acquisition strategy which Nation calls “noticing” is seeing a word as something to be learned. In this view, knowing what to learn is a necessary prerequisite to learning. Teachers can help learners get into the habit of noticing by making clear in classroom instruction and homework assignments: which item should be learned, what each item is a single word, a phrase, a collocation etc.) and for what purpose (active use or passive recognition). As a result, materials can help teachers in this in the following ways:

  • Providing clearly marked vocabulary lessons;
  • Making the target vocabulary set stand out, including focused practice and regular review;
  • Giving lists of vocabulary to be learned for the lesson [1; p. 199].

According to Schmitt, organizing vocabulary in meaningful ways makes it easier to learn. Textbooks usually present new vocabulary in thematic sets, as an aid to memory, but there are other types of organization and these can be described under three broad headings: real word groups, language-based groups, and personalized groups.

The first groups occur in the real world, such as the countries within each continent, parts of the body, the foods type (carbohydrate, protein, fats, etc.) activities that take place for a celebration (e.g., at a wedding), expressions people typically use in everyday situations (e.g., when someone passes an examination, had bad luck, etc.) Students can draw on their general knowledge to group English vocabulary according to the concepts with which they are already familiar.

The second groups draw on linguistic criteria as ways of grouping, for example, the different parts of speech of a word family, words that have the same prefix or suffix, or the same sound; verbs and dependent prepositions; collocations of different kinds (verb + noun, adjective + noun. etc.)

The third group use students’ own preferences and experiences as the basis for the groups. It might include grouping vocabulary according to likes and dislikes, personal habits or personal history, for example foods that you like or do not like, or eat often, sometimes, rarely, or that you ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner yesterday. Making vocabulary personal helps to make it more memorable [2; p. 209].

Another major implication is provided by Lewis, which is based on the overwhelming amount of lexical patterning that exists in English. He suggests that the implication of this patterning is that teachers should present words in the classroom in sequences whenever possible. In his publications he provides numerous examples of how this can be done, including the following:

Exploring a Simple Word (According to Lewis)

Do you know the word book? Add as many collocates to the following as you can.


































The term “collocation” generally refers to the way in which two or more words are typically used together. For example, we say that we make or come to a decision, but we don’t do a decision.

This particularly useful for finding the collocates of verbs like have, get, make, and do, which are often referred to as delexical

verbs, which don’t have a meaning of their own, but take their meaning from the words that they collocate or are used with. For example, the verb make has a different meaning in each of the expressions make a cake, make a decision, and make fun of.

Some of the frequent collocates of the words make and do [3; p. 89]:




sure, difference, sense, decision, mistakes, money, judgments, reservations, copies, effort.


anything, something, thing, job, well, nothing, work, whatever, aerobics, gardening, stuff, homework, laundry.

Since the classroom may be the main place where students hear or use English, it is important to include in lessons the strategic vocabulary and it up to teachers to find ways to introduce this vocabulary. This type of vocabulary in class means words and expressions that writers use to organize written texts or it unusually speakers use to organize and manage conversations.

Walsh divides all types of talk that happen in classrooms into four “modes”:

  1. Managerial;
  2. Materials;
  3. Skills and systems;
  4. Classroom context.

Managerial mode refers to the way teachers organize the class and move between activities. In doing this, it is possible to use a range of basic discourse markers of starting, concluding, and changing topics such as All right/Okay, So, Let’s start, Let’s move on. Although Walsh sees this type of talk primarily as the teachers’, as the one who organizes and manages what happens in the classroom, there are aspects of managerial talk that students can usefully learn to help them to organize pair and group work (OK, let’s change roles; That’s it, were finished), or to interact with teacher in order to change the way the class proceeds (Could you explain that again please?)

Materials mode refers to the talk that takes place when teachers and students are doing an activity in the materials. This includes eliciting answers from students, checking and explaining answers, and giving feedback on answers. In this type of talk, it would be useful for teachers to model different kinds of responses when evaluating students’ answers (That’s right, Excellent) and when seeking clarification (You mean…? He went where).

Skills and systems mode is the largely teacher – directed talk that goes on when the teacher is trying to get students to use a particular language item or skill and will involve the teacher in giving feedback, explaining and correcting. In this mode teachers can model phrases for the reformulation (I mean…) and for organizing and staging information (Now, … First of all, …)

Classroom context mode refers to the type of language learner’s use when they are talking about their personal experience or feelings – sometimes called “freer practice activities.” Here the teacher’s role is to listen and support the interaction, which is the most like casual conversation that learners will engage in.

Teachers can support these conversations by teaching the types of strategic vocabulary in order to help students manage their own talk, relate to other students, respond, and manage the conversation as a whole [5; p. 299].

According to Nation, one of the great mistakes many teachers make is to focus on a new word only once, leading to a high probability of that word being forgotten and the time spent on teaching it wasted. He suggests that it is as important to recycle older, partially known words as it is to teach new ones in order to avoid this waste. However, there are more efficient schedules for recycling and revision. To understand the best timing for this recurring exposure to words, it is necessary to understand how the mind forgets new information. Typically, most forgetting occurs soon after the end of the learning section. . [1; p. 204]

One relatively comprehensive listing of vocabulary learning strategies is presented by Schmitt, who includes 58 strategies, divided in five categories:

  1. Determination strategies used by an individual when faced with discovering a new word’s meaning without recourse to another person’s expertise.
  • Analyze any available pictures or gestures
  • Guess meaning from textual context
  • Use a dictionary(bilingual or monolingual)
  1. Social strategies involve interaction with other people to improve language learning.
  • Ask the teacher for the synonym, paraphrase or L1 translation of new word
  • Learn and practice new words with a study group
  • Interact with native-speakers
  1. Memory strategies (traditionally known as mnemonics) involve relating new words to previously learned knowledge, using some form of imagery or grouping.
  • Use semantic maps
  • Use the keyword method
  • Associate a new word with its already known synonyms and antonyms
  1. Cognitive strategies entail manipulation or transformation of information about words to be learned, although they are not so specifically focused on mental processing as memory strategies.
  • Written repletion
  • Keep a vocabulary notebook
  • Put English labels on physical objects
  1. Metacognitive strategies involve a conscious overview of the learning process and making decisions about planning, monitoring or evaluating the best ways to study.
  2. Use spaced word practice (expanding rehearsal)
  • Test oneself with word tests
  • Continue to study word over time [2; p. 212]

Another linguist Tomlinson suggests a number of principles for developing successful materials in vocabulary instruction, which can be done with unusual and appealing content, attractive presentations, and variety. Teachers can use different ways to present vocabulary including pictures, sounds, and different text types with which students can identify: stories, conversations, web pages, questionnaires, news reports, etc. In each of these contexts, topics should be relevant to students’ interest [1; p. 102].

Vocabulary instruction occurs in the classrooms everyday and at a variety of levels and for a variety of purposes. After all, words are the currency of education. In addition, teachers are faced with difficulty to determine the most important words and phrases needed to establish a suitable vocabulary for conducting conversations most effectively. Teachers need to repeat often vocabulary, because students must work with a word or phrase many times before acquisition takes place, and we must offer variety to keep the exercises fresh and to cater to different learning styles.



  1. Nation, I.S.P. New ways in teaching vocabulary. Alexandria, VA: TESOL, 1994.
  2. Schmitt, N. Vocabulary Learning Strategies. In Schmitt, N., and M.J. McCarthy. Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, 199-227.
  3. Lewis, M. The lexical approach. Hove: LTP.
  4. Tomlinson, B. Materials Development in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  5. Walsh, S. Investigating Classroom Discourse. London: Routledge.
  6. McCarten, J. Teaching vocabulary. Lessons for the classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

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