Saturday, December 31, 2016

Guidelines for Teaching Vocabulary

A large number of words, phrases, and chunks are acquired incidentally via reading and/or listening to stories, articles, and news items out of class. Similarly, many words are learned from textbooks, teachers, and classmates. In this post, I will shed light on how vocabulary is usually presented and taught in class. 


Commercial textbooks usually use different techniques to present new vocabulary. Context-based vocabulary lessons are the most common method for presenting vocabulary. Materials writers most often integrate teaching receptive skills with teaching vocabulary.  You can notice that most reading and listening texts contain subskills exercises such as gist and comprehensions questions followed by grammar or vocabulary work. The reason is that presenting vocabulary through a reading or listening text is more engaging and logical for learners to grasp the new items.

Another common way of presenting vocabulary is through lexical-theme lists. Some coursebooks include a vocabulary reference at the end of the book with many vocabulary items along with their pictures (similar to a picture dictionary). The downside of this approach is that learners get overwhelmed by learning too many words out of context within short time and little practice. 

A third way of presenting vocabulary is called “situational presentation”. In this method, the teacher uses a picture to build a story around, feeding in the vocabulary she intends to teach. It is sometimes time-consuming, but the effect it has on students is worthwhile, especially if the teacher has personalized the story or dialogue.  You can narrate a story about your last holiday to teach words and collocations such as package holiday, sunbathe, go sightseeing, four-star hotel, make a reservation, etc. Tell your story to the learners twice, let them ask some questions, and then give them the script and ask them to underline the words and phrases (hyponyms) related to the superordinate word “holiday”. Put students in pairs and ask them to work out the new vocabulary items from context. 


The presentation stage of any kind must be followed by a clarification and practice stages to enable learners to learn, remember, and prepare for using the new vocabulary productively and correctly. Teachers should choose seven to eight key items from the text to clarify their meaning, form, word class, and pronunciation. They are also advised to teach these words in context. But there are times when they need to write these words in isolation to highlight a certain linguistic feature such as stress. In reading texts, students see the form of a new word before they get the meaning, and that allows them to make guesses about it from the co-text and context, which is an important sub-skill they always need in real life. 

On the other hand, students are introduced to the sounds of the new items in listening texts before meaning. In this case, they need to use their general knowledge about the subject (schemata) and their bottom-up (linguistic) knowledge as well to get the meaning. In any case, meaning must be established and clarified as soon as possible for learners wouldn’t be able to connect the new lexis with other words they know and store them in their memory unless they get their meanings. the teacher could use a variety of modes for conveying meaning of a vocabulary item, such as giving a definition, using a gesture, cline, example sentence, picture, synonym or antonym, etc. Using one or a combination of these techniques depends on the word at hand. For instance, an effective way to explain the word “mild” is to write a sentence example and put it on a cline: It’s mild today; let’s have a walk (boiling -hot - mild - cold -  freezing). Having conveyed the meaning, the teacher is advised to use concept checking questions (CCQs) to check if the learners have got the correct meaning. 

When pinpointing the form of a lexeme, a teacher should consider the word class (whether the word is a noun, verb, adjective, etc.) and spelling, especially if it is at odds with its pronunciation. Teaching other words within the same word family would be appropriate at this stage. For instance, it is easy for a student to learn the word “anger” if he has learned ‘angry”. Pronunciation comes next; the teacher drills the lexis chorally and individually indicating the correct place of stress. For more details on what aspects of a word a teacher should teach, and examples for using CCQs and anticipated problems, click here.


So far there is no guarantee that learns are able to use the words at hand productively. In other words, they are still passive. We need to put the word to work. The mainly teacher-centered clarification stage must be followed by student-centered production activities. New vocabulary items should occur in different exercises which cognitively engage the learners. Learners need to do some controlled practice such as identifying, matching, gap-fills, sentence completion, grouping words in categories. The practice such exercises provide helps students get the new items round their minds. The more students make decisions about words the more they remember them (Thornbury, 2002).


Having done some of the above controlled-practice exercises, students should be ready for freer production activities, in which they use the target language in speaking or writing activities. If learners have learned shopping words and phrases such as get a refund, exchange, on sale, etc., the teacher can set a role-play where student A is the shop assistant and student B is a customer. If students have practiced holiday vocabulary such as sunbathe, go sightseeing, take photos, they can practice these items in speaking or writing about their last holiday. 

Production activities should be guided by the teacher with simple instructions and/or a demonstration so as students know exactly what is required from them. A good production exercise is the one that asks learners to personalize the target language to talk about themselves or someone they know. Production exercises are similar should be similar to real-life discourse when learners use the language to communicate with others. The class is a great place to prepare students for real-world communication. Hence, the time allocated for controlled practice and freer production tasks must be much longer than the time allotted to the presentation stage. 

While students are conducting the production activities, the teacher is recommended to take notes of good language use and common errors from the students' practice for delayed error correction stage. After the learners have finished the speaking or writing activity, she writes the notes on the board and has the students mark the sentences correct and incorrect. Then she praises them for the correct use of the new items and gives them a time limit to correct the mistakes in the wrong sentences. 

Even students have done enough practice in one session, they are still prone to forget the new items in short time if they haven’t encountered/revised the vocabulary again. Recycling activities must be taking into great consideration for they enable students to store the items in long-term memory. You could start or end your lesson with a short recycling activity. And make sure you distribute the vocabulary over a number of recycling activities in different sessions (Thornbury, 2002). Click here for a list of my top five recycling activities. 

If you have any interesting ideas on teaching vocabulary, please share them with us in the comment box below.  

Thornbury, S. (2002). How to teach vocabulary. England: Pearson Education Limited

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Posters in Speaking Class

Last week, I had a speaking class with my pre-intermediate students about environmental problems. In their speaking book, there are three pictures about different environmental problems which they had to identify and discuss the causes of each. Having done this, I asked them to choose one problem from the pictures or from their own and prepare a poster about it (I owe this idea to Emma and Gary Pathare) including a title and main points. To make it more challenging, I asked them to include a drawing and solutions to the problem in the poster. 

In fact, I was reluctant to have my students prepare the poster; I was wondering if it would ever appeal to my adult students. However, I gave it a shot; and to my surprise, they were quite interested and worked in pairs enthusiastically. While working on the posters, I monitored them and threw out some suggestions and corrections to keep them on track. With a time limit of 15 minutes, they produced interesting, unique posters with meaningful drawings. 

Now the posters were ready, I allocated five minutes to the students to prepare a short informal presentation about their posters. One representative from each pair came to the front and talked about the problem, causes, and solutions and most importantly explained the drawing. The whole class listened attentively and gave feedback on the posters. Finally, the class voted for the best poster which included a title, clear key points, and a beautiful, meaningful picture. 

The task was a success as it deviated the students from the coursebook for one complete session and involved them in planning, discussing, drawing, and presenting. I was blissfully happy to see them use the target language in a creatively productive way. 

Using posters in class is easy and involving. Other topics you can use the poster activity with are: holidays, hobbies, dream house, etc. which are high frequent topics in many coursebooks. As a follow-up activity, you would ask your learners to prepare a poster about their dream house, for example, using related lexis and structure from their main lesson.   

Try the poster activity in your class and let us know how it goes. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Using Anagrams for Recycling Vocabulary

An effective and easy recycling activity that involves cognitive work is anagrams. It is a game-like activity, in which students form words from randomly written letters. Choose 10 to 12 vocabulary items from previous lessons and write them on the board with their letters in the wrong order (such as utelerc, nrasmei – for lecture, seminar). Get students work in pairs to unscramble the anagrams. The first pairs who finishes wins, and they are asked to come up to the board to write the words for the others to check the correct spelling. 

Reviewing words in isolation is of little effect on communication. It is better to connect the target words with other words to form phrases or chunks which are more easily stored in the memory and more important for communicating fluently. So, if the list of words is about sports, ask students to write the verb that occurs with each sport. Or if the list is about shopping items, ask students to write an appropriate adjective/verb/ article adjacent to each word. Allocate 3-4 minutes for this task. Students can complete this task individually or in pairs. Next, they compare their lists with new partners/pairs before you nominate different individuals to come to the board and write their lists. Other students can add different collocations too. 

An addition task to exploit the words and to engage the students in a production task is to have them write a short story or dialogue which includes at least seven words/phrases from the list. This production activity offers a great practicing opportunity of the target language. Set a time limit of 10-12 minutes to conduct this task. Students work individually while you circulate and monitor. Once students have finished, they exchange their papers, read and edit their partner’s work. Finally, nominate a few students to read aloud their stories to the class.

An alternative activity to the story task is to ask students to write five sentences, each of which contains a word or phrase from the list. Or they can write five questions using a phrase in each to ask their partners.

Any of the above recycling activities can be executed individually according to the time available for recycling exercises.