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Teaching Vocabulary

University Aleksander Xhuvani, Elbasan
This article is a combination of research work and long experience as a teacher of
English as FL and it deals with efforts of novice teachers of English to teach vocabulary
to their students. Being a key element in English language class it needs a lot of attention
and a clear perspective. Teachers and students should know that without vocabulary no
message can be conveyed. From our observations we have seen that this is a very
neglected skill. In this article a lot of strategies for learning new vocabulary and
vocabulary activities are offered to help student teachers in developing this very
important skill. I would like to acknowledge the work of the professors of Hunter College,
CUNY, especially those of the Department of Curriculum and Education, who helped me
in carrying out successfully my research work in methodology of teaching and learning
FL, as a Fulbright scholar.

Key words: Teaching vocabulary, student teacher, direct and indirect vocabulary

Teaching Vocabulary
We all agree upon the importance of vocabulary in learning a FL as a key element in the
second language class. Without vocabulary no message is conveyed. I believe most of the
teachers agree with this statement. It includes the knowledge of words and word
meanings. As Steven Stahl (2005) puts it, Vocabulary knowledge is knowledge; the
knowledge of a word not only implies a definition, but also implies how that word fits
into the world. Vocabulary knowledge is not something that can ever be fully mastered; it
is something that expands and deepens over the course of a lifetime. Instruction in
vocabulary involves far more than looking up words in a dictionary and using the words
in a sentence.
While teaching new vocabulary teachers use any method that matches to students
learning style. For example: Visual learners learn words best by seeing words repeatedly.
Auditory learners learn words best by hearing words repetitively. Kinesthetic learners
learn words best by writing words repetitively. In this case it is very important for the
teachers to know the learning styles of their students. This is something that we focus a
lot in pre-service teacher preparation.
While dealing with the vocabulary student teachers should have in mind the word, its
form, meaning and use. Form has to do with different derivation, spelling pronunciation,
connecting sounds to spelling, etc. Meaning has to do with denotation/ connotation.
Chubby buko (Albanian) positive connotation

Heavy you are trying to be polite

Fat negative connotation
While use has to do with collocation, constraints (We cant say how short are you, or how
young are you), expressions (in the meantime), idioms (a fish out of the water), etc.
Language learners are faced on a daily basis with the task of acquiring, and retaining,
new vocabulary. One of the main tasks of a language teacher is to help students develop a
sufficiently large vocabulary. Nevertheless, as we have noticed some language teachers
ignore this fundamental fact, assuming that the vocabulary will take care of itself through
repeated exposure and classroom activities.
As Steven Stahl (2005) puts it, Vocabulary is acquired incidentally through indirect
exposure to words and intentionally through explicit instruction in specific words and
word-learning strategies
Direct vocabulary teaching occurs when teachers do exercises and activities in class that
focus the learners attention on vocabulary, such as guessing meaning from context and
vocabulary games. In direct vocabulary learning, therefore, a conscious effort is made by
the learner to remember new words. While indirect vocabulary learning is still where
most vocabulary acquisition takes place. In order to remember new words, students need
to see the words in a variety of contexts, many times. They best remember them when
they themselves manipulate with these words, repeat them, use them in sentences of their
own, share sentences with their peers, use them in various situations, etc. We usually
keep saying the student teachers that according to various surveys students learn well and
keep in their long term memory not more than 10 new words at a time, and after some
days keep repeating them every now and then.
Though different scholars put differently I insist that building up the needed vocabulary
is the most important part of a language learning process. If students don't have a base
vocabulary to work with, they can't study grammar, they cant do spelling or
pronunciation exercises, where as writing or reading is definitely out of the question
without a certain vocabulary. That's why it's extremely important to have a good
vocabulary and keep building it up with the passing of the time.
Here are a few ways for you to improve vocabulary.
Memory Strategies for Learning New Vocabulary1
New words need to be related to learners' existing knowledge, sounds, images, personal
feelings/responses, diagrams, etc. The following activities can be used to reinforce the
learning of new vocabulary:

Connecting words to a personal experience. Learners can think about the way
they respond to new words by categorizing them into groups: the words they
like/dislike, or the words they think will be easy (or difficult) to remember, and why.

Sorting and ranking activities. In the case of learning a list of animals, for
instance, learners can separate the new animals by dangerous/not dangerous, or

EFL Vocabulary Teaching Tips: Direct Teaching Activities for Second Language Learners - http://eslprograms-lessons.suite101.com/article.cfm/tips_for_teaching_l2_vocabulary#ixzz0CCfNgKSS

eat/dont eat. For a list of food, learners can rank the food items from those they like
most to those they like least.

TPR (Total Physical Response). Learners associate a verb to an action (or an

emotion to a gesture) by physically acting out the word.

Pictorial representations. Small drawings in context (a picture of a house labeled

with window, door, roof, etc.) can aid retention of new words. Imaging, where learners
use the way a word looks to associate it with its meaning, also helps.

Grouping words by collocations. Another way for learners to manipulate and

remember new words is to join them according to the words they are often found with.
(i.e., idea: original, brilliant, unusual, great).
Vocabulary games are a great way to enhance our word base, but they should usually be
used only as an additional method for this purpose. The vocabulary games especially may
be used for reinforcing the meaning and helping the students to remember the new words
they have learned before the vocabulary game. The fact with vocabulary games is that
they cannot teach us the same amount of new words as say translated texts or other
methods that deal with improving our vocabulary, but they can be a fun alternative to
take during those study breaks. Also, remember that everything we learn while relaxing
and having fun is assimilated a lot easier and for a longer period of time.
We try to teach our student teachers to use various word-learning strategies including
dictionary use, morphemic analysis, and contextual analysis.2*
- Dictionary use teaches students about multiple word meanings, as well as
the importance of choosing the appropriate definition to fit the particular

Morphemic analysis is the process of deriving a word's meaning by

analyzing its meaningful parts, or morphemes. Such word parts include
root words, prefixes, and suffixes.

Contextual analysis involves inferring the meaning of an unfamiliar word

by scrutinizing the text surrounding it. Instruction in contextual analysis
generally involves teaching students to employ both generic and specific
types of context clues.

It seems a kind of a lot of repetition, but I insist in rooting in student teachers mind that,
vocabulary development is especially and extremely important for students learning
English as a FL. Poor vocabulary is a serious issue for these students. They might not
understand the meaning of certain words and contexts where these words are used.
* Ibid.

Scholars suggest several various strategies that seem to be especially valuable for
building up the vocabulary of those students. Thus, we can take advantage of students
first language, so we invite them find the meaning of the new words if there is an
equivalent word in their mother tongue; teach the meaning of basic words, that is teach
those words that have a high frequency (Consult the General Service List) and their
meaning is crucial to understand a certain context; reviweing and reinforcment is of great
importance as well.
Vocabulary Activities3
1. Whats on my back?
You have something on the back. Another student explains, describes, this is for people
to use language. Try to make as many questions as you can, encourage speaking,
guessing game.
Whats on my back?

person (food)


No, a person who takes the money



2. Bingo
1. Make up a Bingo grid for yourself with 5 rows and 5 columns. Put an X in the
center square.
2. Fill in each square with a word or phrase or sentence.
3. Choose any word in the grid and label the grid with a 1.
4. Continue numbering each square, making sure that you do not have Bingo until
you must.
5. Write the word Bingo next to the first word that results in Bingo.
6. Now write the numbers 1 through 20 on a sheet of paper.
7. Write a definition for each one next to its number.
8. Write the word Bingo next to the first definition that results in Bingo.
1. Hand out a Bingo grid to students or have them make up one. Check that they are
correct and large enough.

Some of these activities are suggested in Vocabulary Course, Hunter College, CUNY, Fall 2008

2. Dictate the words to students, making sure to tell them how to write the words in,
either horizontally (across) or vertically (down). Check frequently that everyone
is doing it right.
3. Write a large Bingo grid on the board and ask students to tell you what words to
put in each square. (Not putting the grid on the board, first give students practice
in the following directions).
4. Explain how the game is played. You will read a definition. Students should look
for the correct square and circle it or put a chip on it or whatever else you can
think of.
5. When you begin, students will undoubtedly yell out the answer! It will take
several times telling them not to do this before they stop.
6. Continue until someone yells Bingo. Someone will likely yell Bingo before it is
actually possible. Explain that its not Bingo yet.
7. When it really is Bingo, there should be several students yelling Bingo.
8. Congratulate the students and ???? (Use your own imagination here).
9. Now go over the whole thing. Re- read each definition and have students yell out the

This is a good and fun way to review vocabulary teachers have already worked on, so it
helps fluency development. But though it is valuable and fun, teachers need to be careful
and plan it carefully because it takes a lot of time and teachers dont have so much time at
their disposal. Teachers can use Bingo to practice not only vocabulary but grammar as
well. We have played Bingo with various levels of students and it works especially with
beginners for labeling words, while with more advanced we have used giving or finding
definitions. It is important to stress that teachers must repeat the directions a lot till the
students get used to its use.
3. Running dictation
Everybody has to have a job
Runners run out read memorize
Writers write what the runners say
Editors check the mistakes
Checkers give the final, compare and correct with the original, how it should be.
Sometimes the teacher writes with mistakes on purpose for the editor to correct.
It may be done with three people. 1. runner 2. writer 3. checker (when the text is without
mistakes) We have tried this activity and it was a real fun and the students learned a lot.
There might be a lot of other activities that encourage enriching vocabulary as: Pick a
card, Odd One Out, Dictation (thought chunks), Role-plays, Interviews, Building up
Vocabulary through Reading and Writing Activities (doing some pre-reading and postreading activities, summarizing, paragraph writing, free writing, letter writing, essay
In the series Welcome to AmBri (an imaginary island America - Britain) (Textbook for 3
- 5 grade, elementary school) and A Trip to AmBri (American - British), (textbook for 6
- 9 grade, elementary school), we have used a lot these types of activities besides those

mentioned above: A - Z Chart, Word Study Organizer, Vocabulary Jigsaw, Crosswords,

etc. They have been introduced for the first time and have been very challenging. When
we asked teachers and students to give feedback about vocabulary activities they were
very enthusiastic and valued them a lot. We are organizing training sessions to help
teachers and students that are not using these textbooks share these kinds of vocabulary
activities, because they might be applied in various contexts and with various textbooks
and with various levels of students.
Of great importance are also activities for testing vocabulary as: Cloze test, vocabulary
tests, diagnostic test, vocabulary knowledge test, multiple choice test, matching and
supplying exercises, dictation test,
By the end of the Vocabulary Course at Hunter College we came to some conclusions
that we decided to use them as tips while teaching vocabulary to our students or helping
student teachers in their future profession.
Ideas for Teaching Vocabulary
Design activities that make students think for a word phrase. Dont allow one student in
class to yell out answers all the time. This discourages other students. An example of this
activity is using word cards. Provide students with lexical items, (word cards) to describe
a picture. After describing the picture, students write a description of it from memory.
Use Word Cards as often as possible! Encourage students to carry them around, and have
them bring to class all the time. Design activities for their use. You can put any lexical
item on a word card and have students do something with it: write sentences, write
associated words, write a story around it. For example, put these lexical items on cards:
Time is Money, Time Flies. I dont have time. Time is up. Each student in a group picks
a card and must explain the expression.
Use word lists to choose which words to design lessons around: general service list,
frequency word list, phrasal words, collocations, etc.
Give students the responsibility for some of their own learning by requiring them to teach
themselves many words from these lists. Give them a weekly goal, such as 10 - 20 words.
Focus words in a lesson to encourage noticing, so that students see the importance of a
word/phrase in the input. Highlight or underline these words.
- Design activities that require students to use words in different ways, forms and
contexts to encourage generation (generating different words, keeping the root). Have
students re-write sentences, changing the form of the word/s while retaining the same
meaning of the sentence. Example: I have a hard time accepting criticism. It is really hard
for me to accept critical remarks.
- Vocabulary group work, the group is responsible for defining words/phrases that you
have underlined. A representative from each group then teaches the lexical items to the
- Make a list of 20 synonyms/antonyms/opposites for some words given. Synonyms
should be of higher frequency. Give the students the beginning letter of each word to look
for it on dictionary. Examples: aid (v) - h (look at the list or dictionary and find the
word with almost the same meaning) aid - help, , simple - easy, simple - difficult,
agreement - disagreement, etc.
- Have students select 10 related words from one page of General Service List and write
a story using these words.

For fluency development, after reading about and discussing an issue, have students read
about the same issue, but from a different text, e.g., an article from a different newspaper.
- Tape 3 large pictures on the board. Handout a list of adjectives that describe each
picture,but dont separate them by picture. Students have to decide which adjectives
describe which picture. (picture description)
Have students categorize the general word lists by word class: nouns, verbs, adjectives,
- Provide a text of approximately 100 words to groups of 3 students. Student A reads the
text aloud while student B and C write down words/phrases they do not know. The 3
students then try to guess what their words mean.
- Have students read 3 times a certain text. First time, write questions they have about it.
Second time, summarize it. Third time, critique it or add more information, or re-write
the ending, or write a letter to someone else about it.
- Provide 2 or 3 short newspaper/magazine articles to students with headlines. Provide 2
or 3 other articles without headline and write them together as a class. Then have students
do the same thing together in groups with 3 other articles. (matching) (Students may use
other types of Media in this kind of exercise)
- Test students regularly on vocabulary to encourage studying. Use a variety of tests:
Matching, Cloze test, Multiple Choice, Diagnostic Test, and Sentence Completion. Give
extra points to students using new vocabulary in essays.
- Play Odd Man Out with students. Give them lists of words in fours. They have to
choose the word in each group of four that is different from the other and say why. You
can also do this as a dictation. For example: hand, eye, finger, body; hand, eye, finger are
parts of the body. Teachers can create tens of this type of exercise.
- Think of 10 collocations. Break them up and have students put them back together.
You can do this by putting each part of the collocation on a separate word card, or by
writing 2 columns of words on the board for students to match, or in a handout.
- Provide students with a sentence beginning and have them write as many different
endings as they can. Examples: Last summer I , If I had more time I would ,
Happiness is , I would like my best friend to , etc.
- Use Vocabulary activities: Vocabulary journals, word maps, Whats on my back,
Bingo, Running dictation, Role plays, Interviews, Pick a card, A - Z Chart, Word Study
Organizer, Vocabulary Jigsaw, Crosswords, etc.
- Use dictation as part of your vocabulary teaching. Dictate passages which include
lexical items youve been working on. Have students dictate to one another too.
- Tape something that repeats a key word or phrase several time. Discuss the lexical
item first and then play the tape. Students raise their hands every time they hear the
lexical item. Make sure to have it written on the board. Then provide a transcript of the
tape. Students should scan for the lexical item and underline it.
- Provide students with a list of adjectives. They make 3 lists. 1) Which adjectives
would your friend use to describe you? 2) Which adjectives would you use to describe
yourself? 3) Which adjectives would you like to be used to describe you, but are not used.
For a word that has many different/related meanings (homonyms/polysemy), provide the
dictionary entry. Write a sentence for each different use. Students match the sentences to
the meaning. Then they write their own sentences for another word for which youve
provided the dictionary entry.

- Use thematic groupings for words whenever possible. Semantic groupings can be used
for practice once words are fairly well known.
- Teach students strategies for guessing words from context, it must be modeled and
practiced over and over again in class for it to be of any use.
Note: We have practiced a lot of different vocabulary activities with our student teachers
during their teaching practice. If you want to see any of them please contact us at:
Read more: EFL Vocabulary Teaching Tips: Direct Teaching Activities for Second
Language Learners - http://esl-programslessons.suite101.com/article.cfm/tips_for_teaching_l2_vocabulary#ixzz0CCfNgKSS.
Cindy Wishengrad, a Course on Teaching Vocabulary, Hunter College, CUNY