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Teaching Vocabulary: Theory and Techniques

Ken Cranker

To consider what methods of learning vocabulary worked for us

To understand what vocabulary needs to be taught and why
To increase awareness of obstacles to vocabulary learning
To conceptualize four major strands of vocabulary teaching
To grapple with some practical techniques of teaching vocabulary

Theoretical Background
With the advent of the communicative approach to language teaching, studying and
teaching word lists, focusing lessons on vocabulary, and deliberately teaching vocabulary
was largely neglected. It was not completely ignored, but it was taught on a need-of-themoment contingency basis. However, thanks largely to the development of computers and
corpus analysis and the work of Paul Nation (School of Linguistics and Applied Language
Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand), we now know what words need
to be focused on when teaching vocabulary, and to some extent why.
Presentation Outline




Introduction: Some questions:

a. How did you learn English vocabulary?
b. What did you do?
c. What worked?
d. What didnt?
e. How do you teach vocabulary now?
f. How do you feel about it?
g. What worked for me.
a. West (1953) General service list
b. 1990s corpus analysis, Nation
Top 2000 words nearly identical to Wests, covers 80% of words in academic
texts and newspapers, 87% in novels, >90% of informal conversation
c. How much do we need to know? Hu and Nation (2000) 95-98%
d. Coxhead (2000) Academic Word List 570 headwords ~ 10% of academic texts.
AWL + GSL ~ 90%, close, but not enough
e. Nation/Schmidt Levels Test 2000, 3000, AWL, 5000, 10000 See Appendix
Problems with Vocabulary
a. Forgetting: Ebbinghaus (1885) (cited in Myers, 1993)
b. Not encountering: >3000 word level words are rarely encountered
forgetting even after learned
c. Passive/Active vocabulary
d. Tedium: Boring and difficult
How to teach: Four strands
a. Meaning focused input:
extensive leveled (graded) reading at appropriate level 1book/week
(Day & Bamford, 1998)

Extensive listening at appropriate level (difficult to find), note-taking,

info-transfer (listen and fill in table/diagram)
b. Meaning-focused output:
Re-telling stories, reporting info using vocabulary cues (active vocab)
c. Language focused study: (memorization)
Word lists (GSL, AWL)
Word Parts (Greek and Latin roots and affixes)
Vocabulary cards, frequent exposure and review with time in between
(decontextualized, but research seems to support that deliberate
learning is more efficient than incidental)
When using cards for learning new vocabulary, learners should write the word on one side
and its first language translation on the other, should try to retrieve the meaning rather than
just flipping over the card without thinking, should keep changing the order of the cards,
should increasingly space the learning sessions, and should avoid putting words of related
meanings (synonyms, opposites, lexical sets) in the same pack of cards (Nation, 2000).
d. Fluency: using already known vocabulary in large quantities while focusing on
meaning and being pushed for speed. (Speed reading, repeated reading,
10-minute writing, re-listening, 4/3/2 story telling same story to 3
different listeners in 4 minutes, then 3, then 2)
Native speakers easily learn 1000 new words per year until early 20s. Is it possible to come
close to this in an EFL classroom?
A few other points: concept/context cat, whiskers, paw, claw, climb, scratch
Interest: miming, games (Bingo), content of stories
Recycle review with increasing time in between
Possibilities of the Internet (Interactive vocabulary sites, variety of sites, variety of
stories of interest. Level not necessarily controlled, but can find stories or
information on almost any topic of interest
Materials from Books in the Box
English for Everyday Activities (either or both levels and cassettes)
English You Need for the Office
Miming, re-telling, charades for review
Getting a Fix on Vocabulary
Affixes, reading, re-reading, re-telling
Great Big Bingo Book
Review of almost any vocabulary (food, action, body parts, weather, sports)
You can even make your own for word parts or more academic vocabulary.
Interactive Tutorial
Travel Journal (p. 51) This can be adapted to cities, museums, ball parks, or
any number of situations for introduction, practice, or review. Re-tell the
stories that have been made with new pairs in 4/3/2 exercise.
Nasreddin Hodja
Witty stories for learning vocabulary in context and re-telling
Thematic Word Search
Good for consolidating and filling in spaces between units or after tests. If one
encounters an unfamiliar word, it can be investigated and taught by students.

World We Live In (Book 1 and/or 2)

Interesting content for science and culture. Vocabulary may be taught before
or after readings. Read in small groups. Tell, re-tell based on vocabulary cues.
Interaction and Follow-Up Assignment
Work with Books in the Box to develop lessons for your own classroom. Lessons
may incorporate parts of the books as they are, or they may be adapted. Lessons will be
shared in the workshop if time permits, and written up in teachers portfolios.
Coxhead, A. (2000). A new academic word list. TESOL Quarterly 34 (2): 213-238.
Day, R.R. and J. Bamford. (1998). Extensive reading in the second language classroom.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hu, M & Nation, I. S. P. (2000). Unknown vocabulary density and reading
comprehension. Reading in a Foreign Language, 13, 1, 403-430.
Joe, A., P. Nation, and J. Newton. (1996). Speaking activities and vocabulary learning.
English Teaching Forum 34 (1): 2-7.
Nation, P. (2000). Learning words in lexical sets: dangers and guidelines. TESOL Journal 9
(2): 6-10.
Nation, I.S.P. (2001). Learning vocabulary in another language. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
Nation, P. (2001) How Good is Your Vocabulary Program?ESL Magazine. Retrieved June 17,
2005 from

Nation, P. and A. Hamilton-Jenkins. (2000). Using communicative tasks to teach

vocabulary. Guidelines 22 (2): 15-19.
Myers, D.G. (1993). Exploring psychology. New York: Worth Publishers.
Schmitt, N. (2000). Vocabulary in language teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University
West, M. (1953). A general service list of English words. London: Longman.

A Vocabulary Levels Test
This is a vocabulary test. You must choose the right word to go with each meaning. Write
the number of the word next to its meaning. Here is an example.
1. business
_____ part of a house
2. clock
_____ animal with four legs
3. horse
_____ something used for writing
4. pencil
5. shoe
6. wall
You answer it in the following way:
1. business

part of a house

animal with four legs

something used for writing

2. clock
3. horse
4. pencil
5. shoe
6. wall
Some extra words are in the test to make it more difficult. You do not have to find a meaning
for those words. In the example above, these words are business, clock, and shoe.
Try to do every part of the test.
The 2000-word level
1. original
_____ complete
2. private
3. royal
_____ first
4. slow
5. sorry
_____ not public
6. total

1. apply
_____ choose by voting
2. elect
3. jump
_____ become like water
4. manufacture
5. melt
_____ make
6. threaten
1. blame
_____ keep away from sight
2. hide
3. hit
_____ have a bad effect on something
4. invite
5. pour
_____ ask
6. spoil
1. accident
_____ having a high opinion of yourself
2. choice
3. debt
_____ something you must pay
4. fortune
5. pride
_____ loud, deep sound
6. roar
1. basket
_____ money paid regularly for doing a job
2. crop
3. flesh
_____ heat
4. salary
5. temperature
_____ meat
6. thread

1. birth
_____ being born
2. dust
3. operation
_____ game
4. row
5. sport
_____ winning
6. victory
The 3000-word level
1. administration
_____ managing business and affairs
2. angel
3. front
_____ spirit who serves God
4. herd
5. mate
_____ group of animals
6. pond
1. bench
_____ part of a country
2. charity
3. fort
_____ help to the poor
4. jar
5. mirror
_____ long seat
6. province
1. coach
_____ a thin, flat piece cut from something
2. darling
3. echo
_____ person who is loved very much
4. interior
5. opera
_____ sound reflected back to you
6. slice

1. marble
_____ inner surface of your hand
2. palm
3. ridge
_____ excited feeling
4. scheme
5. statue
_____ plan
6. thrill
1. discharge
_____ use pictures or examples to show meaning
2. encounter
3. illustrate
_____ meet
4. knit
5. prevail
_____ throw up into the air
6. toss
1. annual
_____ happening once a year
2. blank
3. brilliant
_____ certain
4. concealed
5. definite
_____ wild
6. savage
The 5000-word level
1. alcohol
_____ cloth worn in front to protect your clothes
2. apron
3. lure
_____ stage of development
4. mess
5. phase
_____ state of untidiness or dirtiness
6. plank

1. circus
_____ speech given by a priest in a church
2. jungle
3. nomination
_____ seat without a back or arms
4. sermon
5. stool
_____ musical instrument
6. trumpet
1. apparatus
_____ set of instruments or machinery
2. compliment
3. revenue
_____ money received by the government
4. scrap
5. tile
_____ express admiration
6. ward
1. bruise
_____ agreement using property as security for a debt
2. exile
3. ledge
_____ narrow shelf
4. mortgage
5. shovel
_____ dark place on your body caused by hitting
6. switch
1. blend
_____ hold tightly in your arms
2. devise
3. embroider
_____ plan or invent
4. hug
5. imply
_____ mix
6. paste

1. desolate
_____ good for your health
2. fragrant
3. gloomy
_____ sweet-smelling
4. profound
5. radical
_____ dark or sad
6. wholesome
The University Word List Level
1. affluence
_____ introduction of a new thing
2. axis
3. episode
_____ one event in a series
4. innovation
5. precision
_____ wealth
6. tissue
1. deficiency
_____ swinging from side to side
2. magnitude
3. oscillation
_____ respect
4. prestige
5. sanction
_____ lack
6. specification
1. configuration
_____ shape
2. discourse
3. hypothesis
_____ speech
4. intersection
5. partisan
_____ theory
6. propensity

1. anonymous
_____ without the writers name
2. indigenous
3. maternal
_____ least possible amount
4. minimum
5. nutrient
_____ native
6. modification
1. elementary
_____ of the beginning stage
2. negative
3. static
_____ not moving or changing
4. random
5. reluctant
_____ final, furthest
6. ultimate
1. coincide
_____ prevent people from doing something they want to do
2. coordinate
3. expel
_____ add to
4. frustrate
5. supplement
_____ send out by force
6. transfer
The 10,000-word level
1. acquiesce
_____ work at something without serious intentions
2. contaminate
3. crease
_____ accept without protest
4. dabble
5. rape
_____ make a fold on cloth or paper
6. squint

1. blaspheme
_____ give care and food to
2. endorse
3. nurture
_____ speak badly about God
4. overhaul
5. skid
_____ slip or slide
6. straggle
1. auxiliary
_____ full of self-importance
2. candid
3. dubious
_____ helping, adding support
4. morose
5. pompous
_____ bad-tempered
6. temporal
1. anterior
_____ small and weak
2. concave
3. interminable
_____ easily changing
4. puny
5. volatile
_____ endless
6. wicker

1. dregs
_____ worst and most useless part of anything
2. flurry
3. hostage
_____ natural liquid present in the mouth
4. jumble
5. saliva
_____ confused mixture
6. truce
1. auspices
_____ being away from other people
2. casualty
3. froth
_____ someone killed or injured
4. haunch
5. revelry
_____ noisy and happy celebration
6. seclusion