Unit 7 Teaching Vocabulary

Aims of the unit:

In this unit, we are going to discuss how to discuss how to teach vocabulary. Although vocabulary is usually integrated with the teaching of reading, we still consider it necessary to introduce ways to learn ad consolidate vocabulary. We will mainly talk about the following:

1.     Assumptions about vocabulary and vocabulary building.

2.     Methods for presenting new vocabulary items.

3.     Ways to consolidate vocabulary.

4.     Ways to help students develop vocabulary building strategies.

7.1 Vocabulary and vocabulary building

Unlike the controversial role of grammar in foreign language learning, the role of vocabulary seems to have received more consistent understanding. However, uncertainty still remains regarding what constitutes a vocabulary item, which vocabulary items should be taught and learned, and how vocabulary can be taught and learned most effectively.

People have different understanding of what a vocabulary item is, how an item can be learned and consolidated, which items should be learned, and to what extent the items should be learned and practiced. It is very important for the students themselves to develop vocabulary awareness and vocabulary building strategies.

7.2 Presenting new words

Different teachers have different ways to present new words. Whatever methods are used, the following suggestions may help teachers:

1)     Prepare examples to show meaning.

2)     Ask students to tell the meaning first.

3)     Think about how to show the meaning of a word with related words such as synonyms, antonyms etc.

4)     Think about how to check students’ understanding.

5)     Think about the context in real life where the word might be used. Relating newly learned language to real life promotes high motivation.

6)     Think about possible misunderstanding or confusion that student may have.

Here are more ways to present and explain vocabulary:

1)     Draw pictures, diagrams and maps to show meanings or connection of meanings;

2)     Use real objects to show meanings;

3)     Mime or act to show meanings;

4)     Use synonyms or antonyms to explain meanings;

5)     Use lexical sets;

6)     Translated and exemplify, especially with technical words or words with abstract meaning;

7)     Use word formation rules and common affixes.

7.3 Consolidating vocabulary

For the students, perhaps it is less difficult to learn vocabulary items for the first time than to consolidate and remember them. It is too often that we hear students complain that they keep learning and forgetting. Some people say vocabulary cannot be taught, it an only be learned by the students. This is perhaps partially true. When students study vocabulary individually, very often it is rote learning whose effectiveness is seldom guaranteed, particularly when they do not fully understand the meaning of the vocabulary. When students study vocabulary together, say in groups, through various activities and under the teacher’s supervision, vocabulary learning becomes more fun and effective. Learning is also more effective when students understand the meaning of the new vocabulary.

Below are some vocabulary consolidation activities that can be done in class.

Labeling: Students are given a picture. They are to write the names of objects indicated in the picture. A competitive element can be introduced by making the first student to finish the winner.

Spotting the differences: Students are put into pairs. Each member of the pair receives a picture which is slightly different from his partner’s. Students hide the pictures from one another and then, by a process of describing, questioning and answering, discover what the differences are.

Describing and drawing: Students are put into pairs. One student has a picture, the other a blank piece of paper and a pencil. The student having the picture must tell his partner what to draw so that the drawing ends up the same as the original picture. The student must not show the picture until the drawing is completed.

Playing a game: Students are shown a picture or a tray with many objects on it, or a series of different flash cards or magazine pictures. They have one or two minutes to memorize as many of the objects as they can. The cards, pictures or tray are taken away and the students have to say what they saw, or write down everything they can remember seeing, then compare their answers with the rest of the class.

Using word thermometers: These are useful for indicating different degrees in size, speed, age, distance, emotion and etc. Students are given a list of words in jumbled order. They have to place these words in the correct place on the thermometer.

Using word series: Students construct the series following an example.

Example: Cutlery: knife, fork, spoon

Word bingo: The teacher thinks of an area of language that the students have recently been studying. Students draw nine squares on a piece of paper and put 9 words connected with shopping in the squares. The teacher then calls out, one at a time, words connected with shopping. If the students have the word in the squares, they cross it out. The first student to cross out all the words in the squares is the winner. The game can be played for more than one round.










(shopper  custom  client  bargain  seller  pay  shop  buy  money  store  sell  sale  market  price  discount  supermarket  goods  receipt)

A different version of word bingo is that the first student to cross out a line of three words either horizontally, vertically or diagonally should shout out “Bingo”, and he or she will be the winner.

Word association: The teacher says a key word. The students then have to write down all the words they can think of connected with traveling. They have a time limit. When time is up, the person with the highest number of acceptable words is the winner.

Odd man out: The teacher writes a set of words on the blackboard and asks the students to find the “odd man out”. For example, in the set “cheese, eggs, oranges, bread, soap, and meat”, the word “soap” is the “odd man out”.

Synonyms and antonyms: The students are given a list of words and asked to find pairs of words, either synonyms or antonyms.

Using word categories: Students put the jumbled words in the middle into the boxes marked with different categories. Below is an example:






圆角矩形: milk, typist, apples, pigs, shirts, Germany, chickens, Japan, shoes, oranges, peaches,
wine, cows, butcher, tea, driver, Greece, socks, Turkey, trousers, banker, dogs, sheep, coffee, plums, pears
















Using word net-work: Students fill in the ovals in a network with words that are under the same category or sub-category. Below is an example.















(toothpaste, TV, alarm clock, stove, video, towel, cupboard, sofa, dressing table, wash-basin, slippers, mirror, shower)

7.4 Developing vocabulary building strategies

Due to limitations of time, students cannot learn all necessary vocabulary in the class. Thus we need to help students to develop their own vocabulary building strategies so that they can effectively acquire more vocabulary on their own, especially outside the class.

Review regularly: There is evidence that regular review helps to maintain largest amount of recall.

Guess meaning from context: Guessing meaning of unfamiliar words or expressions from context is not a new idea. The problem is how students can develop the ability to do so. Initially students need the teacher’s help regarding what contextual clues to look for and how these clues can contribute to the discovery of meaning. Generally speaking, the topic, the grammatical structure, the possible meaning connection between the given word and other words and the linguistic pattern where the word appears, all these may give hints to the meaning in one way or another.

Organize vocabulary effectively: There is evidence that if information is organized and stored in special ways, e.g. trlated information is stored together or new information is related to previously stored information, it is more likely to be retained and easier to retrieve. Considering the massive English vocabulary, it is necessary for the teacher to guide students to organize the words they encounter. With a conscious attempt at vocabulary organization it is likely that a student’s word store will increase significantly.

Use learned vocabulary: Students should be encouraged to use active vocabulary items in real language use. By trying to use words or expressions correctly and appropriately, students get a better and deeper understanding of the meaning and use of the vocabulary. Besides, successful attempts at word use definitely help vocabulary consolidation.

7.5 Conclusion

In this unit we started with discussions about vocabulary and vocabulary learning. Many students devote large amounts of time and energy to the learning of vocabulary, but they still complain that their vocabulary size is not large enough or they cannot avoid forgetting. Generally speaking, there are two problems. One problem is that students treat vocabulary items indiscrimi8nately. Considering the large size of English vocabulary, there is no wonder that students complain about their small vocabulary size. Another problem is that many students learn vocabulary in ineffective ways such as tote learning. So it is very important to make students aware that not all words are equally important and that effective ways of vocabulary learning help to reduce forgetting.

Although much of the work of vocabulary learning is the responsibility of the students, teachers’ guidance and help are invaluable. If teachers present new vocabulary items effectively, it saves a lot of time and energy for consolidation. Besides, teachers’ work should also include helping students to develop vocabulary building strategies.