4 Approaches to learning vocabulary

I’ve just read Gareth Davies’s entry on the OUP Blog ‘Getting the words off the page‘ and it set me thinking about how I approach vocabulary learning in my classes. So here are four suggestions I use with my students to help them get the vocabulary off the page:

1. Keep a vocabulary notebook

This is something I learnt from my Latin teacher, Mr. Ford (I learnt a great deal from this teacher, not just Latin). He would come into the class each day with a very old book of Latin vocabulary and would bombard us with words which we would have to translate into English. This doesn’t sound particularly pedagogical these days, but I still remember some of the words he ‘taught’ us in that way. The vocabulary was arranged in semantic fields, and he repeated the same vocabulary over and over, until we knew it well. He also remembered which words you had failed on the previous day, so he asked you again.

I have transferred this technique to my classes in two ways. First, I use the same method when teaching irregular verbs, spending the first five minutes of class asking for the past simple or past participle of different verbs, a little like grammar tennis. More importantly I encourage my students to create their own vocabulary notebooks, small enough to carry around, with the words and phrases organised in semantic fields. Once they have their notebook, they should carry it with them as much as possible, and simply reading it as regularly as possible. In this way they replicate the experience of being in Mr Ford’s class, and they learn the vocabulary in a far more painless way than in the case with which Gareth begins his post.

2. Flashcards

When I first started teaching, I worked with a class of five-year-olds who were just beginning to read in Spanish. So instead of writing the vocabulary on the board, I started to draw pictures for them, filling the board with ilustrations of the vocabulary we were learning. I gave them photocopies of some of the pictures to colour and keep, and we used these to decorate other parts of the classroom. We also made simple card games for Pelmanism, one set each month.


Obviously this is a lot of work to build into an ever busier schedule, but luckily the publishers are now far more aware of the need for visual support material and provide generous packs of flashcards with any new method, including flashcards in digital format for those of us who have access to an IWB. Flashcards are great for playing vocabulary games with young learners, but they can also be used with older students in different ways. For example, keep a set of flashcards for classroom requests and instructions in an envelope on a table at the back of the class, and if a student wants to ask for something but doesn’t remember the word or phrase s/he can go and get the flashcard to scaffold the request. The same can be done if we display these flashcards across the front of the class (above the board if it is a traditional class). This way the teacher can also point to the phrase as a way of provising visual scaffolding. And if the learner has a smartphone, there are several apps which provide flashcards for the phone, both in Android and iOS. These can be used in a similar way to the vocabulary notebook mentioned above.

3. Raps, chants and rhymes

This is something I have used less in class, at least formally, but I have to say they are effective. As an alternative to the raps and chants in the book, particularly with teenage students it can be fun to have them create the raps and share them with the class. And it doesn’t have to be a rap. I have attended workshops run by Spencer Kagan’s team where in one activity we had to fit the instructions to a process into a well-known tune of our choice! This would be fantastic for a CLIL lesson.

4. Getting physical

For many learners, adding a physical action to the learning process can be a great help when it comes to memorising vocabulary, and indeed other things. In his plenary talk at the TESOL Spain Convention in Seville last March (and at the TESOL France Colloquium in November) entitled ‘The learning body‘, Scott Thornbury emphasised the importance of the physical descarga (1) element of language learning, and this can be applied particularly well to learning vocabulary. By adding a physical action to the item of vocabulary when it is presented and repeating it when it is used or revised, learning becomes a whole body experience. This can be enhanced where possible by including mime games to revise vocabulary, and even TPR. When I was teaching young learners (in my case five-year-olds) I found that they learnt songs far better when they had a series of actions to perform at the same time – indeed the actions structured the memorising of the song, so that they often ran through the actions of a part where they didn’t remember the words before going back and singing it. Actions of this kind also allow the teacher to scaffold in a relatively unobtrusive way, since if the student becomes stuck, it is often enough for the teacher to perform the associated action in order to jog the student’s memory. The potential drawback here is that students often scaffold themselves using the gestures when they are writing their vocabulary test!