Teaching English Vocabulary

30/06/2014 17:48

Teaching English Vocabulary


Teaching vocabulary is important, and more than presenting and introducing. Knowing words isn`t memorizing. What students need is meaning in context and how words are used through correct instruction, which is vocabulary selection, word knowledge, and the inculcation of learning techniques. Vocabulary is needed for expressing meaning and using receptive (listening and reading) and productive (speaking and writing) skills. It isn`t a memory test, that is, a word list teachers prepare as a syllabus, which is good and useful as a temporary technique for exams, but not for learning a foreign language. To teach students what words mean and how they are used, they must be presented together in context. Words do not exist on their own but live together and depend upon each other.


 Correct instruction involves vocabulary selection, word knowledge and methodological technique. In the past, teachers selected and presented vocabulary from concrete to abstract. Words like door, window, desk, etc., which are concrete, were taught at beginning levels, while words like honest, beauty, etc., which are abstract, were taught at advanced levels, because not physically representable in the learning/teaching environment and so are more difficult to explain. Now experts suggest teachers decide upon words taught on the basis of frequency in the `target language` (Harmer). Most commonly used words should be taught first. How often, and where, words occur is derivable from computer-enhanced frequency counts in vocabulary employed (Nation) by native speakers of the `target language`.


Teachers can decide which useful words should be taught on the basis of semantics, where the more useful word covers more things than one with a specific meaning. The word `book` has wider usage, for example; `to book a room`, that is, arrange to pay for to stay at a hotel, or to `bring to book`, in the sense of `punish the culprit`. Criteria other than frequency and coverage include language needs, (Nation), availability and familiarity, regularity and ease of learning, and learning burden. When conveying meaning, teachers should teach a word may have more than one meaning when used in different contexts, for example, `book` has at least twelve; eight as a noun, two as a verb, and three when used with prepositions as phrasal verbs; ` I booked my ticket three days ago,` (Harmer) and `I booked him for speeding,` etc. Students should be involved in discovering words` meanings themselves and encouraged to make efforts to understand. When students are involved in discovering meaning, they tend not to forget what they`ve learned, and subsequently express themselves more fluently. When a single word has various meanings, the teacher should decide which is to be taught, that is, the necessary from the more frequent. Students are motivated by facilitating teachers, and will build stores of words important for them to communicate.


Teachers can help build a store of words from which students can select to express themselves. If a learner can handle grammar correctly, they can`t express themselves fluently without a stored memory of words to select from. Teachers must tailor vocabulary syllabi, according to learners needs (Nation), so work can be directed toward useful words that give useful skills. Unless learning vocabulary processes are clear, easy and interesting, students become bored, tired, and disinterested. Nation suggests teachers convey meaning by demonstration or pictures (objects, cut out figures, gesture, performing an action, photographs, blackboard drawings or diagrams, and pictures from books), or by verbal explanation (analytical definition, putting words in defining contexts, and translating into the foreigner`s own language).


 Students should know words' meanings, when used in metaphor and idiom, and when to choose the right word. The word `hiss` describes the noise snakes make, but is metaphorical (Harmer) if used to describe the way people speak: `Don`t sit there! That seat`s for someone more important than you!` she hissed. The verb `run` has the present participle `running`, which can be used as an adjective, while `run` can be a noun. Familiarity with metaphor and idiom helps students in writing and speaking. Parts of speech are often taught separately, because they occur in disparate sentence patterns (Nation), but if meanings associated with the word `run`, for example, are linked already in the minds of the learners, metaphor and idiom work to the advantage of the educator.


 Presentation, and discovery is a technique and activity the teacher can use. Celce-Muria recommends to every teacher the methodological approach of conveyed meaning (1), checked understanding (2), and consolidation (3). Items are presented, then exercises test the students grasp of meaning. Students deepen their understanding through use and creative problem-solving activities. Conveyance of meaning is by means of `realia`; for example, pens, rulers, and balls. When it`s impossible to bring the object, such as cars or animals, teachers can show pictures. Concepts like running, walking, or eating are easy to present using mime, action and gesture. At more advanced levels, teachers use word relations (synonyms or antonyms), definitions, explanations, examples, anecdotes, contexts and word roots and affixes. Explaining the item, `guided tour` (Celce-Murcia), the class can be asked to imagine a museum or an art gallery where a group of people listen to someone explaining a picture. The `guide` goes from one picture to the next and the people follow the `tour` of the exhibits. When the lesson becomes interesting and useful, students become more motivated. After meaning is conveyed, learners comprehension is checked through exercises. Celce-Murcia suggests different kinds of activities such as `gap-fill` exercises, where students have sentences, or short passages with missing words and, if they understand the context, they can know the probable missing words; for example, in the matching up a verb (V) with an appropriate noun (N) activity:


(V) answer, (N) house, (V) blow, (N) picture, (V) build, (N) phone, (V) cook, (N) meal, (V) draw, (N) song, (V) drive, (N) television, (V) fasten, (N) seatbelt, (V) read, (N) car, (V) sing, (N) nose, (V) switch on, (N) magazine.


 To ensure students can use words properly and fluently, consolidation imposes problem-solving tasks, values` clarifications, writing a story, or dialogue, a discussion, or role-play. In this way, students become more confident in expression given the opportunity to independently activate their minds in working themselves with the words.




Celce-Murcia, M. Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language, Los Angeles: Heinle & Heinle.


Harmer, J. The Practice of English Language Teaching, New York: Longman.


Nation, I. S. P. Teaching and Learning Vocabulary, New York: Harper & Row.