Teaching Vocabulary During the English Class

Despite the fact that teachers used to focus on grammar rather than on  vocabulary, teaching vocabulary has a great importance in the study of a foreign language. There are many articles, studies, books about teaching vocabulary, because one of the most important tools we can give students for succeeding, not only in their education but more generally in life, is a large, rich vocabulary and the skills for using those words. Our ability to function in the society of nowadays is mightily affected by our ability to communicate, our language skills and word knowledge. Many universities organize courses on communication, many companies offer to their employees trainings on communication.  Words are an important part of our lives.

I. Jeremy Harmer’s point of view on teaching vocabulary

Jeremy Harmer considers that teaching vocabulary has a great importance in the study of a foreign language, even if, many years it was seen as incidental to the acquisition of grammatical knowledge about the language. In fact, they are both important and interdependent in the long process of learning and teaching a foreign language.

The first problem identified by Harmer in teaching vocabulary is that related to the selection of the words to be taught. There are many criteria which should be taken into consideration when the selection is made. Jeremy Harmer mentions the distinction between concrete and abstract nouns, the level of the students, the frequency and the coverage, student’s needs and wants, word’s functions, structure etc. There are many debates when it is to chose the best criterion for the selection. Harmer underlines the importance of two main criteria: frequency and coverage. Firstly, the words which are most commonly used are the ones we should teach first. Secondly, a word is more useful if it covers more things than if it only has one very specific meaning.

Once the selection is made, another important thing to be understood is the fact that teaching vocabulary does not mean only presenting new word to students. It is a much more complex process.  Students must know many other things about a word besides its meaning such as: how suffixes and prefixes work, how words are spelt and how they sound, the way words are stressed, how to understand and use words in speech, word formation etc.

Harmer summarizes ‘knowing a word’ in the following way: meaning in context, sense relations, words meaning, metaphor and idiom, collocation, style and register, parts of speech, prefixes and suffixes, spelling and pronunciation, meaning in context.

Some of the techniques to be used when teaching vocabulary are:

  • bringing ‘realia’ into the room or pictures;
  • mime, action and gesture (in particular for actions);
  • contrast;
  • enumeration;
  • explanation;
  • dictionary definition;
  • vocabulary games;
  • translation. The last method is a quick and easy way to present the meaning of words, but it is not without problems.

The most important thing when teaching vocabulary is to make students ‘interact’ with words. There are different teaching approaches considering that a good way of teaching vocabulary is that students should go home every evening and learn a list of fifty words ‘by heart’. Harmer considers that this practice may have some good results, but it avoids one of the central features of vocabulary use, that words occur in context. Rather than just learn them, students should manipulate words. Students should be aware of the vocabulary they need for their level. Words do not just exist on their own: they live with other words and they depend upon each other.  When students learn words in context they are far more likely to remember them than if they learn them as single items.

Special emphasis should be placed on discovery activities.

Somehow or other, then, it seems that we should get students to interact with words. We should get them to ‘adopt’ words that they like and that they want to use… Especially at intermediate levels and above, discovery techniques (where students have to work out rules and meanings for themselves rather than being given everything by the teacher) are an appropriate alternative to standard presentation techniques. This is certainly true of vocabulary learning where students will often be asked to ‘discover for themselves’ what a word means and how and why it is being used.

II. Penny Ur’s point of view on teaching vocabulary

Penny Ur considers her approach on teaching vocabulary a traditionalist one. She says that vocabulary is the most important aspect of language to teach.  The major argument is the fact that a student can understand a reading text and make himself understood with almost no grammar, but with a rich vocabulary.  If a student understands 98% of a text, the teacher may consider that the student has understood the main idea of the text and can guess the rest from context.

Ur considers teaching vocabulary more important than reading strategies for understanding a text and the best single measure of proficiency.

Teaching vocabulary does not mean only introducing new words, but also teaching students pronunciation and spelling, aspects of meaning (denotation, connotation, appropriateness, meaning relationships), word formation, the use of words different contexts, synonyms, antonyms, hyponyms.

In order to have a good control of the language, students have to know words used more frequently. Thus, the most common items have highest priority. It is vitally important to make sure that the commonest items are mastered and not to spend too much time and energy on the ones they are unlikely to encounter very much.

But beside that, they also have to know some lexical items called chunks and collocations. Memorizing chunks of language, idioms, phrases, proverbs provides the students with a readymade vocabulary of grammatical combinations that could be adapted to suit different situations. Ready made formulas are good for teachers. They help learners to learn proper usage. She adds that learning rhymes, songs and poems helps build vocabulary. By repeating rhymes or songs, children get a chance to be creative, play around with language and learn to enjoy it.
Penny Ur suggests also some other methods to be used, in particular when introducing new words: concise definition (as in a dictionary; often a superordinate with qualifications: for example, a cat is an animal which…); detailed description (of appearance, qualities . . .);  examples (hyponyms);l illustration (picture, object); demonstration (acting, mime); context (story or sentence in which the item occurs); synonyms; opposite(s) (antonyms);  translation; associated ideas, collocations.

If Harmer considers very important accidental encounters with new words in the process of learning, on the contrary, Penny Ur thinks that this is not a very fruitful way of learning, because the students do not remember many of the words, which were not learnt deliberately. Vocabulary has to be deliberately taught.

III. Conclusion

Teaching vocabulary is a long and complex process. It involves a lot of research and planning, because it does not mean only introducing new words, explaining their meaning and asking the students to learn it in order to improve their reading comprehension. Teaching vocabulary means introducing new words, but besides that it also means explaining word meaning, word formation, metaphor, collocations, spelling and pronunciation, style and register.

One of the most important elements in this long and difficult process is so-called “word consciousness”.

Word consciousness is defined as the interest and desire of a student to learn new words and use them in reading and writing. It is the awareness and inquisitiveness of a student about new words. Creating interest or arousing word consciousness in a student is  not an easy task. On the contrary it needs a lot of effort and time. It depends on many elements such as student’s interests, needs, preferences, whishes, cultural and social background. Arising the word consciousness or if it is to use Harmer’s expression, making students to “interact” with words means for teachers a good knowledge of their students. They have to remember that their students have different personalities, interests, skills and abilities. Some of the most important factors which have to be taken into consideration about when teaching vocabulary are the relevance of a word to student’s immediate wants and interests, its impact student’s ‘affect’ on the first encounters, and the number of opportunities to use it. Some of the students may be interested in learning new words about music or sport, for example, some others may not be interested in it. A method can be efficient in some cases, and inefficient some others. Again, a good knowledge of students (which is very difficult to achieve if we take into consideration their number in the classroom), their level, the social-cultural context, teacher’s ability to tease the students are key factors when teaching vocabulary.

– Harmer, Jeremy (1991). The Practice of English Teaching. London: Longman, p.153-175
– Ur, Penny (1999). A Course in Language Teaching – Practice and Theory. Cambridge University Press, p.23-32
www.english-for-students.com/fluency-and-accuracy.html, last visit, 22 of May 2011
eltj.oxfordjournals.org/content/62/3/313.extract, last visit, 23 of May 2011


prof. Cristina Budeanu

Școala Gimnazială Mihail Sadoveanu, Bacău (Bacău) , România
Profil iTeach: iteach.ro/profesor/cristina.budeanu

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