Vocabulary Learning: Making Words Stick

I was really excited to see the June 21st #keltchat topic was about vocabulary learning.  Vocabulary learning is something that I place a good deal of importance on in my classroom.  Consequently, I spend a lot of time trying to help my learners increase their English vocabulary.  I recently read Scott Thornbury’s excellent blog post called “V is for Vocabulary”, which made things a little clearer in my mind about what I had been doing in my classes and why.

The Principle of Multiple Encounters

When I started teaching about ten years ago, I would give out huge word lists to my students each week and they would need to memorize the words and the definition I wrote beside each of them.  As you might expect, this didn’t work very well.  The students usually looked at the word just long enough to store it in short-term memory for my quiz and then memorized the first word or two of the matching definition.  Once the quiz was over, the students rarely – if ever – encountered the word again during the course. After dropping a few surprise quizzes on my classes near the end of the semester, I noticed that most students had completely forgotten a vast majority of words from my word lists. Looking back, what I had done in my overly ambitious efforts to teach vocabulary was to substitute quality of exposure for quantity of words.

The next semester, I reduced the weekly word list from 25 words per week to somewhere between 7 to 10 words. This made the number of words manageable enough to start thinking about how to reinforce this smaller vocabulary set so that students might learn them through repeated exposure throughout the semester. For example, I would try to introduce readings that used vocabulary words taught in previous classes.  Whenever I showed my students a sentence with an example of usage for newer words, I tried to incorporate these “older” vocabulary words in it as well.  Conversation questions that I gave students during warm-ups also recycled previously-taught words throughout the semester.

Pretty soon, all of these words from the word list were popping up everywhere in my classes at unexpected times – the lexical equivalent of guerilla warriors.   I think what I have done here would be what Scott Thornbury calls the Principle of Multiple Encounters.  It certainly seemed to make sense and work for my own class.  Being a good action researcher, I repeated the surprise vocabulary quizzes as I had done in my previous semesters and this time I noticed my students had retained and understood many more vocabulary words, their meaning, and usage.

The Principle of Associations

To help my students remember a word, I also try to give them interesting things to do with it.  I first try to get them to Google it and write down any examples of usage they can find “in the wild” of the Internet and then share it with each other.  This can turn out to be pretty interesting and it often turns up unexpected results.  I think using a new word as a jumping off point for exploration can be a really good way to attach a feeling of excitement about learning and remembering it.

I also think it reinforces to the students that the word is a real one used by real people in the real world.  Basically, this activity lets the students see what the word “does” by uncovering its usage themselves.  I might also ask my students to just do a youtube search of the word and then watch a couple of videos from the search results to see what they can find.  Again, this is a nice way of getting around the rote-memorization approach to vocabulary learning.

Pairwork presentations built on random vocabulary words taught over the semester can be interesting.  In some of my current classes, I print out sheets with a vocabulary word and an interesting photo that represents the word underneath it.  The students build a presentation based on the word’s definition, how they feel when they see this word, a description of the photo, and two facts about the word and their lives.  I find the time required to build the presentation also helps with exposure as I’ve described earlier.

Of course, new vocabulary can also open up new topics for discussion and using the new word for communication purposes is my favorite way of teaching vocabulary.  I also think it might be the most effective method because the students are interacting with the word at a deeper cognitive level in order to successfully transact with someone in a meaningful way.  I suppose having conversations about yourself and your own experiences with others would also qualify under what Scott Thornbury refers to as The Principle of Associations.  

I have to say that I’m really interested in reading more about this and I think Scott Thornbury’s article really helps to crystallize these concepts into something that teachers can use to help with effective vocabulary learning.  I also notice that he’s written a book about this called How to Teach Vocabulary, which looks really interesting and I’d like to check out.


  • Oliver Rose

    Nice suggestions for vocab practice! For Japanese learners, I’ve made some online/mobile games at http://www.phrasebotapp.com ! They can learn not only single words but also phrasal verbs and collocations in various modes.