Effective strategies for teaching vocabulary

Effective strategies for teaching vocabulary


Children learn new words every day. How many words they learn and how well they understand and use these words will have a significant impact on the kind of readers they eventually become. Reading involves understanding printed words, and having a large vocabulary makes it easier to gain meaning from what is being read. Vocabulary is also a tool for thinking and learning about the world. The more words children know, the more information they have. The more information they have, the better their understanding of the world and the easier it is for them to learn new words. Children with rich vocabularies have an enormous educational advantage.

Many studies show that vocabulary is the best predictor of reading comprehension at the end of grades 2 and 3, and that vocabulary growth is directly linked to overall school achievement. Not all children have the same opportunities to learn new words. As a result, children’s vocabularies can differ enormously in size by the end of their preschool years. Building children’s vocabulary in early childhood settings must therefore be a priority if children are to have the foundation they need to succeed at school.

When children first use new words, they usually have a limited idea of what they really mean. Helping children develop a deeper understanding of words is an important part of building their vocabulary. The adults in a child’s life play a significant role in helping children build a deeper understanding of words. They do this by giving children many opportunities to hear words in meaningful everyday conversations. In addition, they give children feedback on their use of words, leading to wonderful discussions about what the words mean.

  • What are good vocabulary learners like?
  • What strategies can learners use to maximize their vocabulary learning?
  • What roles do explicit and implicit learning play in vocabulary acquisition?
  • Are some methods of learning vocabulary more effective than others?

Research on vocabulary learning strategies has shown that good vocabulary learners:

  1. Pay attention to form — spelling and pronunciation, the different forms of words, word parts, and multi-word items (word formation and morphology — Sessions 5 & 6)
  2. Pay attention to meaning — polysemy, sense relations, connotations (e.g. positive/neutral/negative: slim/thin/skinny), style (e.g., formal/neutral/informal: acquaintance/friend/mate), register (e.g. field — agriculture, pitch — football) (semantics — Sessions 7 & 8)
  3. Are good guessers — able to work out the meaning of words from clues in the context
  4. Are risk-takers — not afraid of making mistakes or asking questions
  5. Organise their vocabulary learning — using vocabulary notebooks or word cards, dictionaries or the internet, memory techniques and revision

Good vocabulary learning is also related to autonomy. Teachers need to let learners know that they cannot teach them all the vocabulary they need. Learners need to pay attention to vocabulary when they are reading, writing, speaking and listening. They need to seek out new words and the make the effort to learn them by themselves.

They also need to be aware (a) that there is usually more than just the spelling and meaning of a word to be learned (Session 2) and that, beyond a certain level, everyone learns different words, building own their own personal vocabularies related to their needs and interests (Sessions 3 & 4).

What strategies can learners use to maximize their vocabulary learning?

Schmitt (1997) has produced a detailed list of vocabulary learning strategies based on two classifications.

  • The first is related to whether the strategies are concerned with (1) discovering the meaning of unknown words, or (2) remembering words once their meaning has been discovered.
  • The second divides strategies into 5 groups:
    • (1) Determination strategies (finding meaning without recourse to others),
    • (2) Social strategies (consulting or working with others to discover or remember meaning),
    • (3) Memory strategies (mnemonic),
    • (4) Cognitive strategies (similar to memory strategies, but without the use of mnemonics)
    • (5) Metacognitive strategies (concerned with the management of learning).

Research on vocabulary strategies also suggests that:

  1. It is important to use a range of strategies;
  2. The quality of strategy use counts for more than the quantity of strategies used;
  3. It is important to choose strategies flexibly and appropriately according to context.

What roles do explicit and implicit learning play in vocabulary acquisition?

Vocabulary learning strategies can also be divided into those that involve (1) explicit, direct or intentional learning and (2) those involving implicit, indirect or incidental learning. There is good reason to believe that both explicit and implicit learning contribute to vocabulary development.

Explicit learning is associated with learning vocabulary ‘out of context’, e.g. from word lists. But it can also occur ‘in context’, for example when we look up words in the dictionary while reading, or review new words in a text after reading and note down their meanings.

Implicit learning is associated with learning vocabulary ‘in context’, e.g. when we learn words while reading or listening without paying special attention to them. But it can also occur ‘out of context’. For example, when we repeatedly review a vocabulary list, our knowledge of the words and their meanings tends to become ‘automatic’ Reading appears to be the best method for implicit learning — people who read a lot tend to have large vocabularies.

Are some methods of learning vocabulary more effective than others?

Two major areas of controversy concern (1) the value of explicit vs. implicit learning and (2) the relative effectiveness of vocabulary learning techniques.

Explicit vs. implicit learning

There has been much discussion in the literature on whether vocabulary is best learned through direct study or incidentally through reading. The evidence suggests, however, that both are effective in different ways.

We know, for example, that learners are capable of learning large quantities of vocabulary from lists (on average around 30 words in a session). The ‘depth of processing’ hypothesis also suggests that, the more a piece of information is manipulated, the more it likely it is to be retained in memory (Schmitt, 2000: p.121). This kind of learning may be especially valuable in the early stages of learning a language for the most frequent words. It can give learners a ‘boost’ and help them move on to the stage of implicit learning through reading and listening. Learning words out of context may be less valuable beyond the first 2,000 words, because beyond this level vocabulary level tends to be a matter of personal needs and interests.

On the other hand, we know that it is difficult to learn everything we need to know about the more frequent words through explicit learning and that extensive reading contributes a great deal to vocabulary acquisition (Hulstijn, 1997). Implicit vocabulary learning through reading depends a great deal on the learner’s ability to guess the meaning of words from the context, which means that we need to know the words in the context. For this reason, it seems to be most effective beyond the first 2,000 words. It may also be effective for increasing our depth of knowledge of the more frequent words.

Vocabulary learning techniques: Explicit learning

We know that certain basic techniques help explicit learning. These include writing down words and their meanings in vocabulary notebooks or on word cards and reviewing them regularly. This appears to be most effective when the words are processed more, e.g. by writing them in phrases or sentences, or by relating them to words we already know (e.g., synonyms, antonyms, hyponyms).

The value of mnemonic techniques, or techniques to enhance memory, is less certain. One popular mnemonic technique is the ‘keyword’ method in which an L2 word is attached to an L1 word by an image. For example, fancy (meaning to be attracted to someone) could be linked to fan si (fans) by an image of Jay Chou’s fan si dreaming of their idol. There have been several ‘methods comparison?studies investigating the relative effectiveness of various mnemonic strategies (see, for example, Coady, 1997, on studies of the Keyword method). These tend to show that mnemonic methods work, but not that they are more effective than other methods. Comparisons are also often made complicated by the need for training and the intervention of other variables.

It is sometimes argued that vocabulary learning is best organised in terms of lexical sets. For example, we may learn words connected to a particular theme (such as pets) together — including synonyms, antonyms and hyponyms. The argument for this concerns the ways in which words are organised in ‘networks’ in the mind. The problem is that related words can easily be confused — for example, the difference between two synonyms may be difficult to grasp if both words are new or the meanings of antonyms may be reversed.

Guessing word meanings from context should probably be called inferring (i.e. guessing based on evidence). According to Laufer (1997), inferring meanings from context is more difficult than it appears at first sight and depends upon a relatively large sight vocabulary (words that cause us no problems when we see them). Below is a sequence of steps that can help.

  • Identify the lexical unit — is a single word or a multi-word item. Is the meaning likely to be literal or metaphorical
  • Identify the word class and any other grammatical information. Is it a countable or uncountable noun? Is it a verb with an object or without an object?
  • Are there any synonyms, antonyms or hyponyms nearby?
  • Try to understand the sentence that contains the word as a whole — this may cut down the range of possible meanings.
  • If all else fails, carry on reading. The word may be used again later in the text.
  • If none of this works, keep the word in your mind and look it up in a dictionary later.

It is also worth keeping in mind that guessing word meanings from context is not primarily a method of vocabulary learning. It is more a method of reading without interruption. Many learners get ‘stuck’ on unknown items while reading. But the point of reading is to understand a text, not to understand every word in it.

                           The Ten Best Vocabulary Learning Tips


  • Vocabulary Learning Tip One: Read, Read, Read! Most vocabulary words are learned from context. The more words you’re exposed to, the better vocabulary you will have. While you read, pay close attention to words you don’t know. First, try to figure out their meanings from context. Then look the words up. Read and listen to challenging material so that you’ll be exposed to many new words.
  • Vocabulary Learning Tip Two: Improve your context skills. Research shows that the vast majority of words are learned from context. To improve your context skills pay close attention to how words are used. Doing a search on a word using dejanews.com (for searching newsgroups) will give you many examples of how that word is used in context. Play our Daily Context Vocabulary Quiz.
  • Vocabulary Learning Tip Three: Practice, practice, practice. Learning a word won’t help very much if you promptly forget it. Research shows that it takes from 10 to 20 repetitions to really make a word part of your vocabulary. It helps to write the word — both the definition and a sentence you make up using the word — perhaps on an index card that can later be reviewed. As soon as you learn a new word, start using it. Review your index cards periodically to see if you have forgotten any of your new words. Also, do a search on a word using dejanews.com (for searching newsgroups) to get many examples of how the word is actually used.
  • Vocabulary Learning Tip Four: Make up as many associations and connections as possible. Say the word aloud to activate your auditory memory. Relate the word to words you already know. For example, the word GARGANTUAN (very large) has a similar meaning to the words gigantic, huge, large, etc. You could make a sequence: small, medium, large, very large, GARGANTUAN. List as many things as you can that could be considered GARGANTUAN: Godzilla, the circus fat lady, the zit on your nose, etc. Create pictures of the word’s meaning that involve strong emotions. Think «the GARGANTUAN creature was going to rip me apart and then eat me!»
  • Vocabulary Learning Tip Five: Use mnemonics ( memory tricks). For example, consider the word EGREGIOUS (extremely bad). Think EGG REACH US — imagine we’ve made a mistake so bad that they are throwing eggs at us and a rotten EGG REACHes US. Such funny little word pictures will help you remember what words mean, AND they are fun to make up. Also, find out which learning style suits you best. Everyone learns differently!
  • Vocabulary Learning Tip Six: Get in the habit of looking up words you don’t know. If you have a dictionary program on your computer, keep it open and handy. America Online and other internet services have dictionaries and thesauruses on their tool bars. Find them and look up any word you are not absolutely sure of. Use a thesaurus when you write to find the word that fits best.
  • Vocabulary Learning Tip Seven: Play with words. Play Scrabble, Boggle, and do crossword puzzles. These and other word games are available for the computer, so you are not dependent on a partner to play. Also, try out the Franklin Electronic Dictionary that features built-in word games.
  • Vocabulary Learning Tip Eight: Use vocabulary lists. For the serious vocabulary student, there are many books that focus on the words most commonly found in standardized tests, such as the SAT and GRE. There are also many interesting word sites on the Internet, many of which will send you a word a day by email.
  • Vocabulary Learning Tip Nine: Take vocabulary tests. Playing games, such as the ones on this site, that test your knowledge will help you learn new words and also let you know how much progress you’re making. Offline sources for vocabulary tests include SAT prep books (we recommend «10 Real SATs» by ETS), and the Reader’s Digest Wordpower section. For more, check out Amazon.com or your local bookseller.

Vocabulary Learning Tip Ten: Get excited about words! Come to appreciate the sometimes-subtle differences between them. Do you know the difference between something that denotes something else and something that connotes something else? If not, go look it up. Learn to say what you really mean and discover the joys of being able to express yourself in writing. Your future can depend on how rich your vocabulary is. A good vocabulary will make a difference on the standardized tests, like the SAT and GRE, that could determine whether or where you go to college. It will also determine the quality of your communication. So be in it for the long pull. Let building your vocabulary be a lifelong proposition. Remember: «In the beginning was the word.» Until you have a word for something, it does not exist for you. Name it, and you have made your reality richer.


The following references are mentioned in the handouts and can be consulted if you want to explore vocabulary learning and teaching in more depth, e.g. for an academic project later in your course of study.

Coady, J. (1997) L2 vocabulary acquisition through extensive reading. In J. Coady and T. Huckin (eds.) Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 225-237.

Hulstijn, J. (1997) Mnemonic methods in foreign language vocabulary learning; theoretical considerations and pedagogical implications. In J. Coady and T. Huckin (eds.) Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 203-224.

Laufer, B. (1997) The lexical plight in second language reading: words you don?t know, words you think you know, and words you can?t guess. In J. Coady and T. Huckin (eds.) Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 20-34.

Lewis, M. (1997) Pedagogical implications of the lexical approach. In J. Coady and T. Huckin (eds.) Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 255-270.

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O’Dell, F. (1997) Incorporating vocabulary into the syllabus. In N. Schmitt & M. McCarthy (eds.) Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.258-278.

Schmitt, N. (1997) Vocabulary learning strategies. In N. Schmitt & M. McCarthy (Eds.) Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 199-227.

Schmitt, N. (1998) Tracking the incremental acquisition of second language vocabulary; a longitudinal study. Language Learning, 48:2, 281-387.

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