How to present vocabulary?

How to present vocabulary?

There are two main categories of words usually taught/presented in a language classroom: incidental (thrown up unfamiliar vocabulary from discussions, mini-talk, videos …) and intentional (pre-selected and in-text) vocabulary.

Decisions, which should be made for successful presentation of words, include:

1. The number of words to be taught
2. Sequencing of presenting form and meaning
3. Means of presentation – the type and the order: in written or spoken form – how soon – amount of learner involvement.


 In deciding on the number of intentional words to be taught in a lesson the following issues should be taken into account:
1. Learners’ level
2. Learner’s level of familiarity with the words
3. Difficulty of the words (abstract/concrete, pronunciation, …)
4. Teachablity
5. Words to be used for production (speaking, writing) / recognition (listening/reading)

 In teaching words, learners need to learn both the meaning and form (F-P) at least. These two aspects should be presented in close conjunction so that the students will be able to make connections between these two. The more the space between presenting these two aspects, the less the chance for students to make connections. Both sequences of presentation, a) first meaning then form, b) first form then meaning is valid and depends on the situation. One may stick to one for ease of habit formation.
 The following methods can be used to present meaning:

o Translation: which is least admired by experienced teachers yet widely used by teachers in monolingual classes. While I, myself , use this method at times to explain meaning for certain abstract and hard-to-explain words, I try my best to keep it at minimum. Relying so much on translation has certain demerits: a) learns fail to develop an independent L2 lexicon and are highly relying on their L1 for remembering the words, b) since students make less effort to learn the meaning through L1 accordingly they forget the L2 word more easily. I think this method should be that last resort for the teacher. Just imagine that you are in an ESL class and your students are multinational. Are you going to translate the meaning a word they don’t understand for each one of them?

o Using realia, pictures, mimes: this technique can effectively be used for demonstrating the meaning, thus is mostly used for concrete or illustratable words. The limitation is that not all words can be demonstrated and also teachers not always have realia for the incidental words which crop up in a lesson. So the use of demonstratives is often pre-planned.

o Prompting the meaning by giving full definitions, synonyms and antonyms, providing example situations, several example sentences or subordinate terms: in using these techniques, it is important to keep the definition simple and with the learners’ current range. Of course, this may take longer to convey a meaning, but it worth as the learners are exposed to extra speaking and listening practice. In using situations, teacher can share their own or their students experiences, for examples they can provide a variety of sentences read to the students so that they can induce the meaning. In case of the latter, the advantages are that students encounter the new words a couple of times in various contexts which increase the chances of better retention, getting a feel of the word’s different uses, form and grammar. A variant to full definition approach is to present a layered definition – that is, one that is segmented into several short statements, each one including the target word. In this way, the learners hear the target word not only in context, but repeated.

 Learning a word and its meaning is a matter of approximation.

 Several studies indicate, English words seem to be stored and accessed primarily according to their overall syllabus structure and stress. This suggests highlighting the stress and general shape of the words is a useful aid to retention and deserves as much attention as the individual words.

 While working on form the following issues should be addressed:

o Pronunciation: individual and choral drills. Before doing drills, it’s very effective if you give your students a chance for mumble drilling, which in turn prevents interruption of articulatory loop.
o Word stress: asking students (where is the stress?), through drawing circles / finger presentation
o Function: using different contexts
o Part of speech: indicated in parentheses, e.g. (n) (v)
o Register: formal, informal, slang …

 With regard to question when the learners should be exposed to the written form of a newly learned word, the suggestion is that as soon as possible as the irregularities in words spelling and sounds in English words exists all over, therefore it seems illogical if it be postponed to a later time. One technique, which can be used in this regard is to ask students to spell the word when exposed to spoken form first or do the opposite if first exposed to the pronounce. The other justification is that being introduced to the written form of a new word as soon as possible provides the learners with the crucial clues to meaning, often easier to identify in the written form than in the spoken form of the word.

 How to involve the learners in learning process:

1. Elicitation: it shouldn’t be overused. Also it causes frustration if students don’t know the answer. You may some real questions for elicitation rather than simple “what is ..?” question, e.g. instead what is waterfall? ask what is the biggest waterfall you know?
2. Ask your students to personalize the words they learn.

Suggestions based on my own experience:

1. Always pre-teaching some of the blocking vocabulary before teaching reading or listening. You can leave some for learners self-induction.
2. In an EFL setting it is very hard to expect your students to elicit the meaning in a vacuum. However, don’t stop trying it!
3. You can always refer back your students to the sentences in which they come up with a new word and challenge them to make guesses on the meaning rather than easily provide them with the meaning.
4. “Teaching a new word” phase should ALWAYS follow with “put into work” phase.
5. Force your students as well as YOURSELF form the habit of going through MFP (meaning, form, pronunciation) stages while doing new words.
6. Only use phonemic scripts for showing pronunciation if you are sure your students are already familiar with them. If not this over-learning load will be daunting for them.
7. To make your students to put into work the newly learned vocabulary ask them to write personalized sentences or questions, draw association networks using the words or rank them in case of family words.
8. Don’t forget to ask students to teach one another the new words! (peer teaching)

Source: How to teach vocabulary by Scott Thronbury


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