HomeGrammar, Vocabulary, & Pronunciation5 tips for helping students to really learn vocabulary

5 tips for helping students to really learn vocabulary




teacher-in-front-of-whiteboardStudents need to be able to do so much more than reel off lists of vocabulary! They need to be able to manipulate the language so that it can support their communicative needs. Below are 5 ways to help students really learn vocabulary; to help them write, speak and communicate confidently and correctly.

1)    New vocabulary little and often

It’s alarming how quickly students can forget vocabulary. Encouraging students to focus on new vocabulary daily is the best way to make it stick. It doesn’t have to involve sitting down for hours; little and often will help get vocabulary into students long term memory. If you can get students to commit to just 15 minutes a day of focussed vocabulary practice, they’ll soon have a solid vocabulary base. Mobile apps and short online activities are great for this, as students can log on instantly and test themselves at any point of the day – it’s really not difficult to integrate learning into their daily routine this way. Encourage students to be systematic about studying and review new words at least once every couple of weeks.

Idea for your class:

Ask students to create their own system for reviewing new vocabulary and trial it for a month. Students then give feedback to the class by preparing a presentation of how it worked.

2)      Learn vocabulary in chunks

We all know that learning vocabulary in chunks is useful and improves accuracy and fluency. If we can allow students to also see how much time can be saved by learning this way, they are more likely to pick this up as something they do automatically. Words used out of context can destroy the understanding of a sentence. The moment the sentence is pre-formed, a range of vocabulary can be inserted, giving students the added confidence that their structure is correct.

Idea for your class:

At the end of the week, students write down three sentences (using new lexical chunks), two of which are true for themselves and one which is false. They practice using this language by reading the sentences to their classmates, who need to guess which is the false sentence.

3)      Range of contexts

We need to build a real context for students to use new vocabulary in. By this, I’m not only talking about personalisation, but also taking the vocabulary out of the classroom. Make it real! Listen to the news, read some novels or focus on the vocabulary of student’s favourite music. The more that language is seen in different contexts, the more students will be extrinsically motivated as they’ll want to know more. The focus is then taken off the language and onto the topic. This is much more interesting for students (and teachers).

Idea for your class:

Each week a different student is in charge of ‘culture watch’ and needs to spend an hour or so researching online. This student then reports back to the class on what is happening in the world of British news, music or literature.

4)      Use a dictionary

Good learner dictionaries give students so much help with getting a grasp on vocabulary. If they are taught how to use them properly they will increase their depth of understanding. With correct usage of a good dictionary, such as the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, students will know how vocabulary is pronounced. They’ll also be able to identify which words are from the academic word list, learn synonyms and antonyms etc.

Idea for your class:

Make sure all students not only invest in a good dictionary but also do all the dictionary activities, to familiarise themselves with it. The section in the middle of the Oxford Student’s Dictionary is useful, as is the Oxford Wordpower trainer which accompanies the Wordpower dictionary.

5)      Extensive reading

It is better if your students read small amounts regularly, rather than large texts infrequently. (In an ideal world they would read a lot frequently)They shouldn’t use a dictionary. This means they need to be reading at the right level and understanding about 95% of the text. They will be extrinsically motivated if they are interested in the topic, so they should be choosing what they read themselves. The more they read, the more they will be reviewing vocabulary and that increased exposure will help the vocabulary get stored into the students long term memory. This in turn will enable better spoken and written production.

Idea for your class:

Bring a selection of different readers into the classroom and scatter them around the class. Tell students to circulate the room and simply discuss with each other which readers they like and which they don’t. They should just look at the cover and the blurb on the back. Based on this, they choose the reader they’d like to read.

Do you have any top tips you’d like to share? I’d love to hear them in the comments below!

Laura Summers, is a former ELT Consultant for Oxford University Press in the UK and Ireland. She has been working in ELT for over 10 years – and has previously worked as a teacher trainer, Director of Studies and ELT editor. She hopes to help schools overcome their obstacles to technology implementation. She has taught in the UK, France and Spain. Feel free to follow her on twitter (@LauraSummersNow).
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  1. The pieces of advice above are indeed the 5 essentials, although I would place the most value on extensive reading AND listening – as abundant exposure as the course only allows. In this way a vast majority words will be encountered again and again, naturally, and are BOUND to stick. I like discussing read and heard texts on the basis of keywords – NOT the regular “after the text” questions – as this gives a focused practice/recycling of the vocabulary.

  2. I really enjoyed your suggestion for having students participate in their learning by trying ways that best suit them for reviewing vocabulary. We all learn in different ways and one size does not fit all. Using today’s technologies makes learning so much more flexible.

  3. Great text! I’ll put into practice some ideas given here. Thanks Laura.

    • I can recommend to use LearnThatWord.org to improve vocabulary. It is very convenient, and my son showed good results in some two weeks.

  4. A technique which I found works great in vocabulary acquisition is to make up a story inventing a specific content including the new vocabulary items. As the story is being told the new vocabulary items should be accompanied by gestures and body language that will represent them. Eventually the gesture will bring the word to mind. This also works when learning the song lyrics. Another technique, I don’t take credit for since it came from one of my students, is to post vocabulary cards in familiar places around the house or place of work so that whatever you do or wherever you go the word will follow you. Likely places can be: mirrors, doors, fridge, car dashboard, computer screen frame, clocks, bathroom (close to the WC) and bedroom ceiling (my students love this one).

  5. Thanks for your comments everyone – that’s a great activity Grisel, sure lots of teachers will want to try that out as it sounds fun, yet effective

    Alex – fair point, students should read this. However, our blog is mainly read by teachers (not students); hence using the 3rd person

  6. 5 tips for helping students to really learn vocabulary | Post-CELTA | Scoop.it

    […] 5 tips for helping students to really learn vocabulary Laura Austin, an ELT Consultant for Oxford University Press, presents some useful tips on how to teach vocabulary to your students so that they will really learn it. Students need to be able t… Source: oupeltglobalblog.com […]

  7. Hi Laura,

    I’m a english student, but i’m not know very…I’m very happy to stay here with you and wish practice this whith love!



  8. Reading is good “Passive” way of improving vocabulary, but when you are resorting to making lists, that is “Active” method. Problem with active method of learning words is that it is cumbersome and boring, and you doing retain and unless you use it in writing sentences to apply the word, very little chance is that you increase your lexical size.

    Improve Your Vocabulary – VocabMonk is an active learning tool which is personalized and makes sure you grasp the learnt words by applying it. It is lot of fun too as you can play vocab challenges with your friends.

    Give it a shot!

  9. All great tip for improving vocabulary. I’m a great fan of building students vocab and feel that little and often is the best policy. Students can get bogged down by massive lists, plus they just don’t retain the vast majority of the words. I think vocab is more important that grammar overall as well. I like to ‘force’ my students to keep a vocabulary book, but they always find it such a chore. Do you have experience with students and keeping a record of vocabulary? Thanks Barry O’Leary

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