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Teaching vocabulary to L2 learners
by Kendall Peet
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How to teach vocabulary

Having provided a broad framework to use for the selection of vocabulary to teach, it is now appropriate to turn our attention to other relevant factors that affect the learning process.

Memory and remembering

In order to teach vocabulary effectively, it is important to know something about how the mind works because an important part of learning is remembering. The human mind effectively has three kinds of memory: short-term memory, working memory, and long-term memory. We use our short-term memory, which has the capacity to hold a limited number of items for a period of only a few seconds, for immediate tasks that require little or no processing, such as remembering a phone number long enough to dial it, or a word long enough to repeat it. Our working memory, in contrast, retains items for up to twenty seconds, and is used in circumstances where information needs to be manipulated or processed at a deeper level. Finally, there is our long-term memory, which has the ability to store items away indefinitely. As teachers, it is our job to seek out the most effective means by which to store vocabulary in the learner’s long-term memory. The movement of lexis from the short-term memory to the long-term memory is not, however, a process that we consciously control. Research does, however, provide us with certain clues to help improve the chances of success. In teaching vocabulary it is worthwhile considering the following points:

  • A maximum of seven lexical items should be introduced to learners in a single sitting (8)
  • Up to 80% of what is taught is lost within 24 hours if not revised within this time (9)
  • A minimum of five separate exposures to a given item is advised at increased intervals(10)
  • The mind is highly organised and appears to store lexical items in semantic fields (11)
  • The deeper the level of processing the better the chances of retention
  • The more personalised and student relevant the vocabulary the better

In sum, modern research tells us that vocabulary needs to be limited to a manageable number, contextualised, personalised, organised into lexical groups, and then revised, revised, revised. I place considerable emphasis on the idea of revision because teachers, in my experience, are usually very good at focusing on a certain group of words in a given class, and at teaching the meaning of a word, but are far less organised over an extended period of time so that much of what is diligently taught often fails to be stored in the learner’s long-term memory.

Ideas for Revising Vocabulary

One very good way to revise vocabulary is to keep an envelope, into which learners place new words on a slip of paper that arise in class. These words can then be recycled using games, such as hotseat. Once the word is known, it can be transferred to a second envelope to be used again later and then either returned to the first envelope (if it has been forgotten), or discarded if it has clearly been stored in the learners’ long-term memory.

Another effective way to revise vocabulary, is to encourage learners to use word cards, small enough to fit into your pocket, but big enough to include any useful information. On one side of the card the learners write the word, on the other side the definition and a sample sentence. In this way the learners can read the word, try to say what it means, and then try to use it in a sentence, before turning the card over to see if they are correct. You can also include other useful information such as antonyms, synonyms, at perhaps at lower levels an L1 translation. Below is one example of how learners can organise their word cards.


detest (v): to dislike something or someone very much
I detest people who are unkind to animals.

detestable (adj): causing or deserving intense dislike
I think what he did is detestable.
He is detestable.

Detestably (adv):
He acted detestably all night.

Cognitive learning strategies

Another aspect relating to the working of the mind is learning preferences. Research now tells us that people learn in different ways. Therefore, when you walk into a classroom to teach a group of learners, it is important to bear in mind that they each have different cognitive learning needs (visual, aural, kinaesthetic, and tactile) and so will respond to a particular teaching approach to varying degrees. (12) What this means is that teachers will need to provide a variety of activities in their lessons, incorporating a combination of the cognitive learning strategies, to cater to the different needs of learners. (13) Students will also need to be encouraged to experiment with the different strategies because the efficiency of language learning depends to a large degree on how learners combine these individual strategies. (14)In this way, teaching is really a team effort and should be approached as such.

8. Cairns, R. & Redman, S. 1986. p. 86,87
9. Thornbury, S. 2002.
10. Saragi, Nation, & Meister. 1978.
11. Cairns, R. & Redman, S. 1986. p. 88
12. Rodolico. 2002.
13. Rodolico. 2002. Rodolico states that there are 13 different cognitive strategies: repetition, resourcing, Direct Physical Response, translation, grouping, note-taking, imagery, auditory, keyword, contextualization, elaboration, transfer, clarification
14. Pavicic.

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