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Teaching vocabulary to L2 learners
by Kendall Peet
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Learner-led approach

I would like to finish by offering one last approach to learning new vocabulary, which I have decided to name the Learner-led Approach. This approach places the onus of vocabulary selection largely in the hands of the learners and works particularly well when applied to reading activities. Rather than pre-selecting vocabulary to teach in a lesson, I simply ask the learners to select the vocabulary they do not know. We then work on the words together as I encourage and guide the learners to guess meaning from context using different word strategies, to use a dictionary, and to write out sentences, usually three, in class or for homework. If classroom participation is low, you can inform the learners that there will be vocabulary test on words in the text; this usually provides the learners with the necessary incentive. In time you will find, as I did, that the threat of a test will no longer be needed as the enjoyment of learning new words forms . One significant advantage of this type of approach is that it allows the learner to take a more active role in the learning process and therefore encourages greater learner autonomy.

All in all, I believe, reading and dictionary use together provide the best option for L2 learners to independently increase their vocabulary quickly, whilst subconsciously increasing their awareness of different grammatical structures. This is an important point because classroom time is usually limited and in reality there are usually few opportunities to use English outside the classroom: when asked, most learners state that they use English very little outside the classroom. Reading, however, provides a real opportunity. Accordingly, teachers need to encourage learners to read outside the classroom, which means that time needs to be assigned in the class to develop the habit of reading and using dictionaries. Silent reading, in particular, is an  activity that is often undervalued and not allocated the time it deserves. 


Why is it important to better understand the process of learning vocabulary? Firstly, increasing vocabulary is a key learning need identified by most learners. Secondly, because the world as we know it is changing quickly, we now seem to have less time each year, while the demands placed upon us mount up; the result of which is an ever-increasing demand on the faculty of the mind. The implications on this situation on teaching are such that teachers must actively seek out new, less time-consuming, more effective ways to teach vocabulary. In particular, there needs to be a focus on productive language and plenty of repetition. Teachers need to expose learners to different learning strategies and to encourage experimentation in order to enable the learners to discover a particular strategy or mix of strategies that works best for them. Measures also need to be taken to utilise time outside the classroom, and to this extent time in the classroom needs to be set aside to develop good learning habits, such as reading and dictionary use. All in all, encouraging learners to take greater responsibility for their learning is the key.

If you are interested in learning more about teaching vocabulary, I thoroughly recommend the following texts:

Michael Lewis’s The Lexical Approach (1993)

Paul Nation’s Teaching and Learning Vocabulary (1990)
Learning vocabulary in another language (2001)

Scott Thornbury’s How to Teach Vocabulary (2002)


Beglar, D. & Hunt, A. January, 1998. ‘Current Research and Practice in Teaching Vocabulary’. In The Language Teacher .

Carroll, J. B., Davies, P., & Richman, H. 1971. Word frequency book. Houghton Mifflin.

Gairns, R. & Redman, S. 1986. Working with words. Cambridge University Press .

Ghadirian, S. January, 2002 . ‘Providing controlled exposure to target vocabulary through the screening and arranging of texts’. In Language Learning & Technology .

Hill, J. 1999. ‘Collocational competence’. In ETp, 11, pp. 3-6.

Krashen, Stephen D. 1981. Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. English Language Teaching series. London: Prentice-Hall International (UK) Ltd. 202 pages.

Lewis, M. 1993. The Lexical Approach. LTP. pp. 186.

Lewis, M. 1997. Implementing the Lexical Approach. LTP.

Liu, N., & Nation, I. S. P. 1985. ‘Factors affecting guessing vocabulary in context’. In RELC Journal, 16(1), pp. 33-42.

Nation, I. S. P. 1990. Teaching and learning vocabulary. Newbury House.

Pavicic, Visnja. ‘Vocabulary and Autonomy’.

Rodolico, J. T. May, 2002. ‘Teaching Cognitive Learning Strategies and Vocabulary Testing’. In Hwa Kang Journal of TEFL .

Saragi, T., Nation, I. S. P., & Meister, G. F. 1978. Vocabulary learning and reading systems, pp. 6, 72-78.

Smith, L.H., & J.S. Renzulli. 1984. ‘Learning Style Preferences: A Practical Approach for Teachers’. In Theory into Practice, pp. 23, 44-50.

Thornbury, S. 2002. Uncovering Grammar. Macmillan Heinemann English Language Teaching.

Willis, J. 1996. A framework for task-based learning. Longman. 


Kendall Peet has taught in Thailand, South Korea, and Turkey, and is currently teaching at FIBSB in Bucharest. He has completed the RSA DELTA and is presently completing his MA in Applied Linguistics. His key interests include teaching academic writing and developing a needs-based (learner-led) approach that encourages greater learner autonomy. Kendall can be contacted at: Kendall

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