Using horizontal and vertical approaches to promote vocabulary learning

Language does not occur in a vacuum. Even the most seemingly obvious sentence does not reveal its full meaning when it stands alone, for example, “my mother is 45 years old” is ambiguous unless it is surrounded by context and co-text.

  • Why is the speaker saying this? (Are they being sarcastic, giving information, showing outrage?)
  • To whom?
  • How are they saying it?

So why do so many coursebooks, resource books and grammar guides present language in such a way? This does not help students learn the language or participate in discourse. In this post, we will explore some of the ways in which teachers can encourage their students to exploit the material provided by both coursebooks and self-study material by highlighting vertical and horizontal lexis.

We’ve all done it. We’ve taken a grammar or vocabulary exercise with sentences like in the picture below, had students work in pairs, elicited the answers and maybe wrote them up on the board. The students have corrected their mistakes and then we’ve moved on to the next part of the lesson. The trouble is, we are instilling students with a dangerous expectation. Namely, that by completing a seemingly endless number of tasks such as these, our students will go out into the real world and be able to participate in conversations in a variety of situations. But as was mentioned before, language doesn’t appear alone. Spoken language occurs as part of an utterance, which in turn, is part of discourse.

When introducing new lexis, what is it that students need to have clarified for them?

Usually, it will be meaning. And by meaning we can derive context and co-text (the surrounding language with which a word or phrase typically occurs). One of the teacher’s greatest responsibilities in the classroom is to present language not only in its typical meaning but also in its context and how it is used alongside other pieces of language. Doing this helps prime* students for other pieces of lexis in the future.

horizontal and vertical

Take, for example, the second line of our exercise in the picture.

  1. I had a pleasant surprise when I received my wages. I had a bonus of £100

Now, if we think horizontally about this kind of sentence, we think about what the speaker might’ve said before or after this sentence. So after checking in class, I’d say something like:

“Right, good. Now. What do you think the speaker might have said before or after he said this?”

You might have prepared some ideas earlier, or let the students’ imagination run wild. Something like this springs to mind.

“I’ve had a really good day today”. (before)

“I might go shopping/treat myself this evening” (after)

If you’re going to concentrate vertically (where we think about what the person you are speaking to might say), you might get something like:

“Lucky you!”

“Oh that’s nice, how are you going to spend it?”

To have students engage more with this kind of task, you could write your suggestions on the board as a gap fill and paraphrase their meaning for students to guess.

“ I might t____________ myself this evening”.

“Any ideas? It’s when you want to do something nice for yourself, to reward yourself, like, I worked really hard on my project so I ________________ myself to a night out.

You can adapt this for almost any vocabulary exercise (particularly those which seem only to focus on nouns).  This helps you take the attention away from the book, consolidate meaning of the words you want to teach and also to recycle vocabulary to help keep it fresh in students’ minds.

Some might argue that by doing this exercise, too much vocabulary is pushed onto the students. However, this exercise not only consolidates, but also primes the students for future learning of words in context.


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