How do students learn vocabulary?

“How can I remember it all?”

“I write down the words but never remember them”

How often have you heard this? A hundred, a thousand, tens of thousands of times? What do you say to your students? What’s the answer?

Well, the fact is, there isn’t one. There are, however, a few common sense principles that we can use. The most obvious, of course, is “If you don’t write something down, you’re more likely to forget it in the long-term”. So to those students who refuse to write anything down, as teachers we should explain (sometimes forcefully if we need to) that they are making life much more difficult for themselves, and will be adding months and years to the process of achieving the level that they wish.

There is, however, a point to be made here, isn’t there? Even those students who write everything down struggle to remember the words you wanted to teach in class. So clearly, just writing down is not enough. We should consider many different factors as teachers when we ‘teach’ vocabulary.

The first, and perhaps the most poignant is what does it mean to ‘know’ a word? We should consider:

  1. The meaning
  2. Its context
  3. Register
  4. Its pronunciation
  5. Is it passive or active?
  6. Spelling
  7. It’s co-text (collocations and appearances in phrases)

This list is simply to exhaustive to discuss in detail here, however what we will look at is some good general principles we can apply to the classroom and some theory regarding how words are stored.

Regarding the list above, and the ‘4 skills’, which are unfortunately considered separate by many, there is a good principle of “hear, read, speak, write” that can be applied to English (furthered by the fact that English spelling has very little bearing on the pronunciation of an item).  If we refer to the distinction between ‘language learning’ (conscious) and language acquisition (unconscious), many pieces of research have highlighted the primacy of listening as input. The reason for this is that it is not only what is listened to that influences the unconscious acquisitional process, but also what is heard. Some experiments have even suggested that the focus on student output is given undue emphasis, and suggest that language can be learnt with a greater emphasis on input, particularly at early stages. Doesn’t that fly in the face of much of what is sermonized by the vast majority of Communicative Language Teaching dogmatists! As suggested by Krashen’s input model, carefully selected reading and listening input (at a level just above the students full comprehension) can be used to not only assist acquisition, but build confidence and give learners the opportunity to ‘manage’ their language. So, a useful order:

  1. Hear – Through a listening activity and drilling
  2. Read – See the text written in context.
  3. Write – Record the vocabulary.

5 guiding principles of vocabulary learning

  1. The principle of cognitive depth

“The more one manipulates, thinks about, and uses mental information, the more likely it is that one will retain that information. In the case of vocabulary, the more one engages with a word (deeper processing), the more likely the word will be remembered for later use” (Schmitt 2000: 120)

This might seem like common sense, but it is surprising how much words are cast aside in some language learning classrooms and coursebooks.

So what does this mean? Well, anything! It can be sorting, identifying, classifying, matching etc. Try to ensure your activities involve some kind of mental process, rather than just repeat and record.

  1. The principle of associations

“The human lexicon is believed to be a network of associations, a web-like structure of interconnected links. When students are asked to manipulate words, relate them to other words and to their own experiences, and then to justify their choices, these word associations are reinforced” (Sökmen 1997: 241-2).

This really needs little explanation. Words with associations are remembered better. This argument suggests a good amount of categorizing and ordering in terms of hyponyms is a successful approach to aiding recall and acquisition.

  1. The principle of Multiple Encounters

“Due to the incremental nature of vocabulary acquisition, repeated exposures are necessary to consolidate a new word in the learner’s mind” (Schmitt & Carter 2000: 4)

Again, another seemingly common sense proposition, but one that I feel is most ignored by teachers. Language learning is a slow, sometimes frustrating process, and most importantly not linear in any sense! As such, we should be preparing lessons that not only introduce new vocabulary but those that give the learners the chance to meet familiar words again, in new contexts and forms. This principle also suggests that testing, especially in an informal manner is of great importance.

  1. The principle of Re-Contextualisation

“When words are met in reading and listening or used in speaking and writing, the generativeness of the context will influence learning. That is, if the words occur in new sentence contexts in the reading text, learning will be helped. Similarly, having to use the word to say new things will add to learning”  (Nation 2001: 80).

The importance of this is clear, having students use vocabulary items in different context (carefully chosen by the teacher, of course) will aid acquisition. Metaphor here could play an important role. For example, is there a metaphor between gambling and diplomacy?

Do you think there will be a war?

We can’t risk war.

The stakes are too high.

There’s too much to lose.

They’re just bluffing

We’ve got a weak hand.

  1. The principle of Retrieval

“The act of successfully recalling an item increases the chance that the item will be remembered. It appears that the retrieval route to that item is in some way strengthened by being successfully used” (Baddeley 1997: 112).

I’ve met some teachers who seem to get carried away with the idea that tasks should be challenging. Of course, they should be challenging, but not too difficult! We do want the students to recall these words, don’t we? We shouldn’t be putting obstacles in their way to successful completion of a task. I think this is key here. By preparing activities that aren’t very difficult, but in some way challenging (some kind of memory game maybe?), we will help item retrieval. Retrieval = further retrieval.

Can you think of any tasks that could be used according to each of these five principles?


A final word about these principles. Let us remember that as teachers it is our responsibility to provide challenging and engaging tasks that help the students on their long journey. This, however, should not detract from student responsibility. The student also has a responsibility to write things down, to do homework, and to practice English regularly.


Passives at B2 level

At B2 level, learners show great confidence in their use of the passive. They employ a wider range of verbs in a greater number of contexts, both informal and formal. They are able to use more tenses and competently use passive structures after modals, as will be seen below.

B2 learners can use the passive with a wide range of verbs needing two objects, putting the indirect object in subject position.

I was very happy to hear that you have been offered two jobs. (Cambridge English: First; Greek)

She was offered a contract to record a single. (Cambridge English: First; Spanish — Latin American)

Your firm has been given some extra money to spend on improvements to the cinema next year. (Cambridge English: First; Chinese)

They can use the passive with a range of tenses and verbs needing two objects, with the direct object in subject position and the indirect object in a prepositional phrase.

Your name was given to me by a member of yours, Allan Westwood, whom I met last  week. (Cambridge English: First; Swedish)

If more training is given to staff, they will be interested in their work and staff turnover will be reduced. (Cambridge English: Business Vantage; Tamil)

By the B2 level, there is evidence that learners can use the past simple passive negative. It should be noted, however, that negative forms are very low frequency.

What is worse, the ticket price was not reduced despite the fact that I showed my student ID. (Cambridge English: First; Japanese)

I had to go to the hospital because my back hurt so badly, and I wasn’t allowed to work for two weeks. (Certificate in ESOL Skills for life Level 1; Hungarian)

I was really disappointed because a lot of things were not done. (Cambridge English: First; Turkish)

Some say that studying animals would be impossible, if they weren’t kept in zoos. (Cambridge English: First;  Italian)

B2 learners can use the present continuous passive affirmative with an increasing range of verbs, and they can now produce sentences in the present continuous passive negative.

… students are not being educated equally. (Cambridge English: First; Mongolian)

To conclude, in my opinion, it is important to keep as many languages as possible alive, so we can make sure that part of human history is not being lost. (IELTS; Portuguese)

Learners at this level can use the past continuous passive affirmative.

However, to my disappointment, the restaurant was closed because it was being redecorated.  (Cambridge English: First; Chinese)

In addition to using the present continuous passive to refer to the future, B2 learners now use the future passive simple.

Just to let you know, you will be booked into the Palace Hotel … (Cambridge English: First; Polish)

First of all, I am very grateful to hear that the cinema will be renovated  next year. (Cambridge English: First; Korean)

Building on the B1 level use of the passive infinitive after need to, be going to, etc., B2 learners use both affirmative and negative forms after an increasing range of main verbs, modal verbs, adjectives and nouns, in impersonal constructions.

According to your advertisement, some training is supposed to be given. (Cambridge English: First; Korean)

My composition was ready to be printed and I was searching for a piece of paper … (Cambridge English: First;  German — Austria)

I would prefer to sleep in a tent because I have never done it and I think it is an experience not to be missed, a very original adventure! (Cambridge English: First; French)

They produce sentences in the present perfect passive affirmative and negative forms, often in the context of reporting.

I have been asked to write a report about an accident which happened to me last Saturday.  (Certificate in ESOL Skills for life Level 1; Polish)

I am writing to you to give you further information about the conference organization and  about the arrangements which have been made for your group of students. (Cambridge English: First; Italian)

This happened two years ago, and the necklace hasn’t been found yet. (Cambridge English: First; Spanish —  European)

At B2, learners can also use the past perfect passive affirmative and negative forms.

The car had been serviced and everything seemed to be all right. (Cambridge English: First; Portuguese)

At this moment, Lime walked in and realised he had been set up. (Cambridge English: First; Dutch)

B2 level learners can competently use the passive with modal verbs in a range of contexts and with a variety of subjects.

Architects should be hired to design parks, where people could go for a walk or have a picnic. (Cambridge English: First; Polish)

As a result, today, it could be said that nearly everyone is living in a digital world which means computers are necessary and very important. (Cambridge English: First; Chinese)

This includes the use of the present perfect simple affirmative and negative forms with modal verbs to refer to the past.

I think that all these problems could have been avoided. (Cambridge English: First; Catalan)

I don’t remember how I lost it, it might have been stolen. (Cambridge English: First; Japanese)

Of course, some groups were better than others but I think they all played well and have talent: they should have been given a chance! (Cambridge English: First; Italian)

It should not have been used in this kind of article. (Cambridge English: First; Korean)

In addition, B2 level learners can use the passive with modal verbs to evaluate or summarise.

In conclusion, it can be seen that the bicycle is more suitable for those who are living in a little town or in the country. (Cambridge English: First; Italian)

Next, I find that our streets are not very clean, another major problem, and I think something must be done about it. (Cambridge English: First; Spanish — European)

Learners at the B2 level can use a wide range of passive forms confidently and appropriately. They can correctly employ the passive in higher level functions, such as making predictions and suppositions, reflecting on the past, evaluating, and summarising. High-frequency expressions in the passive are evident in both formal and informal utterances, e.g. it can be seen, it could be said that, I have been asked, an experience not to be missed, it could have been avoided, etc.

Thanks to English Profile for their wonderful work!