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.


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