13 key steps to successful vocabulary teaching.


The following are the principles that underpin vocabulary teaching in my everyday practice. The reader may want to refer to my article ” How the human brain stores and organizes vocabulary and implications for the EFL/MFL classroom” for the theoretical background to my approach.

1. Select the vocabulary based on :

  • Learnability (how easy or challenging lexis is in terms of length, pronunciation, spelling, meaning, grammar, word order in a sentence etc.);
  • Frequency;
  • Relevance to students’ interests, back-ground, culture/sub-culture;
  • Semantic relatedness (the more strongly semantically inter-related the target words are, the stronger the chances of retention)

Since I usually create my own vocabulary teaching resources (see the work-out section of  www.language-gym.com or https://www.tes.co.uk/member/gianfrancoconti1966 )  it is easy for me to keep track of the target lexis through each step of the lesson. If you do not make your own resources, especially if you are a novice teacher, it may be useful to draw a list of the words you intend the students to learn to ensure that systematic recycling does occur throughout the lesson.

2. Decide which lexical items you are planning for students to learn receptively (for recognition only) and productively (for use in speech and writing) – ‘receptive learning’ being obviously easier.

3.Decide on how ‘deep’ your teaching of the target lexis is going to go. In other words, which levels of knowing a word you are going to teach. Nation (1990) identified the following dimensions of knowing a word:

Learner knows:

  1. Spoken form of a word;
  2. Written form of a word;
  3. Grammatical behavior of a word;
  4. Collocational behavior of a word;
  5. Frequency of a word;
  6. Stylistic appropriateness of a word;
  7. Concept meanings of a word;
  8. Association words have with other related words.

4.The number of words that you select per lesson will depend largely on the students you are teaching and how systematically one wants the target lexis (every single item) to be recycled. There is a myth that one should teach 7+/- 2 words per lesson. This rule of thumb is based on a misunderstanding of Miller’s (1965) law which posits that Working Memory can only hold and rehearse 7+/-2 digits at any one time. But Working Memory span has nothing to do with how many words one can learn in a lesson. In my experience, with an able group (i.e. students with highly efficient working memories) one can aim at as many as 20-25 words/lexical chunks receptively (especially if the lexis includes cognates) and around 10 to 15 productively. This on condition that the words are recycled frequently, systematically and as many retrieval cues as possible are provided  (by building in lots of semantic associations);

5.In order to avoid the risk of cross-association, avoid selecting items which are similar in sound and/or spelling with younger or less able learners:

6. Ensure that the lexical items selected include a good balance of nouns and verbs – as I discussed in previous posts, there is an unhealthy tendency in many MFL classrooms for vocabulary teaching to be noun-driven.

7.Plan for several recycling opportunities throughout the lesson through various modalities (e.g. listening, speaking, reading, writing, body gestures). Ensure students process receptively and productively each and every target lexical item 8 to 10 times during a given lesson – more if possible! Since research clearly shows that learners notice adjectives and adverbs less, greater attention should be given to these two word-classes;

8.Ensure the recycling opportunities include activities which involve:

  • Higher order thinking skills / Depth of processing (e.g. odd one out; matching with synonyms; inferencing meaning from context, etc.) – the deeper and more elaborate the level of semantic analysis of the target lexis, the stronger the chances of ensuring retention;
  • Communicative activities involving information gaps and negotiation of meaning (surveys; find someone who; find who does what; etc.)– a substantial body of research indicates that these activities significantly enhance vocabulary acquisition;
  • Work on orthography;
  • Work on phonological awareness;
  • Work on the words’ grammar;
  • Work on the words’ collocational behavior;
  • Semantic and phonetic associations with previously learnt lexis;
  • Inferential strategies (e.g. understanding texts in which the target lexis is instrumental in grasping the meaning of unfamiliar words);
  • Creating associations with each individual learner’s personal life experiences;
  • A competitive element (games) ;
  • Personal investment / self-reliance (e.g. using dictionaries; creative use of the target words).

Give as much emphasis as possible to the correct pronunciation of the target lexis from the very early stages as vocabulary recall is phonologically mediated. Also, ensure that when you teach vocabulary work is as student-centred as possible in order to maximize the level of individual cognitive investment in the learning process. Do remember that retention is more likely to occur when learning involves deep levels of processing and substantial personal investment.

9. Ensure that words are practised in context not in isolation – hence, if you are staging games or other ludic activities, ensure that they involve the processing or deployment of the target lexis within meaningful sentences. Since exposure to the target lexis through the listening medium is often neglected in the typical UK classroom, ensure that students get plenty of aural practice.

10. When using visuals ensure they are as unambiguous as possible. If using visuals to present new lexis, make sure that they are not exposed to the spelling of the words until after you have practised its pronunciation a few times;

11. Draw on the distinctiveness principle as much as possible to ensure that through visuals, anecdotes, jokes or special effects the most challenging vocabulary items are made to stand out, memorable;

12. Occasionally – not in every lesson – select a strategy or set of memory strategies (e.g. the keyword technique) to model to and train students in. If you do teach memory strategies, ensure that you recycle and scaffold practice in those strategies in several subsequent lessons to keep them in the learners’ focal awareness for as long as you deem necessary for uptake to occur;

13. Plan for systematic and distributed (a little bit every day rather than a lot in one go) practice/recycling of the target lexis in homework and future lessons. Remember Ebbinghaus’ curve (figure 1, below), mapping out humans’ rate of forgetting and set homework accordingly so as to prevent memory decay. The fact that your students WILL forget  to aound 67 % of what they ‘learnt’ in lesson after one day should prompt to plan your recycling carefully. Figure 2 shows how I do it for grammar and vocabulary, i.e. a spreadsheet that lists vertically the items to recycle and horizontally each week of the present term; the sheet allows you to keep track of how often you have been teaching a given set of vocabulary and to plan for future recycling.

Figure 1 – The rate of human forgetting


Figure 2 – Recycling tracking sheet


Here are ten commonly made mistakes in vocabulary instruction that every EFL / MFL teacher ought to look out for: 10 commonly made mistakes in EFL vocabulary instruction


Ten questions you may want to ask yourself in planning a unit of work


Here are ten questions that I believe – ideally – curriculum designers should be asking themselves in planning and evaluating a topic-based unit of work in the context of an eclectic instructional approach with a communicative focus where grammar is taught explicitly and whose ultimately aim is the acquisition of cognitive control over TL use. The reader should note that I have avoided any explicit reference to the expression ‘learning outcomes’ (although they are implicitly referred to throughout the below). This is because this term in my perception – and maybe only in my perception – evokes an excessive concern with the product of learning, whereas I advocate that the pedagogic focus shift onto the process of learning, that is, the acquisition of procedural linguistic ability, i.e. effective executive control over language reception and production.

1.What kind of language do I expect my learners to be able to understand (in reading and listening) and produce (speaking and writing) in terms of:

  • Range and depth of vocabulary;
  • Range of grammar structures;
  • Range of tenses;
  • Range of language functions?

2.How complex should teacher input and learner output be at different stages in the development of the unit of work? This is a very useful question as it usually results in the curriculum designer putting more thought and effort in the sequencing of activities based on the developmental needs of the learners. Teacher needs to have this issue in their focal awareness so as to agree on what constitutes comprehensible input and achievable output. The most challenging issue is possibly – as I discussed in my last post – deciding on what constitutes a complex grammar structure.

3. What levels of fluency do I expect the learners to have acquired at key points in the development of the unit of work? This issue is hugely important as it refers to the notion of automatization of language production. Sadly, in my experience, this is a dimension of proficiency which is usually neglected by curriculum designers – with disastrous consequences for language learning. Teachers must agree where they would like their students to be in terms of spontaneity of production at key stages in the unfolding of the unit of work.

4. What levels of accuracy in and (cognitive) control over the target language do I expect students to exhibit at key stages in the development of the unit? This is linked to the previous point but develops it a notch or two further in that it does not refer simply to the ability to be fluent and comprehensible, but also to perform accurately under real operating conditions. In other words, it refers to the extent to which grammar structures, the phonology system, etc. are not merely learnt declaratively but also procedurally;i.e. where on the declarative (explicit knowledge of the TL) to procedural (automatic application of grammar rules) continuum do we expect our learners to be?

5. Which ones of the following areas of competence am I going to focus and to what extent?

  1. Phonology (awareness of the TL sound system) and Phonetics (production of the TL system)
  2. Orthography
  3. Morphology (word formation)
  4. Syntax (word order)
  5. Language functions (e.g. compare and contrast, asking questions, predicting, agreeing and disagreeing, sequencing, summarizing)
  6. Communication skills (e.g. listenership) – this is a crucial, yet very neglected skill-set, especially in PBL;
  7. Learner strategies / Life-long learning skills – this is another neglected area in curriculum  planning;
  8. Learner autonomy (the extent to which we promote and scaffold beyond the classroom  independent learning) – also a very neglected area of competence;
  9. Cross-cultural competence

6. Which of the above should be prioritized? – This decision will be dictated by the stakeholders’ demands/needs as well by the espoused instructional methodology.

7. What would I like learners to do independently? – This does not include homework. It refers to what you would like students to do independently, without any teacher request, to enhance their own learning and how you would go about triggering this desire to learn out of the classroom.

8. How and how often am I going recycle the target language items, competences and skills/strategies throughout and beyond the present unit of work? – my regular readers would know how obsessed I am with short-/medium- and long-term recycling. I strongly believe this is the most crucial and most neglected area of teaching and learning.

9. How am I going to resource the teaching and learning of the target language items, competences and skills/strategies?

10. How and how often am I going to assess all of the above?- This is the most challenging question to answer. However, if one has answered the previous questions, it will be relatively straightforward. The issues which are most often neglected in assessment design are:

  1. Does the test actually measure what it purports to measure? (construct validity) – hence, if following the above framework, issues a to f must be taken into account here;
  2. Is the assessment going to have a positive wash-back effect on learning? – it should, really;
  3. Is the assessment fair? – Students must be prepared effectively for a test; hence, the test papers should be ready and piloted way before the teaching of a unit begins;

Moreover, several low-stakes assessments (not too many, obviously) should take place before the end-of-unit test(s) in order to be fair to our students and not base our evaluation of their performance over a term based on one snapshot at the end of it.


It is obvious that the answer to the above questions will be to a great extent influenced by the teaching and learning methodology espoused and/or adopted by the department as well as by the demands and needs of the stake-holders. MFL curriculum designers may find certain areas more or less relevant to their learning context or more or less worthy of an explicit focus. To expect busy teachers to do all of the above thoroughly and ‘perfectly’ would be unrealistic, especially in view of the time constraints.

However, there is one thing that every curriculum designers MUST definitely plan carefully for: how to foster and facilitate the process of automatization of every skill and language item they set out to teach. This includes extensive recycling and practice and will often require going beyond the textbook and the time normally allocated to curriculum delivery (the ‘two- chapters-or-topics-per-term syndrome’, as I call it). As I have often reiterated in my posts this is the most important, yet the most neglected dimension of language learning.