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


5 thoughts on “13 key steps to successful vocabulary teaching.

  1. Great article! Thanks! I would love to hear your thought about Wendy Maxwell’s Pared Down Language, an essential element of her Accelerative Integrated Methodology. With PDL, she has developed a list of high frequency words that have scope and reliability. I would be glad to provide links to this and know your thoughts about it!

    Liked by 1 person

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