Research into the brain and information-processing gives us some important leads with regard to teaching vocabulary. In general terms we would agree with this advice from Joe Barcroft (2004)*:
1. Present new words frequently and repeatedly in the input.
2. Use meaning-bearing comprehensible input when presenting new words.
3. Limit ‘forced output’ during the early stages of learning new words.
4. Limit forced semantic elaboration during the initial stages of learning new words.
5. Progress from less demanding to more demanding vocabulary related activities.
That’s not to say there is never a case for learning isolated words. We see little wrong with presenting some new simple vocabulary via, for example, flashcards. Here are some specific teaching strategies which might make good sense:
v In any given lesson we ought to teach words that are as closely related as possible at semantic and grammatical level. This is often done by text books anyway.
v When teaching new words we should try as much as possible to hook them with previously learnt lexis which alliterates, chimes or rhymes with the new vocabulary. This can be turned into a game in which students are given the task to find, under time constraints, a rhyming or alliterating word for the new L2 vocabulary.
v We could try to ensure that from the early stages students are aware of the word class an item belongs to. This provides the student with an added retrieval cue in the recall process. For instance, students could be asked to categorize the words into adjectives, nouns, adverbs, etc., or to brainstorm as many words they learnt on the day in those categories.
v We could try to find as many opportunities as possible for students to relate words, especially the challenging ones, to their personal and emotional life. For instance, whilst learning colours students could be asked to match each colour to an emotion or physical state. Or, when learning food you could ask students to say which fruit, pastry, drink, etc. they identify with and why.
v Students could also do activities requiring them to perform more elaborate semantic associations between new vocabulary and previously learnt lexis. For instance, students could create ‘lexical chains’, i.e. given two words quite far apart in meaning, students could produce an associative chain of words that links those two items in some way, logically or otherwise. For example: old lady, cats, cat food, cans, aluminium, factories, pollution. This can be fun and does not require knowledge of complex vocabulary.
v Activities involving semantic analysis of words, such as ‘odd one out’, definition games, sorting vocabulary into semantic categories, matching lexical items of similar or opposite meanings, can also create further associations.
v You should be careful when teaching cognates that are orthographically or phonologically very close in the two languages. This sort of L2-cognates can be tricky as they are so closely associated with their L1 translation that they can result in retrieval of the L1 form.
v Teachers and students would do well to go back over the L2 vocabulary across as many contexts as possible and as often as possible until it has been fully acquired, especially during the two days following the initial uptake, when most of the forgetting usually occurs.
v Where students need to learn genders, in the early stages, try to be consistent with which article you use. If students get to hear many times over a word with the same article it is more likely they will remember its gender without learning it by rote. Students can become quite adept at gender over time without setting them to memory.
v Extensive reading will contribute greatly to vocabulary acquisition. Where possible, and where time allows, it would be wise to give students the opportunity to engage in reading texts for pleasure. Some applied linguists argue that “sustained silent reading” (notably, Stephen Krashen) should be a staple of language teaching and learning. This can be difficult owing to the mismatch between students’ cognitive maturity levels and their L2 proficiency. One solution is to make use of parallel reading texts where the text is presented in L2 on the left and L1 on the right.
v Computer-aided text manipulation tasks, e.g. the widely used Textivate and various Hot Potato exercises, e.g. languagesonline.org.uk can combine exposure to vocabulary with the opportunity to use it repeatedly and meaningfully.
* Barcroft, J. (2004). ‘Second language vocabulary acquisition: A lexical input processing approach.’ Foreign Language Annals, 37, 2, 200-208.