Skip to main content

Some strategies for teaching new vocabulary

This blog is by myself and Gianfranco Conti and is a short extract from our forthcoming handbook, which is nearing completion. Books take a long time! This is about teaching new words.

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. 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.


  1. Some fantastic ideas here. Merci Steve.

  2. Some great ideas here. Quizlet and Memrise are good sites for learning vocab and I find pictionary on the iwb a great plenary for the end of the lesson and the same drawings a perfect starter to the next.

  3. Thanks for leaving a comment. We do refer to Quizlet and Memrise elsewhere, by the way.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Tell stories


How can we make listening more enjoyable and effective for pupils? How can we turn it from a potential chore to something more memorable (and therefore more likely to stick in their long term memories)? I am of the opinion that since humans are "wired" to engage in personal listening and speaking (the expression "social brain" has been used in this context), they may be more interested and attentive when the message comes from a real person rather than a disembodied audio source. (This may or may not be relevant, but research has been carried out which demonstrates that babies pick up phonological patterns better when they listen to a caregiver rather than listen to a tape or watch a video - see here for summaries of research into this area by Patricia Kuhl.)

One easy way to make listening stimulating for pupils is to tell them easy stories in the target language. I was reminded of this while reading Penny Ur's book 100 Teaching Tips (reviewed here

New GCSE resources on frenchteacher

As well as writing resources for the new A-levels, I have in recent months been posting a good range of materials to support the new GCSEs. First exams are not until 2018, but here is what you can find on the site in addition to the many other resources (grammar exercises, texts, video listening etc).

I shall not produce vocabulary lists since the exam board specifications now offer these, with translations.

Foundation Tier 

AQA-style GCSE 2016 Role-plays
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (2)
100 translation sentences into French (with answers)
Reading exam
Reading exam (2)
How to write a good Foundation Tier essay (ppt)
How to write a good Foundation Tier essay (Word)

Higher Tier 

AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (Higher tier)
AQA-style GCSE 2016 Photo card conversations (Higher tier) (2)
20 translations into French (with answers)
Reading exam (Higher tier)
How to write a good Higher Tier essay (ppt)
How to write a…

What teachers are saying about The Language Teacher Toolkit

"The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence." (Ernesto Macaro, Oxford University Department of Education)

"I absolutely love this book based on research and full of activities..  The best manual I've read so far. One of our PDs from the Australian Board of Studies recommended your book as an excellent resource.  I look forward to the conference here in Sydney." Michela Pezzi, Teacher, Australia, Facebook)

"Finally, a book for World Language teachers that provides practical ideas and strategies that can actually be used in the classroom, rather than dry rhetoric and theory that does little to inspire creativity in ways that are engaging for both students and teachers alike." (USA teacher, Amazon review)

The Language Teacher Toolkit review

We were delighted to receive a review of The Language Teacher Toolkit from eminent applied linguist Ernesto Macaro from Oxford University. Macaro is a leader in the field of second language acquisition and applied linguistics. His main research interests are teacher-student interaction and language learning strategies pupils can use to improve their progress.

Here is Professor Macaro's review:
The Language Teacher Toolkit is a really useful book for language teachers to either read all the way through or dip into. What I like about it is that the authors Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti are totally upfront about what they believe to be good practice but back it up with research evidence. So for example the ‘methodological principles’ on page 11 are supported by the research they then refer to later in the book and this approach is very similar to the one that we (Ernesto Macaro, Suzanne Graham, Robert Woore) have adopted in our ‘consortium project’( The point i…

5 great zero preparation lesson ideas

When the pressure is on and there are only so many hours on the week, you need a repertoire of zero preparation go-to activities which promote input and/or practice. Here are five you might well find useful.

1. My weekend

We know that listening is the most important yet often neglected skill for language learning. It's also something some pupils find hard to do. To develop listening skill and provide tailored comprehensible input try this:

You tell the class you are going to recount what you did last weekend and that they have to make notes in English. The amount of detail you go into and the speed you go will depend on your class. Talk for about three minutes. If you spent the whole weekend marking, you can always make stuff up!

You then make some true or false (maybe not mentioned too) statements in the target language about what you said in your account. Class gives hands up (or no hands up) answers. This can then lead into a simple pair work task where pupils make up their own tru…