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How useful is it to learn from themed vocab lists?

Most of the text books you may work with are built around a grammatical progression and topics. Units often feature lists of vocabulary (known in the research literature as themed lexical sets) which many of you will get pupils to try to set to memory or, at the very least, refer to. Other teachers like to use these themed lists as a basis for digital activities using tools such as Memrise and Quizlet. Many of us choose to sing the alphabet, days of the week, months of the year. We frequently use PowerPoint flashcards to teach clothes, animals, rooms, places around town all together.

Is using or presenting vocab lists arranged in this fashion the best approach? In some ways it seems a natural thing to do - put groups of words together such as household items, school subjects, character adjectives and so on. Indeed some past research has positively recommended the practice, based on the belief that this is how words are somehow arranged in the brain. Just think of when you play the game word association; this seems to suggest that words are stored in semantic fields in the brain and that, therefore, it makes sense to learn them this way.

Curiously recent research suggests that this practice is not the most effective. So, two questions: (1) What exactly does the research suggest?  (2) How could we adapt classroom practice to help pupils better acquire vocabulary?

Research findings

A leading research expert on second language vocabulary acquisition Paul Nation summarises the research and its implications in an article written in 2000. Other studies produced since have confirmed his findings.

The first issue to mention is that interference between words in a list. Do words with similar meanings or contexts interfere with each other to inhibit learning?

Numerous studies have been carried out by showing learners lists of L1 words (real or nonsense words). By varying the types of words in the list you can look at how well learners subsequently recall them. The evidence is that when the L1 words are thematically related they are easier to remember (.e.g. Bousfield, 1953). Is this true of L2 words presented in bilingual lists?

Later research carried out, for example, by  Tinkham (1993, 1997) and Waring (1997) using nonsense words with L1 translations and found that learning was poorer when words were related (e.g. fruits and clothing). Learners also reported they found it harder to learn the lists. Another study by Schneider, Healey and Bourne (1998) found that related words were easier to learn initially but were recalled less well in later tests.

Of note is that in earlier research Higa (1963) had found that words he labelled coordinates (words under a headword such as fruit- e.g. apples, pears, oranges) were easier to learn than words related in other ways, e.g. near synonyms such as fast and rapid. This appears to contradict the findings of Tinkham and Waring. Even so Higa (1963) believed that it was still better to acquire vocabulary within sequences of words than in isolated lists.

How harmful is the interference effect?

Tinkham and Waring found that the closer the words were related thematically the harder they were to learn. the effects were very significant. They found that it took between 47% and 97% more repetitions of related words before they were remembered in tests when compared with unrelated words. As far as thematically related words were concerned (i.e. not just lists of fruit or clothes, but, say, lists around a general theme such as the environment) the effect was not so large. This may be because such lists consist of various parts of speech, not just nouns. Apparently nouns are usually easier to recall than verbs, adverbs etc. This fact may have exaggerated the effect in the "related words" lists.

To sum up, the effects of presenting words by theme were harmful, but less so when the words are displayed by general theme rather than a narrow category such as fruit, clothes, months etc.

Subsequent research has confirmed these findings from the 1990s (summarised here by Hinkel (ed.), 2017, e.g. Allahverdizadeh, M., Shomooss, N., Salahshoo, F.  Seifoor, Z. (2014).

Implications for the classroom 

How might you adjust your practice to reflect the findings of this research? Firstly, let's not fall into the trap of thinking that learning lists of related words is actually harmful. No doubt learning still occurs, but perhaps not in the most efficient way. In addition, research has suggested that the effect of (re)learning related words together is more effective at later stages, after the words have been initially learned, so there may be a good case for allowing pupils time to memorise vocab later in the course or before exams. 

However, it remains true that, as Nation (2000) points out; "If two or more items share some common features and they are learned together at the same time, the similar features make them become more strongly associated with each other and the differences interfere with each other."

I'm going to suggest some things you might consider doing when bearing the research in mind.

1.  Present words or chunks at different times. You can build this into a scheme of work, for example, avoiding teaching longer lists of, say, clothes or animals, all together. Make a point of recycling words over the year or a longer period. Definitely don't assume that once you have done a lesson or two on some vocab it will stick in the longer term. (Apologies if that sounds obvious!).

2. If you like to do vocab tests and are stuck with thematically related words in a text book, try mixing them up with words previously encountered. Warn pupils that you will test other words from earlier lists.

3. Explain to pupils the research on vocab learning so they can help themselves.

4. Perhaps avoid doing vocab tests from lists full stop. (I must say this was not my favourite task as it always seemed a bit dull for both me and the pupils.I preferred to do other things and thought I got more "surrender value" from them.

5. Favour presenting words and chunks in context, e.g. in texts or classroom interactions such as question-answer sequences (circling, as TPRS teachers call it). Save your vocab lists for occasional reference or later revision before exams. Don't rely too much on learning through isolated words.

6. When pairs of words are confused by pupils, e.g. left and right, try to find mnemonics or other ways to help them remember the differences. (Nation mentions this.)

7. Don't rely solely on the text book. Use your own resources, e.g. texts, games, and listening tasks, to let pupils see and hear vocab in different contexts. Allow some "implicit learning" to take place (i.e. unconscious acquisition).

8. Limit the amount of vocab you expose pupils to. Focus on "high frequency" words and chunks as far as possible, especially with lower-attaining classes. So if you have a long list of words in a text book, you may wish to prune it.

9. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater, for example if you know your classes enjoy singing numbers, days of the week or months of the year, don't stop doing it for any ideological reason! Just make sure you keep exposing them to these words in other contexts. The danger is that pupils only recall the word in its practised sequence. (You don't want them to have to count to 13 every time they want to say 13.)


Allahverdizadeh, M., Shomooss, N., Salahshoo, F.  Seifoor, Z. (2014) Vocabulary Acquisition and Lexical Training by Semantic and Thematic Sets: A Case of Persian Learners of English. Journal of Applied Linguistics and Language Research. Volume 1, Issue 1. Bousfield (1953) The occurrence of clustering in the recall of randomly arranged associates. Journal of General Psychology, 49, 229-240.

Higa, M. (1963). Interference effects of intralist word relationships in verbal learning. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 2, 170-175.

Hinkel, L. (ed.) (2017) Handbook of Research in Second Language Teaching and Learning, Volume 3. Routledge, London.

Nation, P. (2000) Learning Vocabulary in Lexical Sets: Dangers and Guidelines (TESOL Journal, 9,2. various sources online, easy to find).

Schneider, V., Healey, A. and Bourne, L. (1998). Contextual interference effects in foreign language vocabulary acquisition and retention. In A. F. Healy & L. E. Bourne (Eds.), Foreign language learning: Psycholinguistic studies on training and retention (pp. 78-90). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Tinkham, T. (1993). The effect of semantic clustering on the learning of second language vocabulary. System, 21 (3), 371-380. Tinkham, T. (1997). The effects of semantic and thematic clustering on the learning of second language vocabulary. Second Language Research, 1(2), 138-163. Waring, R. (1997). The negative effects of learning words in semantic sets: A replication. System, 25, 261-274


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