How To Teach Vocabulary – From Theory To Practice

How to teach vocabulary

How to Teach Vocabulary

This article is about how to teach vocabulary. It consists of two main parts:

  • a theoretical background about vocabulary learning
  • and the pedagogical implications for teaching vocabulary.

The ideas presented in this article are inspired by Scott Thornbury’s excellent book “How to teach vocabulary” (2002) (which I highly recommend) as well as other readings (see the references below).

Theoretical background

According to Vygotsky, “A word is a microcosm of human consciousness”. Thought and speech are closely interlinked. Language essentially forms thought, determines personality features, and exerts influence on cognition. A vocabulary item for instance embodies not only a definition but a whole set of cultural connotations.

Importance of vocabulary

Once David Wilkins said:

Without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed.

If you travel to a foreign country, you will probably carry a dictionary and not a grammar book. Hence, the importance of vocabulary.

Vocabulary knowledge

One can never fully master vocabulary. All one can do is get some deeper knowledge of it. Steven Stahl (2005) states that “vocabulary knowledge is knowledge; the knowledge of a word not only implies a definition but also implies how that word fits into the world.” What we learn about a word goes far beyond its form. Making connections between form and meaning is only one side of the coin. The other side is to be able to produce language using the correct form of a word in the appropriate context and for the meaning intended. In other words, knowing a word means knowing its form, its meaning, its connotations, how it collocates with other words, and how it fits within a whole network of meanings.

Defining and identifying vocabulary

A dictionary definition states that vocabulary is the “body of words used in a particular language.” However, this definition lacks some precision. What is meant by a “body of words“? Let’s consider the following sentence cited by Scott Thornbury (2002):

“I like looking for bits and pieces like second-hand record players and doing them up to look like new.”

How many vocabulary items are there in the above sentence? Twenty? ninety? or less? Will you count these as vocabulary items representing discrete units of meaning or as different words?

  • second-hand?
  • record player?
  • do something up?
  • bits and pieces?
  • look for?

It is clear that the above examples consist of discrete units of meanings. The idiom “bits and pieces” is a fixed expression. You can’t change the order of words. For instance, you can’t say “pieces and bits”. Similarly, should we consider the phrasal verb “look for” as one whole unit of meaning or as two words? And what about this word?

  • like?

There are two instances of the same form with unrelated meanings.

  • “I like looking for bits and pieces” where like is a verb.
  • “…to look like new.” where like is a preposition.

Let’s take another word: KEEP.

According to the Longman dictionary:

  • As a verb, keep has 19 meanings: to store, to retain, to have a supply, to have charge of…
  • Combined with other particles, the result is a variety of phrasal verbs: keep up, keep off, keep at…
  • As a noun, it has 2 meanings: ”she is in my keep for the day”, “earn one’s keep”.
  • Used in collocations, the result is:
    keep a diary
    keep a promise
    keep a secret
    keep an appointment
    keep calm
    keep control
    keep in touch
    keep quiet
    keep someone’s place
    keep the change

From words to lexis

Vocabulary is not only “a body of single words”. According to the lexical approach developed by Michael Lewis, vocabulary consists of:

  • Single words: book, pen…
  • Compound words (words combined to form new words): record player, time saver….
  • Multi-word units or lexical chunks which are more or less fixed: by the way, upside down, out of the blue, bits and pieces.
  • Collocations or word partnerships which are less fixed: break a record, set a record, world record, formal education, formal letter…

Words in relation to other words

Words are related to other words in different ways:

  • Synonyms  vs. Antonyms
  • Homonyms vs. Polysemes
  • Hyponyms vs. superordinate terms
  • Content vs. function words
  • Productive vs. receptive words
  • False vs. true cognates


These are words that share the same meaning:

  • old, ancient, elderly, aged, antique…

However, synonymous words are not always used in the same way:

  • An old/ancient city but not an *elderly car.


Antonyms are words opposite in meaning to other words. For example:

  • Old is the antonym of new and young


  • the opposite of an old man is a young man, but the opposite of an old city is a new one, not a *young city.


These are words that share the same form but have unrelated meanings:

  • I like looking for …
  • It looks like new
  • Go to the fair.
  • It’s a fair price.


These are words that have multiple but related meanings. Examples:

  • The house is at the foot of the mountains.
  • One of his shoes felt too tight for his foot.

Hyponyms and superordinate terms

A superordinate term acts as an umbrella term that includes other words with related meanings.

The words that are related in meaning with the superordinate terms are called hyponyms. Let’s take examples:

  • The term ‘tools’ is a superordinate term. Hammer, Screwdriver, and Saw are co-hyponyms. The term Saw itself a superordinate. It is an umbrella term for: Fretsaw , Chainsaw and Jigsaw which are all co-hyponyms.
Hyponym and superordinate terms

Hyponyms and superordinate terms

Content versus function words

Content words carry meaning. They fall into 4 main parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. Examples:

  • Play, House, Computer, Enjoyable

Function words, however, are necessary words for grammar. Examples of function words include pronouns, determiners, and prepositions.

Receptive versus productive words

As Thornbury (2002) states “we understand more words than we utter”. Word knowledge can be receptive or productive. Receptive knowledge consists of a larger repertoire of words of which learners have some degree of understanding but do not use. By contrast, productive knowledge is the less large repertoire of active vocabulary that learners understand and actually use to communicate.

True versus false cognates

Two different languages may share a body of vocabulary items that are related in origin. These are called cognates. Sometimes, cognates can be helpful to language learners (i.e. vrais amis). Other times, they may be misleading (i.e. faux amis). This table contains six pairs of English-French cognates:

CognatesFalse True
Family √
Actually √
Gratitude √
Information √
Attend √

How is vocabulary knowledge organized?

According to Thornbury, (2002):

The mind seems to store words neither randomly, nor in the form of a list, but in a highly organized and interconnected fashion – in what is called a mental lexicon

Learning vocabulary is more like network building. Learners start by labeling things and end up categorizing these labels. The process is similar to what a baby does to acquire the mother tongue vocabulary. When a baby sees a dog for the first time, it first starts by knowing its name (i.e. labeling it). The baby goes through the same process to name cat and horse. Then an umbrella term (i.e. a superordinate term), namely, “animals” is used to categorize the three terms. The same procedure is used to build other related sets of vocabulary items.

Vocabulary learning is like network-building

How to teach vocabulary – Vocabulary learning is like network-building

Foreign or second language learners need to build a large network of vocabulary to be able to communicate with native speakers. Research suggests that these learners need to know at least 2000 of high-frequency words.

There are however challenges facing learners when they try to build such a network of lexical items:

  • The coining of new words never stops.
  • Old words continually get new meanings.

How we learn vocabulary

Vocabulary learning can be incidental, through indirect exposure of words, or intentional, through explicit instruction in specific words and word-learning strategies.

How we remember words

There are three types of memory:

  1. Short-term memory
  2. Working memory
  3. Long-term memory

The short term memory holds vocabulary items in one’s mind for a few seconds. These vocabulary items become part of the working memory once learners start manipulating and working with them through activities such as:

  • looking them up in a dictionary,
  • matching them with synonyms or antonyms,
  • sequencing them,
  • ranking them according to their importance,
  • identifying their collocates etc.

Vocabulary items are stored in the long-term memory to become durable over time when learners repeatedly meet them in different contexts.

Pedagogical implications for teaching vocabulary

To teach vocabulary, teachers should help learners:

  • …acquire a critical mass of words for use in both understanding and producing language. (At least 2000 high-frequency words)
  • …remember words over time and be able to recall them readily.
  • …develop strategies to learn new vocabulary.

Principles of vocabulary learning

Vocabulary learning should be based on the following principles:

Repetition and multiple encounters

Not only memorizing words through repetition (i.e. rote learning), but also repeated encounters of words.

Cognitive depth

This refers to the manipulation of words by learners. The decisions they make about the words are of paramount importance. Cognitive depth principle includes activities such as using a dictionary to look up a word, matching words with their synonyms or antonyms, identifying collocations, sequencing words, gap-fills…

Affective depth

Learners do not need only cognitive information about words, but they also need to entertain some affective or emotional relationship with words in order to be memorable. For example, asking learners to choose a number of words (they like) from a text to write a story/a paragraph about themselves can lead to an affective depth.


The more one recalls a word, the more it becomes memorable.


Words have to be met and used to say new things in different contexts in reading, listening, speaking and writing. This has a positive impact on learning.

Personalization (Use it or lose it)

Using the words learned to express personal experiences.


This refers to distributed practice. The interval between the successive practice of a set of words, should gradually increase.

Sources of vocabulary

Here are the main sources of vocabulary:

  • Textbooks
  • Teachers
  • learners themselves
  • Lists
  • Dictionaries
  • books/Short texts

Let’s focus on textbooks.


As far as textbooks are concerned, vocabulary is presented in three different ways:

  • Segregated vocabulary sections
  • Integrated into text-based activities
  • Incidentally learned in different tasks (grammar, reading, instructions…)
Segregated vocabulary sections

These are sections where a group of words (lexical sets) that share a relation of hyponymy is presented. Here are two examples of lexical sets that may be incorporated in these sections:

  • boat, car, bus, helicopter, plane, bicycle, ship… (They are all co-hyponyms of the superordinate term means of travel.)
  • Hot, cold, warm, rainy, cloudy, foggy…(They are all co- hyponyms of the superordinate term weather.)
Integrated into text-based activities

Vocabulary teaching is integrated into TEXTS in:

  • Pre-task activities such as
    1. pre-teaching vocabulary using techniques such as pictures, simplified definitions, translation
    2. Discussion about the topic of the text through activities such as
    – selecting from a list the words that fit the theme,
    – brainstorming…
  • While-tasks through activities such as searching the text for synonyms, antonyms, hyponyms, words that match a definition…
  • Follow-up activities through discussions where learners
    1. react, comment, and argue about the topic of the text
    2. or simply use the vocabulary learned to talk about his personal experiences.
Vocabulary incidentally learned in different tasks

This is vocabulary embedded in

  • Instructions
  • Classroom language
  • Listening / Reading
  • Grammar terms (verb, simple past, noun….)
  • Functional terms (inviting, apologizing, complaining….)

Stages of vocabulary teaching

  • Teacher presents vocabulary items.


  • Learners notice contextualized vocabulary items.
  • Learners understand and manipulate vocabulary items.
  • Tasks to transfer vocabulary to long-term memory.
  • Learners use target vocabulary in novel situations.
  • Personalization.

The sequence of vocabulary presentation

The sequence of new vocabulary presentation can be in two different ways:

First form, then meaning:

That is, the teacher provides the word in a context and students notice how it is used and try to guess its meaning

First meaning, then form:

That is, the teacher shows/points to an object, creates the need for the word, and then provides it.

Presenting the meaning first, then the form is a sequence that is probably appropriate when teaching vocabulary in a hurry (e.g. pre-teaching vocabulary in the pre-reading stage), or when you want to teach perhaps a set of lexical items in an isolated section of the textbook.

However, providing form first, then meaning is perhaps the best technique to guide learners to discover the meaning of vocabulary by themselves.

Discovering vocabulary

As mentioned above, vocabulary can be:

  • Presented by the teacher using: realia (i.e. real things), pictures, miming (i.e. actions/ gestures), definitions, situations, translations…


  • Discovered by learners.

Vocabulary is discovered by learners when teachers contextualize the vocabulary items, preferably, in short texts. Here is an example of the sequence of a vocabulary lesson based on guided discovery.

Encountering new vocabulary

  1. At the presentation stage, or better at the stage where learners encounter new vocabulary items, the teacher provides contextualized exposure to these vocabulary items. This can be a written or spoken text.
  2. After quick comprehension activities, the teacher raises learners’ awareness of the target vocabulary items and asks them to notice their form and use in that particular context.
  3. Learners make guesses about the meaning.
  4. The teacher then provides activities where learners match, select, or identify words with their definitions.

Integrating vocabulary

This stage involves practice activities where learners manipulate and work with the vocabulary items. In other words, they put vocabulary to work to satisfy the cognitive depth principle through activities such as:

  • sorting or categorizing the words under some headings,
  • matching words with their collocates,
  • sequencing a list of words according to a certain logic (e.g. wake up, have a shower, go to school…)


This is the stage where learners use the vocabulary items to talk about real things in their lives. Personalization of vocabulary items may lead to some kind of affective depth. Teachers may ask their learners, for example, to CHOOSE a certain number of words from the text (let’s say 4 words) and use them to talk about their personal experience or to write a story…

Learner training

“Vocabulary cannot be taught”
Wilga Rivers

Yes, it is difficult to teach vocabulary. In fact, there are many challenges in vocabulary teaching:

  • The coining of new words never stops.
  • We are continually learning new meanings of old words.
  • The power of words can never be fully grasped.

Learners can never reach a deeper knowledge of the vocabulary we teach them unless they are trained to do so by themselves. Hence, the importance of training learners to develop learning strategies to cope with new vocabulary.

We have to train learners to…

  • Guess meaning from context
  • Use dictionaries
  • Keep organized records
  • Use mnemonics
  • Discover spelling rules
"How to teach vocabulary" by Scott Thornbury

“How to teach vocabulary” by Scott Thornbury


  • Stahl, S. A. (2005). “Four problems with teaching word meanings (and what to do to make vocabulary an integral part of instruction),” in E. H. Hiebert and M. L. Kamil (eds.), Teaching and learning vocabulary: Bringing research to practice, Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum
  • Thornbury, S. (2002). How to teach vocabulary. Harlow: Longman.
  • Vygotsky, L. S. (1962). Thought and language. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

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