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Presenting new vocabulary

К содержанию номера журнала: Вестник КАСУ №2 - 2007

Автор: Сергеева О. С.


Vocabulary acquisition is increasingly viewed as crucial to language acquisition. Methodologists insist on the vocabulary being included in the syllabus. Michael Lewis (1993), who coined the term lexical approach, suggests that lexis is the basis of language, that the key principle of a lexical approach is that "language consists of grammaticalized lexis, not lexicalized grammar." Andrew Sheehan, a member of the Chilean Ministry of Education’s new English Project Team, says that “vocabulary has been neglected Cinderella of language teaching; preference has always been, and still is, given to the two sisters Grammar and More Grammar”.

But in spite of all that attention there is no universal technique in teaching vocabulary that would be 100% effective. For many English language teachers it is easier to stick to grammar as grammar is something systematic and finite, whereas vocabulary is not.

Presenting vocabulary is a part of vocabulary teaching thus it contributes to its success. A lot depends on how the new vocabulary is presented. So what a teacher can do to ease the process of vocabulary learning? What aspects s/he should keep in his mind? How can s/he present vocabulary so that it would contribute to successful memorization? In this article we will try to find answers to these questions.


Before teaching new vocabulary we should determine what vocabulary items we are supposed to teach. So what needs to be taught? We should consider?

- How the vocabulary item is pronounced. Many words in the English language do not follow the reading rules so it is important to practice the pronunciation of the word.

- How it is spelt. Learners need to know what the word looks like so that they would be able to recognize it when they meet it in the text.

- The meaning of it. It is important to make sure the learners understand the meaning of the item presented.

- Its grammar. Does the item follow any unpredictable grammatical patterns? Does it have some idiosyncratic way of connecting with other words in sentences?

- The connotations of the item. This is an important aspect of presenting the item. Learners need to know the “second face” of the item.

- In what situations the item can or can not be used? The learners need to know if the word is outdated, appropriate in writing or in speaking, etc.

- Its relationships with other words – i.e. its synonyms (words that have the same meaning), antonyms (words that have opposite meanings), hyponyms (items that serve as specific examples of a general concept), co-hyponyms (items that are the “same kind of things”), superordinates (opposite to hyponyms).

- Collocations – the way words occur together. This gives a certain “sub context” to the sentence.

- Word formation. Different affixes may give a clue to the meaning of the item.

- Translation. Helps to make the meaning of the item more clear to the learner.

The selection of vocabulary items that are to be taught basically depends on learners’ needs, on usefulness of the items, on how often they are used in speech.

There are three stages of teaching vocabulary:

- Presenting new vocabulary

- Practice / consolidation

- Production / usage.

The one that we are going to emphasize is presenting new vocabulary.

Before presenting new vocabulary we have to take into consideration to whom we present it, how our learners remember the new item. Oxford (1990) suggests memory strategies to aid learning, and these can be divided into:

- creating mental linkages: grouping, associating, placing new words into a context;

- applying images and sounds: using imagery, semantic mapping, using keywords and representing sounds in memory;

- reviewing well, in a structured way;

- employing action: physical response or sensation, using mechanical techniques.


Another thing to be considered is what kind of memory your learners use, which also determines the choice of technique for presenting vocabulary.

Some (and probably most of) people remember something better if they see it. For such people we use Visual Techniques as they pertain to visual memory. These include flashcards, posters, pictures, blackboard drawings, realias. These visuals are good for presenting concrete terms of vocabulary, such things as professions, activities, outfit, etc. Teacher can easily bring some realias to the classroom. For example those might be things connected with cleaning – duster, sponge, etc. We might also use mime and gesture to covey meaning of activities and actions which may be fun and memorable. For example, it would be easy for the teacher to show a “happy” face, to “vacuum the floor”, to “lock” the door, to “shout”, etc. The teacher shows the realias or mimes the action and names it several times. After that s/he asks learners to point at a certain thing or mime a certain action.

Other people remember something better if they hear it. For such people we choose Verbal techniques. They include:

- Use of illustrative situations (oral or written). These are good for presenting abstract items. For example, to present the meaning of “curfew” the teacher might use the following context: Sue invites her friends Rebecca and Tiffany to go out for the night. But Tiffany says, “Sure, I’ll go. But I won’t stay out with you the whole night. My mother wants me to go back home. My curfew is 12 a.m.” To find out whether learners understand what “curfew” is teacher might ask questions like “What is your usual curfew?” etc.

- Use of synonyms and definitions. Using the words students already know can be effective for getting meaning across. For example, the word “enormous” means “large, big, huge, gigantic, great, massive”. The definition for “banner” is “a large piece of material with a message written on it”.

According to Nation, it is better to combine different types of definition: a definition by abstraction combined with contextual examples; a contextual definition followed by a definition by abstraction; a definition by demonstration combines with contextual examples or (where possible) definition by abstraction; a contextual definition followed by translation.

- Opposites. You can easily explain an item by contrasting it with its opposite. For example, presenting “ugly” we might say it is the opposite for “beautiful”. But we should not forget about the context in which this is true, because in different context the word might have different antonyms.

- Scales. If learners already know two opposites, we can use this to present some more items of the same kind, putting them in a scale. For example, “boiling-hot-warm-cool-cold-freezing”. Again, do not forget about the context.

- Examples of the type/categories. These are good for presenting hyponyms and superordinates. We can easily teach the word “animal”, “furniture”, “clothing”, etc. For example, the teacher wants to introduce the word “fruit”. S/he explains that you can eat fruit and there are various kinds: apples, bananas, oranges, peaches, etc. S/he asks the learners for more examples of fruit.

The third kind of people remembers better if they touch or do something. For such students we might do the following. Some learners have their eyes covered. Teacher gives them an object. While students hold the object in their hands and feel it teacher repeats the name of the object several times. Then the students are given another object and the same procedure follows. After that the students uncover their eyes. Teacher names an object and the students point to it. Instead of real objects you might use cut-out shapes such as a flower, a triangle, etc.

Another form of presenting of an item that can be drawn is drawing some dots to outline the picture. While the students are connecting the dots with lines teacher repeats the word several times. When the dots are connected and the picture appears, the learners get the meaning.

Or the teacher could hand out copies of a “dot-picture” with the name of it written underneath. You can see an example of such a “dot-picture” below.


Using a dictionary is another technique of finding out meanings of unfamiliar words and phrases. Translation can be very effective during the lesson. Firstly it saves precious time. Secondly in the languages of the same family some words look the same (or very much alike), but their meanings do not exactly coincide.

For example the French verb “marcher” looks like “to march” in English, but its meaning is “to walk”, the verb “demander” means “to ask”, not “to demand”.

In this case teacher should make sure the learners do not continue using their mother-tongue.

A learner who makes good use of a dictionary is able to continue learning outside the classroom, which encourages autonomy. Also, when a learner reads a text he can not always guess the exact meaning of a word from the context. A dictionary can be used to help the learner to choose the right concept or confirm his guessing. An example of using a dictionary can be:

Can you find the feminine forms of the words? Use your dictionary.

masculine feminine

man woman








Can you think of any more examples when masculine and feminine do not coincide?


Another way to present new vocabulary is including it into a context. Learning new words in context, not in isolation, is an important issue which contributes to successful vocabulary learning. Learning new words through definitions without any examples of where the word occurs will not give the learner the exact full meaning of the item. Having learned the item through its definition or by the means of vocabulary, learners do not know how and where to apply the item in speech. Occurring in different contexts the item might have different meanings or shades of meaning. Along with that when meeting the item in context learners see the grammatical pattern in which the item occurs – it teaches the grammar of the item.

Therefore presenting a new vocabulary item teacher should provide a context which will give learners enough clues for guessing the meaning of the item. What clues then should be included in the context to make it reach enough to ease the presentation? The following types of context clue are by Yu Shu Ying:

- Morphology. Students may derive the word meaning if they examine the morphological features of the word.

- Cohesion. Some words regularly co-occur together so if students know one of them they can guess the meaning of another one.

- Synonyms and antonyms. For example, “I have never seen such a large cave. It’s enormous”. It is obvious that “enormous” is a synonym to “large”.

- Hyponyms. Very often the reader can see that the relationship between an unfamiliar word and a familiar word is that of a general concept accompanied by a specific example (a hyponym). For example, “she seemed to know names of all the animals: dogs, antelopes, bisons, jaguars…”

- Definitions. This type was covered above.

- Alternatives. “Ichthyologists, or specialists in the study of fish, have contributed to our understanding of the past.” The word “ichthyologist” is unfamiliar, but the meaning is explained by giving a more familiar term.

- Summary. A summary clue sums up a situation or an idea with a word or a phrase. For example, “Mrs. Christopher contributes money to the Red Cross, the Girls Club, and the Cancer Society. She also volunteers many hours in the emergency ward of the hospital. She is indeed altruistic.” From the context students might conclude “altruistic” means “not selfish”.

- Comparison and contrast. For example, “A cuckoo, unlike other birds, does not hatch her fledglings.” It is clear, that “cuckoo” is a kind of bird.


In this type of exercises students match words to words. Those might be synonyms-synonyms, synonyms-antonyms, words-definitions, words-pictures, etc. This technique is very popular and effective not only in teaching vocabulary but also in other areas of teaching a foreign language.

Find these nouns in the text. Match them with the definitions.

1 ghetto blaster _ a large piece of material with a message written on it

2 raids 1 a radio-cassette player with built-in speakers

3 broadcasting _ surprise attacks

4 resurgence _ a tax on the reproduction of music for the public

5 airwaves _ commerce

6 following _ the means by which radio signals are transmitted

7 banner _ supporters

8 copyright levies _ reappearance and growth

9 trade _ transmission of radio or television programmes

(Taken from Tanner R.)


It was mentioned above that grouping is one of the ways to create mental links. What ways of grouping new words might be used?


It was mentioned above that grouping is one of the ways to create mental links. What ways of grouping new words might be used?

- Grouping by series. This refers to a series of actions that happen consecutively in the real world. “I go to the store, I choose an item I want to buy, I come up to the cashier, I buy the item…” it is important to make sure the consequence is clear and the following step results from the previous one.

-  Grouping by subject or field. For example, teacher writes the word “book” on the board and asks the students to brainstorm all the words they can think of that are connected with it. As a result you may have something looking like this.

Through this type of grouping new words may be introduced by the teacher or by some of the students.

-  Grouping by superordinate and hyponym. This type reminds the previous one though it differs. Different topics can be looked at.

Grouping by synonymy/antonymy.

It is also possible to combine different types of grouping.

The use of colour

To make the process of presenting new vocabulary more effective teacher has to attract learners’ attention. And one of the best and easiest ways for that is colouring. Colour is an important tool in visual thinking, it captures and directs attention. The teacher might highlight the new words in the text he wants his students to concentrate on. The teacher may use colouring to: practice pronunciation of a word and its spelling (highlight double letters, the initial/final sound/letters that are likely to cause difficulty, stressed and secondary stressed syllables, etc.), to teach the word’s grammar (use different colours for different parts of speech, for countable/uncountable nouns, transitive/intransitive verbs, mark word’s gender), teach the semantic categories and word differences (use specific colours for the words connected with a given topic, for adjectives with positive/negative meaning, for synonyms/antonyms, etc.), to teach morphology (colour all prefixes and suffixes in a passage of a text to try to find out what they mean, highlight the stems of words that is the same like in prolong, longitude, longing, long, prolongation, oblong, etc.).

If students do colouring themselves they make the text look more familiar and thus psychologically easier to obtain, that includes new vocabulary items. Colour coding is very popular. The teacher might decide with the students what a certain colour denotes so that will help them to find out some features of the word before they learn it. On the blackboard coloured chalks can be used.


The use of games in teaching process is hard to over evaluate. They are highly motivating and entertaining and they can give shy students more opportunity to express their opinions and feelings. They also enable learners to acquire new experiences within a foreign language which are not always possible during a typical lesson. In the easy relaxed atmosphere created by using games, students remember things faster and better. Games encourage entertain, teach and promote fluency. As many methodologies believe, games should not be regarded as a marginal activity filling in odd moments. Games can be used at any stage of a lesson if they are carefully chosen and prepared. When we use games for presentation, our aim is provide a good model making its meaning clear.


With hundreds of thousands of words in the English language, teaching vocabulary can seem like a very daunting prospect. Remember though that the average native speaker uses around only five thousand words in everyday speech. Moreover, your students won't need to produce every word they learn, some they will just need to recognize.

Some general recommendations can be given on the topic. Keep in mind that people tend to remember words that have personal or emotive significance. Make a use of this phenomenon in your class, personalize tasks. Tasks themselves should be interesting and meaningful; such exercises have proved to be the most effective in the process of language learning. People commonly tend to link items together in sense units, or find some reasons to associate them. This can be successfully used in teaching.

It is important for learners to know they really need to know the word. This can be also used by teachers if they create learners’ need for knowing the item. Relaxed and comfortable atmosphere in the classroom can also contribute to the success. If the students do not think or feel that at the moment they are learning, their results are impressing.

We can not teach a whole class in a way that will fit every student’s learning strategies, therefore it is important to encourage individual students to find what is helpful, create stimulus for extra work, for learning outside the classroom.

There is not one best method to teach vocabulary. There are several helpful approaches one may use to acquire and enrich vocabulary.


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5. Anna Gnoinska Teaching Vocabulary in Colour//English Teaching Forum, July-September 1998

6. Mu Fengying The Ripple Effect// English Teaching Forum, January 1996

7. Angela Joe, Paul Nation, Jonathan Newton Vocabulary Learning// English Teaching Forum, January 1996

8. Agnieszka Uberman The Use of Games// English Teaching Forum, Jan-Mar 1998

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К содержанию номера журнала: Вестник КАСУ №2 - 2007

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