Many students identify vocabulary as one of the main areas in which they want to see improvement. Many teachers, on the other hand, struggle with the challenge of helping students expand their vocabularies and maintain their active vocabulary bank.

A strong vocabulary has a beneficial effect on all skill areas, and helping students improve in this area should be a priority for teachers.

‘Knowing’ a Word – Teaching Vocabulary

TESOL Lessons Teaching vocabulary

There are many things to consider in teaching vocabulary, but one of the first is to look at what we mean when we say students ‘know’ a word. Do we mean they can recognize the word and roughly decipher its meaning when they encounter it in a text? Do we mean they can use the word (and all its forms) accurately in speaking and writing?

What Do We Expect Students to Do with New Words?

If we want students to move vocabulary into their productive vocabulary (in other words, if we want students to be able to use words accurately), we need to present the new words in context. Students need to know the structural requirements of the word. Is it followed by a specific preposition? Can it be followed by another (with a change in meaning)? Is it a verb used actively or passively? Are their other vocabulary items in the same word family?

Teachers also need to consider the full meaning of a word. Does it have positive or negative associations? Is it more in writing or in speaking, or in both? How is the word different from its synonyms?

When we want students to use a word actively, we need to consider these aspects. For ‘passive’ recognition, a more general understanding of the word is enough.

Finding Examples of Words in Context

In order to understand a word, students need to see it in context. Teachers can teach from word lists, but even then, students need to have an example of the words in a sentence in order to see some of the structural requirements of the word.

It can be challenging to create good sample sentences. The British National Corpus is a great tool that can help teachers come up with authentic samples of words in context. Simply target a word or phrase. And a list of examples is generated.

Teachers can then decide which of these would be most useful or appropriate for their learners.

What Words Should We Teach?

There is a lot of debate about which words teachers should focus on, and whether working with lists like the Academic Word List is helpful.

While one might not want to go through a complete list of common words, or words on the Academic Word List, these resources can help teachers decide what words to focus on when they are covering new texts in class.

The usefulness of particular vocabulary items depends to some degree on the goals and backgrounds of the students.

Students in trades or professional English classes may require specialized vocabulary. A good understanding of students’ goals and background can help teachers make principled decisions about what words to focus on in their teaching.


No matter what words teachers hope their students will learn, it is important to review and recycle vocabulary often.

Students need repeated exposure to a new vocabulary item to help it ‘stick’. If teachers want an item to become a part of students’ productive vocabulary, students need to see and use the word frequently.

Encouraging students to read newspapers and listen to news can help expose them to frequently used vocabulary, and provides natural review and recycling.

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