What You Need To Know About Effective Vocabulary Instruction

Vocabulary teaching methods have been researched and debated over a lot in the past. However, language experts believe that certain vocabulary teaching methods prove successful more than others.

“While without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed.”

~ David Wilkins, British linguist

Why Teach Vocabulary?

Having a rich vocabulary repository not only improves one’s listening, speaking, reading and writing skills, but also nourishes one’s comprehension skills and critical thinking abilities, which are the overarching goals of teaching vocabulary.

Effective vocabulary instruction:

  • directly improves student achievement across the academic areas
  • improves students’ reading comprehension skills
  • nurtures students’ creative and critical thinking skills
  • predicts long term academic success in school and high school 
  • unlocks the doors to unlimited avenues of acquiring new information

From the very beginning, we are tuned to learning words – words that convey the intended meaning without creating ambiguities. It comes so naturally that we assume that learning new words is also an automated process. Little do we understand that the true internalization of new vocabulary is the culmination of incidental and intentional vocabulary learning, using vocabulary learning tools, and practicing word learning strategies over an extended period of time. This requires extensive and intensive reading, repeated exposure to new words, a vocabulary-rich environment and consistent vocabulary practice in context.

Vocabulary Teaching Methods – Incidental Vocabulary Learning And Intentional Vocabulary Learning:

Incidental vocabulary learning takes place when students are engaged in activities like reading, writing, listening and speaking, and are exposed to new vocabulary. It is called incidental vocabulary learning because the word memorization is not done intentionally. 

Intentional vocabulary learning takes mostly out of context where, as the name suggests, the intention is vocabulary practice and drill as it focuses on students’ attention directly on the target vocabulary.

In light of my experience, a good combination of both incidental (embedded in context) and intentional vocabulary learning brings about the desired change in students’ vocabulary.

The Problem With ‘List, Define, Create a Sentence’ Approach:

When I started teaching English to my middle schoolers, I noticed that the only method they knew about learning new vocabulary, was looking up the meanings of the words on the list they were given, , writing their meanings and creating sentences using those words. Boom! That’s what they were used to in their primary grades.

Fast forward six years, when I talk to the same students, who now happen to be in high school, I seldom find anyone who remembers the words we learned that year. Why? Was something wrong with this approach? Absolutely not – students were interacting with words, increasing their word knowledge and writing their meanings and crafting interesting sentences. The problem was they were not retaining the words on that vocabulary list for more than a week. They simply did not have any vocabulary learning strategies that they could use. There was no tool-kit that they could open and immediately take out the tools to equip themselves and feel ready, whenever they came across new vocabulary.

This baffled me. I struggled with it for a year, but then my research instincts did not let me sit there and watch them fail. I came up with the conclusion that we didn’t have enough time for incidental vocabulary learning to happen as we were always short of time; had novel studies, grammar, short stories, poetry, informational units, persuasive units and narrative units to finish. Vocabulary was ignored. 

I started off with Word of the Day, but that too didn’t go beyond the looking up the word definitions, reading the words in a sentence and then creating their own sentence. As I reflect back, I recall I was told by one of my mentors, “Learning doesn’t take place, if there’s no impact on the student behavior.” That stuck to me somehow, although my students were using new words in their writing, I would cringe at the fact that they weren’t using the newly learnt vocabulary in their daily conversations. 

One day the classroom would be full of students jumping in their seats, ready to churn out their newly crafted sentences using the target vocabulary, the other day they would revert back to using Urdu language in their conversations, let alone using the target vocabulary in their daily conversations.

Vocabulary Teaching Calls For More…

Somehow, over the course of 8 years, I tried to focus on developing my students’ receptive and expressive vocabulary whereby they improved their breadth and depth of word knowledge. I tried to consider my vocabulary teaching a continuum so we would go back and revisit the words we had learnt in previous units. I am now able to pen-down some key lessons about vocabulary instruction that I would love to share with other teachers, who are now in the same situation that I was in almost 8 years ago. Click here for some Key Lessons I Learned about Vocabulary Instruction.

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David Buckley
3 years ago

This is very valuable information in terms of learning new vocabulary. Thanks for sharing!