Teaching vocabulary to L2 learners
by Kendall Peet

I have written this article for EFL/ESL teachers interested in improving their approach to teaching vocabulary. Because I am primarily interested in teaching, this article will focus on the practical aspects of teaching vocabulary , with attention paid to theory only where it relates directly to teaching practice. It is my hope that this article will provide teachers with an overview of some of the most important issues to be considered when teaching vocabulary and possibly answer some, if not many, of the questions teachers may have in regard to teaching vocabulary.

Within the context of this article, any reference to vocabulary includes the base form of a word, its inflections and derivatives, and lexical phrases or chunks, which constitute a major portion of the English language (Lewis: 1993, 97). I have chosen to include lexical phrases in the definition because, like words, they can often be taught as a single unit of meaning.

What vocabulary to teach?

Needs Analysis

How do you currently decide what vocabulary to teach? When I first started to teach I remember what a panic I was in trying to decide what to teach. My only guide for teaching vocabulary at that time was my high school teachers who used to hand out a vocabulary list of twenty words at the start of each week, to be memorised and tested the following week. I remember sitting at my desk flicking through a dictionary wondering how on earth I was going to select twenty words for that week, growing increasingly despondent. It was a puzzle to me how anyone could possibly select any finite list of words with authority from the seemingly infinite. I never did finally decide upon a list. What I did do instead, which I am sure is the approach taken by many teachers, basically entailed reading through a given text, that was to be used in class, and selecting words to focus on that I thought the learners might not know. It wasn’t particularly systematic, but it was the best I could do.

Since my early days of teaching, I have come to learn much more about the art of teaching vocabulary, believing strongly in the effectiveness of a student-centred approach, which places much of the onus of decision making in the hands of the learners. Of course it is true that the teacher often knows what is better for a learner than the learner, however, I also believe that it is important for teachers to be sensitive to the learner’ needs. Therefore, in answering what to teach, I try to determine the real needs of the learners on an ongoing basis, using both formal and informal means of assessment: take-home questionnaires, 1-2-1 interviews, classroom observation, marking written work, and class tests.

To determine the real needs of the learners, it is useful to first draw a distinction between productive language and passive language.

Productive language or Passive language

In general, we can define productive language is that which a person uses to speak or write and passive language as that which is used in the process of listening or reading. In the case of L1 acquisition, the natural progression is from passive language, listening, to productive language, speaking, with reading and writing coming later. In regard to leaning a second language, there is strong argument for the learning process to follow a similar path. (1)However, due primarily to commercial and time constraints, and taking into account the fact that learners have already learnt the concept of many words in their L1 that can be easily transferred to their L2, it is common practice for there to be a considerable focus on productive language from the very start of L2 acquisition, with a natural shift toward passive language occurring as the learner progresses toward L2 proficiency. (2) Therefore, when deciding what vocabulary to teach, teachers first need to be able to distinguish between passive and productive vocabulary to ensure that priority is given to productive language.

Do you focus on productive or passive language in the classroom? How can you determine whether a particular word is productive or passive vocabulary?

Productive language

As a general rule of thumb, teachers need to ask themselves, when selecting vocabulary to focus on in class, “Is this vocabulary of practical use to the students?” which is to say, “Can the students use this vocabulary in their everyday lives?” If the answer is yes, then more than likely this vocabulary can be classified as productive vocabulary. Alternatively, you could follow the advice of Beglar and Hunt, who advise starting with the GSL (General Service List), which lists the 2000 most frequently used words in the English language; (3) which is, consequently, the same number of words that native speakers use in their daily conversation. (4) A sound knowledge of the word families in the GSL will, therefore, provide an excellent platform from which to achieve oral fluency and at the same time will enable the learners to understand nine out of ten words in most written texts. (5) This last point is extremely important when viewed in the light of comments made by Liu and Nation, who indicate that a 95% coverage of any given text is required if students are to guess new words from context.(6) It is vital, therefore, in the interests of learner autonomy, that students acquire what Thornbury refers to as the core vocabulary. (7)

Analysing Text Using Computer Technology

The quickest way to work out which vocabulary in a given text is in the 0-1000 and 1001-2000 frequency range is to cut and paste a given text into one of the many text analysing programs available on the internet. These programs dissect the text into word frequency groups, which you can then use in class, according to the level and needs of your class. Below are two websites that you can use for this purpose:



Alternatively, you can download a program called Range from Paul Nation’s Victoria University webpage. However, this program requires time getting used and so if you are not computer savvy, I would recommend that you use the websites listed above.


Vocabulary for Specific Purposes

In addition to the core vocabulary, teachers may also need to take into account the special needs of learners. This is especially true for teachers teaching an ESP class, where the learners, who may be lawyers, doctors, accountants, or any other group learning English for a specific job or purpose, have special vocabulary needs. In the same way teachers also need to consider the differing general needs of the learners in a specific country. There would, for example, appear to be little point teaching snow specific lexical items, such as black run, waxing or edging skis, bindings, moguls, or t-bar to businessmen in Dubai who have little interest in skiing. There would, however, be good reason to teach words relating to trade and financial transactions, such as import and export, contract, terms and conditions, and current rate of exchange. Therefore, in deciding which vocabulary to focus on in class, teachers must first look to the needs of their students before turning to the GSL or other such lists to be used in combination with select word families and lexical groups.

How to teach vocabulary

Having provided a broad framework to use for the selection of vocabulary to teach, it is now appropriate to turn our attention to other relevant factors that affect the learning process.

Memory and remembering

In order to teach vocabulary effectively, it is important to know something about how the mind works because an important part of learning is remembering. The human mind effectively has three kinds of memory: short-term memory, working memory, and long-term memory. We use our short-term memory, which has the capacity to hold a limited number of items for a period of only a few seconds, for immediate tasks that require little or no processing, such as remembering a phone number long enough to dial it, or a word long enough to repeat it. Our working memory, in contrast, retains items for up to twenty seconds, and is used in circumstances where information needs to be manipulated or processed at a deeper level. Finally, there is our long-term memory, which has the ability to store items away indefinitely. As teachers, it is our job to seek out the most effective means by which to store vocabulary in the learner’s long-term memory. The movement of lexis from the short-term memory to the long-term memory is not, however, a process that we consciously control. Research does, however, provide us with certain clues to help improve the chances of success. In teaching vocabulary it is worthwhile considering the following points:

  • A maximum of seven lexical items should be introduced to learners in a single sitting (8)
  • Up to 80% of what is taught is lost within 24 hours if not revised within this time (9)
  • A minimum of five separate exposures to a given item is advised at increased intervals(10)
  • The mind is highly organised and appears to store lexical items in semantic fields (11)
  • The deeper the level of processing the better the chances of retention
  • The more personalised and student relevant the vocabulary the better

In sum, modern research tells us that vocabulary needs to be limited to a manageable number, contextualised, personalised, organised into lexical groups, and then revised, revised, revised. I place considerable emphasis on the idea of revision because teachers, in my experience, are usually very good at focusing on a certain group of words in a given class, and at teaching the meaning of a word, but are far less organised over an extended period of time so that much of what is diligently taught often fails to be stored in the learner’s long-term memory.

Ideas for Revising Vocabulary

One very good way to revise vocabulary is to keep an envelope, into which learners place new words on a slip of paper that arise in class.  These words can then be recycled using games, such as hotseatOnce the word is known, it can be transferred to a second envelope to be used again later and then either returned to the first envelope (if it has been forgotten), or discarded if it has clearly been stored in the learners’ long-term memory.

Another effective way to revise vocabulary, is to encourage learners to use word cards, small enough to fit into your pocket, but big enough to include any useful information. On one side of the card the learners write the word, on the other side the definition and a sample sentence. In this way the learners can read the word, try to say what it means, and then try to use it in a sentence, before turning the card over to see if they are correct. You can also include other useful information such as antonyms, synonyms, at perhaps at lower levels an L1 translation. Below is one example of how learners can organise their word cards.


detest (v): to dislike something or someone very much
I detest people who are unkind to animals.

detestable (adj): causing or deserving intense dislike
I think what he did is detestable.
He is detestable.

Detestably (adv):
He acted detestably all night.

Cognitive learning strategies

Another aspect relating to the working of the mind is learning preferences. Research now tells us that people learn in different ways. Therefore, when you walk into a classroom to teach a group of learners, it is important to bear in mind that they each have different cognitive learning needs (visual, aural, kinaesthetic, and tactile) and so will respond to a particular teaching approach to varying degrees. (12) What this means is that teachers will need to provide a variety of activities in their lessons, incorporating a combination of the cognitive learning strategies, to cater to the different needs of learners. (13) Students will also need to be encouraged to experiment with the different strategies because the efficiency of language learning depends to a large degree on how learners combine these individual strategies. (14)In this way, teaching is really a team effort and should be approached as such.

Aspects of words knowledge

The final element that I want to cover briefly is vocabulary itself. When considering teaching vocabulary, there are several aspects of lexis that need to be taken into account. The list below is based on the work of Gairns and Redman (1986): 

  • Boundaries between conceptual meaning : knowing not only what lexis refers to, but also where the boundaries are that separate it from words of related meaning (e.g. cup, mug, bowl).
  • Polysemy:  distinguishing between the various meaning of a single word form with several but closely related meanings (head: of a person, of a pin, of an organisation).
  • Homonymy: distinguishing between the various meaning of a single word form which has several meanings which are NOT closely related (e.g. a file: used to put papers in or a tool).
  • Homophyny: understanding words that have the same pronunciation but different spellings and meanings (e.g. flour, flower).
  • Synonymy: distinguishing between the different shades of meaning that synonymous words have (e.g. extend, increase, expand).
  • Affective meaning: distinguishing between the attitudinal and emotional factors (denotation and connotation), which depend on the speakers attitude or the situation. Socio-cultural associations of lexical items is another important factor.
  • Style, register, dialect: Being able to distinguish between different levels of formality, the effect of different contexts and topics, as well as differences in geographical variation.
  • Translation: awareness of certain differences and similarities between the native and the foreign language (e.g. false cognates).
  • Chunks of language: multi-word verbs, idioms, strong and weak collocations, lexical phrases.
  • Grammar of vocabulary: learning the rules that enable students to build up different forms of the word or even different words from that word (e.g. sleep, slept, sleeping; able, unable; disability).
  • Pronunciation: ability to recognise and reproduce items in speech. 

In presenting vocabulary, I believe it is important to provide as many supports as possible to facilitate the remembering of new words. The list of aspects above can potentially help students to more easily understand a lexical item and therefore reduce the level of stress often associated with learning new vocabulary. Even more, teachers need to try and make the process of learning new vocabulary fun and njoyable. It is obvious from the list above that teaching vocabulary involves much more than simply presenting a certain number of words on a word list. A network of relevant associations needs to be highlighted and presented in a way that facilitates the effective, efficient learning of a word.

Learner-led approach

I would like to finish by offering one last approach to learning new vocabulary, which I have decided to name the Learner-led Approach. This approach places the onus of vocabulary selection largely in the hands of the learners and works particularly well when applied to reading activities. Rather than pre-selecting vocabulary to teach in a lesson, I simply ask the learners to select the vocabulary they do not know. We then work on the words together as I encourage and guide the learners to guess meaning from context using different word strategies, to use a dictionary, and to write out sentences, usually three, in class or for homework. If classroom participation is low, you can inform the learners that there will be vocabulary test on words in the text; this usually provides the learners with the necessary incentive. In time you will find, as I did, that the threat of a test will no longer be needed as the enjoyment of learning new words forms . One significant advantage of this type of approach is that it allows the learner to take a more active role in the learning process and therefore encourages greater learner autonomy.

All in all, I believe, reading and dictionary use together provide the best option for L2 learners to independently increase their vocabulary quickly, whilst subconsciously increasing their awareness of different grammatical structures. This is an important point because classroom time is usually limited and in reality there are usually few opportunities to use English outside the classroom: when asked, most learners state that they use English very little outside the classroom. Reading, however, provides a real opportunity. Accordingly, teachers need to encourage learners to read outside the classroom, which means that time needs to be assigned in the class to develop the habit of reading and using dictionaries. Silent reading, in particular, is an  activity that is often undervalued and not allocated the time it deserves. 


Why is it important to better understand the process of learning vocabulary? Firstly, increasing vocabulary is a key learning need identified by most learners. Secondly, because the world as we know it is changing quickly, we now seem to have less time each year, while the demands placed upon us mount up; the result of which is an ever-increasing demand on the faculty of the mind. The implications on this situation on teaching are such that teachers must actively seek out new, less time-consuming, more effective ways to teach vocabulary. In particular, there needs to be a focus on productive language and plenty of repetition. Teachers need to expose learners to different learning strategies and to encourage experimentation in order to enable the learners to discover a particular strategy or mix of strategies that works best for them. Measures also need to be taken to utilise time outside the classroom, and to this extent time in the classroom needs to be set aside to develop good learning habits, such as reading and dictionary use. All in all, encouraging learners to take greater responsibility for their learning is the key.

If you are interested in learning more about teaching vocabulary, I thoroughly recommend the following texts:

Michael Lewis’s The Lexical Approach (1993)

Paul Nation’s Teaching and Learning Vocabulary (1990)
Learning vocabulary in another language (2001)

Scott Thornbury’s How to Teach Vocabulary (2002)

1. Krashen, S. 1981. Takes a Chomskian position. arguing for an L2 approach based on L1 acquisition.
2. Thornbury, S. 2002. It is estimated that an educated native speaker has a vocabulary of approximately 20,000 words (or more accurately, 20,000 word families). However, in stark contrast to this figure, most native speakers use a vocabulary of approximately 2,000 words in daily conversation. p. 20, 21
3. The GSL was first formulated by West in 1953 and has since been revised by Nation. It is available both in order of frequency and alphabetically. It is also possible to find frequency words lists in other sizes such as 500, 1000, 3000, etc. This list are readily available on the internet. Just type in “English words”, and “vocabulary list.”
4. Beglar, D. & Hunt, A. January, 1998.
5. Thornbury, S. 2002. p. 21
6. Liu and Nation. 1985.
7. Thornbury, S. 2002. It is of interest to note that the most frequent 100 words in English make up almost 50 percent of most texts.
8. Cairns, R. & Redman, S. 1986. p. 86,87
9. Thornbury, S. 2002.
10. Saragi, Nation, & Meister. 1978.
11. Cairns, R. & Redman, S. 1986. p. 88
12. Rodolico. 2002.
13. Rodolico. 2002. Rodolico states that there are 13 different cognitive strategies: repetition, resourcing, Direct Physical Response, translation, grouping, note-taking, imagery, auditory, keyword, contextualization, elaboration, transfer, clarification
14. Pavicic.


Beglar, D. & Hunt, A. January, 1998. ‘Current Research and Practice in Teaching Vocabulary’. In The Language Teacher .

Carroll, J. B., Davies, P., & Richman, H. 1971. Word frequency book. Houghton Mifflin.

Gairns, R. & Redman, S. 1986. Working with words. Cambridge University Press .

Ghadirian, S. January, 2002 . ‘Providing controlled exposure to target vocabulary through the screening and arranging of texts’. In Language Learning & Technology .

Hill, J. 1999. ‘Collocational competence’. In ETp, 11, pp. 3-6.

Krashen, Stephen D. 1981. Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. English Language Teaching series. London: Prentice-Hall International (UK) Ltd. 202 pages.

Lewis, M. 1993. The Lexical Approach. LTP. pp. 186.

Lewis, M. 1997. Implementing the Lexical Approach. LTP.

Liu, N., & Nation, I. S. P. 1985. ‘Factors affecting guessing vocabulary in context’. In RELC Journal, 16(1), pp. 33-42.

Nation, I. S. P. 1990. Teaching and learning vocabulary. Newbury House.

Pavicic, Visnja. ‘Vocabulary and Autonomy’. http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/think/vocabulary/vocab_autonomy.shtml

Rodolico, J. T. May, 2002. ‘Teaching Cognitive Learning Strategies and Vocabulary Testing’. In Hwa Kang Journal of TEFL .

Saragi, T., Nation, I. S. P., & Meister, G. F. 1978. Vocabulary learning and reading systems, pp. 6, 72-78.

Smith, L.H., & J.S. Renzulli. 1984. ‘Learning Style Preferences: A Practical Approach for Teachers’. In Theory into Practice, pp. 23, 44-50.

Thornbury, S. 2002. Uncovering Grammar. Macmillan Heinemann English Language Teaching.

Willis, J. 1996. A framework for task-based learning. Longman. 


Kendall Peet has taught in Thailand, South Korea, and Turkey, and is currently teaching at FIBSB in Bucharest. He has completed the RSA DELTA and is presently completing his MA in Applied Linguistics. His key interests include teaching academic writing and developing a needs-based (learner-led) approach that encourages greater learner autonomy. Kendall can be contacted at: kendallpeet@hotmail.com

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