Mar 23

Planning to teach vocabulary

What does it mean to really 'know' a word?

Planning to teach vocabulary

In this video, we'll look at the issues learners might have with the meaning, form and pronunciation of new vocabularyand what we need to remember when we are planning to teach lexis.

Video transcript

 Grammar is an important part of learning a language- and learners certainly perceive think it is but actually vocabulary is a much more important part of the process. Wilkins (1972) says

“Without grammar very little can be conveyed; without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed.”

 So when we are teaching vocabulary, what do we need to think about? What’s going to be difficult for our learners? There’s probably more than you think there is, so let’s have a look at that now.

English has got a lot of words because we’ve been invaded so many times and the average native speaker knows about 40,000 although they probably only use about 5 to 10,000 of those most of the time. If you look at all texts, the most common hundred words make up over 40% of everything that we say and write and if you know the most common 7 ½ thousand words then that covers over 90% of all the words we use. The problem is of course that one word doesn’t just have one meaning so having learnt the word in one context doesn’t necessarily mean that you understand it in all of the others.

Let’s take a nice easy example to start with MUG. Now I chose this because I can see one right in front of me and of course your first thought is that it’s a noun but could also be a verb and it’s got other meanings as a noun too -an ugly mug- he’s such a mug. And then you’ve got other related words like mugshot. There are also phrasal verbs like to mug up on something. So the problem is that even with something that seems quite simple surface there is a lot of complexity often underneath. Because of this, as language teachers we need to really think about the vocabulary be are teaching, and what aspects of it are important and difficult for learners so that we can help through this maze. We do this in the planning stage. As with any language systems, it helps to think about the meaning form and pronunciation of what we’re teaching so let’s go through these one by one….

Let’s start with problems relating to the meaning 

The best place to find the meaning is in the learner dictionary. This will give you a simple text definition and it will also help you to see what the most common uses of the word are and what level they usually taught.

Problem number one is that there’s probably more than one entry for each word. Remember that it’s a good idea to stick to teaching one meaning of a particular word at a time. If they already know one meaning and you could compare it but I wouldn’t teach two very different meanings the same time.

Problem number two is that some words have particular connotations. If you try and put these words into order, what’s the issue? You can see that Lanky, for example, means tall but it’s also got a meaning of probably being thin it might be a bit negative too. So we need to make sure that learners understand this so that they don’t offend someone.

Problem number three is register-some words are just more formal than others. Have a look at these pairs. Do they mean the same thing? What you probably notice is that the more formal ones tend to come from French or Latin so your French, Spanish and Italian learners in particular I can have trouble because they will often choose the word that’s a cognate and end up sounding more formal than they want to.

Problem number four is that there are many words that are near synonyms or that are synonyms in particular contexts but remember that NO word means exactly the same as another word in all the same contexts otherwise there wouldn’t be two words. Look at these two words for example, big and large. Now in most contexts these mean the same thing but if you bought this T-shirt you probably wouldn’t say it was extra big. If you talking to your five-year-old who’s just going to school you probably wouldn’t tell him that he is a large boy now. So it’s important that you learners know what context they can use a particular word into.

Problem number five is about words that look or sound the same as each other. Some words have more than one meaning but the spelling and the sound is exactly the same. We call these homonyms. This is one example. Other words sound the same but have a different meaning and a different spelling like this -these are homophones. And finally some words have a different pronunciation but the same spelling. These are less common but there are a few notable ones like this. These are homographs.

So we need to consider all of these difficulties with meaning when we teach a particular lexical item. Not all words have all of these problems but some do so these are the things to look out for. In the next video, we’ll move on to look at issues with form. Problems with form In the last video, we looked at the things that you need to think about when yo are planning to teach vocabulary that are problematic with the meaning of a word.

So how about problems with form?

Spelling is the big one of course- English is infamous for having rather irregular orthography. Look at these words if this is ‘through’, why does this say ‘cough’ if this is ‘below ‘why is that the same sound oh spelt differently in coat?

Another problem to look out for is irregular plurals such as mouse and mice- but not house and hice- and some of these are really common, man men, woman women, child children, person people.

If we are talking about plurals, there’s also the small matter of whether something is count or non-count if it’s a noun. Learners often make mistakes with words like advices and informations if they don’t know that these can’t be used in a plural way.

Problems don’t only arise with nouns. Many common verbs are irregular, so if you are teaching swim, for example, you learners will need to know that yesterday they swam and in the past they have swum in a river.

Any other problems with form? Yes there are still one or two I’m afraid. If you are teaching adjectives, you will often find that the opposite is just formed with un- but what about illegal, dishonest, imperfect. If these are irregular, your learners need to know about it.

Finally, if learners are going to use a word, they need to know how it fits in with other words. So they need to know about collocation and colligation. Collocation means words that go together usually. So we can’t say Merry birthday. Why not? We can say merry Christmas, but merry and birthday don’t collocate. So, for example, if we teaching the word smoker, it’s also useful to teach heavy smoker or social smoker. Colligation is about the grammatical forms that surround a particular word. If you teach ‘love’ then the learners need to know that it has to have an object- as a teacher you should know that this means it’s transitive but I wouldn’t teach this word to your learners- so they can’t say I love. They have to say I love him or I love ice cream or I love running. Think about words like ‘suggest’- if you teach this, what else they need to know in order to be able to use it? Think about what comes after this.

So these are the problems with form. As you can see, there’s quite a bit to consider. Remember that not all of these things will be an issue for all words, but you need to think about them when you’re planning to account for them if they are. Let’s move on in the next video to think about issues with pronunciation.

Problems with pronunciation

We’ve looked at issues with meaning and form- the final aspect of vocabulary that we need to consider is the pronunciation. Obviously, learners need to know how to say a word and there are a few problems here too. We’ve mentioned spelling before, and in lots of cases this is going to give learners a false picture of how the word sounds. This word is enough but the same spelling says bough. This ‘a’ often has an a ‘a’ sound (cat) but this one has an ‘o’ sound (was) and this one has an ‘ar’ sound (last). Learners need to know this.

Another problem with pronunciation is word stress. Polysyllabic words don’t have regular stress in English and you need to make sure that the learners know where the stress falls. So this word-important- sounds very different if you stress the first syllable.. There are some regular patterns - such as -all words that end in -ion are stressed on the syllable just before that, station amelioration politician, so it’s worth teaching these patterns but there are lots of different patterns see do need to make sure when you teach a new word that the learners know where the stress is. Some words also have a shifting stress pattern. This is a piano that the person who placed it is a pianist. This is an economist, but the car is economical. Often, unstressed syllables are weak, too- so this says annoyed – not Annoyed because that first syllable isn’t stressed

By this time you might be thinking that it’s going to take you forever to even teach a small amount of vocabulary. The next question then is do they need all of this? This is where your judgement as a teacher comes in. If they’re learning a word for receptive purposes, just so that they can understand it in a reading text or a listening, then they don’t need to know so much information. They only need to know the meaning of the word in the context. If you want them to use the word productively though, you need to be aware of what they will need to know in order to be able to use it accurately so you are going to have to think about whether any of these problems are talked about a relevant to the word that you teaching.

Have fun with it.
Created with