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Teaching Vocabulary

Luiz Otávio Barros 2004

For many years I didn’t pay too much attention to how I taught vocabulary. My main
concern was to help students understand and produce grammatical structures. Vocabulary
teaching was some sort of byproduct of whatever grammar or skills work I happened to be

At one point in my career, though, I began teaching and devising courses in which grammar
was supposed to play a less central role. It looked like the pendulum had finally swung
toward vocabulary. So, guess what, I had to find a way to teach words more effectively.

That was part of the problem. I was trying to find a way to teach words when there’s so
much more to vocabulary than words. Why teach “issue” when “address a key issue” tends
to be more memorable and easier to retrieve? Why simply tell students that “cut down on”
means “reduce” instead of practicing the whole chunk “cut down on the number of (hours
online)” “cut down on the amount of (sugar I eat)”. These are insights I derived from the
work of a man called Michael Lewis. Luiz Otávio Barros.

What I felt was missing from his books, though, was a consistent, user-friendly teaching
framework that I could use to enable my students to activate passive lexis and, over time,
use it in spontaneous communication. To this end, I’ve been trying to develop a framework
built around three main principles:

1. Frequency, Usability and Noticing Principle: A lot of useful/usable, high-frequency

vocabulary is not made up of “new” words, but of combinations of “old” words. Classroom
implication: Students need to be taught how to notice these combinations.
2. “Chunking” Principle: Multi-word chunks tend to be stored, remembered and retrieved
more easily than isolated words. Classroom implication: Students need to be taught how to
learn and record new vocabulary in chunks.
3. Multiple exposures principle: Students are more likely to internalize a lexical item if they
come across it several times, in and out of the classroom. Classroom implication: Students
need frequent opportunities for recycling.
4. Associations principle: Playing “mental games” with new lexis helps retention.
Classroom implication: Students need to learn how to make associations between what
they’ve learned and what they already know. Luiz Otávio Barros.

In this e-talk I’ll be focusing on principles 1 and 2.

Having an “advanced” command of vocabulary does not only mean knowing 10 ways of
walking or, say, what sounds different animals make. Progress at higher levels entails
learning 'old' words in new chunks and contexts. For example:

©Luiz Otávio Barros. All rights reserved.

Way - I found a way around the problem / you have a way with words / If I had my way,
I’d…/This is way better than that.

These “old” words used in new ways don’t usually jump off the page as much as “new”
words do. In other words, students are less likely to notice a phrase like “I found my way
around the problem” or “my expectations were met” than, say, “I was flabbergasted” or
“He lives down in the boondocks”. If we assume that what goes unnoticed goes unlearned,
then it makes sense to try and help students notice important lexis. There are a few ways in
which you can do this:

1. Point out patterns and ask students to write them down. Ask questions like: “What’s the
verb before expectations in the second paragraph?” Again, don’t assume students are
noticing collocations and chunks for themselves.
2. After students have read a text and done comprehension exercises, ask them to choose
three interesting phrases (rather than words) they’d like to learn for active use. To stop
them from focusing on the “difficult” words, tell them these phrases should not contain any
unknown vocabulary. That way, students are more likely to notice phrases like “jump to
conclusions”, “needless to say” or “I’ve been meaning to call you”. In the same way,
instead of asking, "Is there anything you don't understand in paragraph 2?" try "Is there anything
you’d like to learn for active use?” Luiz Otávio Barros.
3. Take responsibility for pointing out to students which lexical items are most useful and train
them to do the same. For example, choose a mix of high frequency/useful/usable and less
useful vocabulary from any given text and tell students to rate each phrase as  very useful
/  moderately useful /  not worth the trouble. Then carry out a class survey to discover
which lexis students found more useful.
4. Encourage students to record their new phrases as they find them rather than in a generic
form. For example: the odds that he will come are pretty slim rather than odds.
5. Teach students how to use a search engine like to look up collocations. For

Students browse through the results and make a note of the most frequent verbs and

©Luiz Otávio Barros. All rights reserved.

I hope these ideas make sense to you on some level and that you feel they’re worth
experimenting with. I’d be happy to answer any further questions you may have.

©Luiz Otávio Barros. All rights reserved.