Promoting vocabulary acquisition and retention in the EFL classroom

How can we enhance the acquisition and retention of L2 lexical items? How can we foster our learners’ memory skills and turn input into intake?

Here are 7 tips on the teaching strategies we can adopt to boost vocabulary acquisition in the foreign language classroom

    Richards & Schmidt (2002:457) define vocabulary retention as “the ability to recall or remember things after an interval of time. Helping our students to not only remember newly acquired lexis but to effectively retrieve it and use it in the target language is a challenge for all foreign language instructors.

   Below you can find some points to consider when focusing on techniques that will boost our learners’ long term memory and will promote vocabulary acquisition in the L2.

  1. Selecting lexis that is useful and meaningful to our learners

        We need to carefully examine and select the words we will be teaching to our students based on their level of difficulty and relevance to our learners’ specific needs. These do not only include the ones we will find in our syllabus and coursebooks, but the groups of words and lexical chunks we will be adding to our lessons because of their usefulness. We need to identify what lexical items we want our learners to incorporate into their active vocabulary based on their impact on our students’ future linguistic development. We can either have in mind a language exam or the practicality of the words in real life situations.

2. Examining which teaching strategies work best for our specific language classrooms

        Schmitt (2000:145) focuses on the benefits of both explicit teaching and incidental/ autonomous learning in vocabulary acquisition and retention. Depending on our specific language classrooms and the needs of our students it is important to use a variety of different teaching strategies when introducing or recycling L2 lexis. Some groups of learners could benefit from the explicit teaching of new words, whereas others may pick up or retrieve new lexis more easily from group work and interactive tasks.

3. The importance of memory retention strategies: using mnemonic devices

    Our EFL learners frequently encounter difficulties in finding effective techniques in order to recall new vocabulary items in the target language. More advanced levels and adult learners could benefit from the explicit teaching of some memory retention techniques that can be adapted and used in acquiring new lexis. Through this strategy training our students will not only improve their long term memory but will also acquire the skills needed to be independent and confident learners.

Below is a really useful article with some techniques we could introduce our students to in order to help their brain recall, retain and retrieve new information in an effective way:

4. Meaningful context – Learners as discoverers of new lexis

        Placing newly introduced lexis in meaningful contexts is vital for effective vocabulary learning. The sentences we use as examples, the reading passages, the listening tasks, etc. all need to be carefully selected in order to provide useful input to our learners and the opportunity for them to detect and understand how the words are used in an authentic TL context. Learner autonomy should also be encouraged. We need to let our students try to generate meaning for the target words using contextual clues. (Of course we need to make sure that the text/task are of an appropriate level and that our students will not struggle to deduce meaning from context.)

    In addition to focusing on our learners’ active involvement during the lesson, we must also encourage independent thinking to promote vocabulary acquisition. This learner autonomy needs to take place outside the lesson hours too, during individual study. To boost our students’ successful self-development, we must teach them the strategies they need to use to be in charge of their learning and make conscious decisions about it. They must be trained to set their own personal goals, to notice what their strengths and weaknesses are and to reflect on what they should be focusing on based on their individual needs. This of course greatly depends on our learners’ age and level and involves a great amount of effort from the teachers’ part as well in order to effectively guide and train their learners towards success.

5. Task authenticity and variety: addressing all learner styles

          For Penny Ur (1996), ‘purposeful and original activities’ will foster the learning process and will significantly boost learner motivation. We must give our students a reason to find the vocabulary they need to effectively express their thoughts and ideas in the L2. We need to increase our learners’ willingness to get actively involved and use the TL in a more relaxed and playful way. Our learners need to feel motivated enough in order to discover new lexis and L2 structures on their own in order to appropriately convey meaning in the target language.

    Since L2 vocabulary acquisition forms an important part of foreign language teaching, we need to carefully examine and see what works best for our specific classrooms. It is important to examine our students’ different learning styles and adapt our teaching to suit their needs. Visual learners will prefer some sort of realia or vocabulary flashcards whereas more kinesthetic types will find interactive activities more useful in picking up new vocabulary.

6. Recycling and repetition

      In his book How to Teach Vocabulary, Thornbury (2002:22) stresses the importance of both receptive and productive skills in the acquisition of lexis. Recycling and repetition of newly acquired vocabulary through a variety of tasks is key to successful language learning. Extensive reading and exposure in general to TL input (through movies, interviews, tv series, podcasts, news broadcasts etc.) is vital to successful vocabulary acquisition and retention. Our learners need to be given the opportunities to encounter the newly acquired lexical items in their cultural context and to deepen their understanding of their use in the L2.We need to encourage as much practice and give our learners a reason in order to retrieve the words they have previously learned and actively use them to communicate meaning in the TL.

7. The importance of learner motivation

        Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are important when we have to memorize new words in a foreign language. The newly acquired lexis has to be useful to our students. We need to find ways to trigger their interest, their eagerness to learn and give them reasons to want to ‘pick up’ this new knowledge and successfully incorporate it in their active vocabulary.


Harmer, J. (2001). The practice of English language teaching. Longman.

Richards, C.J. & Schmidt, R. (2002). “Dictionary of language teaching and applied linguistics: New York: Pearson Education”.

Schmitt, N. (2000). Vocabulary in Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press

Scrivener, J. (1994). Learning Teaching. Oxford: Heinemann

Thornbury, S. (2002). How to teach vocabulary. Pearson

Ur, P. (2012). A course in English language teaching. Cambridge University Press

Published by Joanna Nifli

Greek-Canadian ELT teacher and freelance translator with work experience at the United Nations and the European Parliament. Holder of an MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (MA TEFL), the Cambridge CELTA and an MA in Applied Translation Studies from the University of Leeds. Interested in innovative pedagogies in language education, TESOL, teacher training, applied linguistics and related topics

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