Vocabulary knowledge and language teaching: Choosing what to focus on

How can we boost our EFL learners’ vocabulary knowledge? How can we turn ‘input’ into ‘intake’?

Here are 8 tips on selecting new lexis for our EFL lessons in order to promote language awareness and vocabulary acquisition

    With regard to vocabulary teaching in a foreign language context Nation and Waring (1997) suggest that teachers should make their decisions based on the data related to the vocabulary size and knowledge of native speakers and the amount of lexis they believe their learners need in order to effectively communicate in the target language and at the same time enrich their intake of TL lexis with meaningful and useful input.

   Below are some key points to consider when selecting new lexis for our vocabulary lessons that will help us boost our learners’ acquisition and promote their interlanguage development.

  1. Usefulness – coverage

    When selecting new vocabulary items for our language lessons we should always focus on their usefulness and whether or not our students will be able to incorporate these words in their active vocabulary and use them for communicative purposes.  Our students will pick up new words more easily if they can recognize 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. Turning intake to output should be our main priority here as well as boosting our learners’ interlanguage development with meaningful lexis.

     The term ‘usefulness’ also refers to whether the words we will focus on match our learners’ level (in terms of difficulty) with regard to their spelling, their pronunciation and whether or not they can be used in a variety of different contexts (coverage).

2. Focus on the amount of new words- their frequency of use

    The frequency of use in everyday language of the vocabulary items we will be focusing on should also be one of our main concerns when selecting what to teach (especially for beginner and intermediate levels). We need to provide our students with meaningful input that contains examples of the usage of the most frequently used words/lexical chunks and word families of the TL. The amount of new words we expose our learners to is also important. Too many new words may have the opposite effect on our students and may hinder the learning process as they may not be easily understood and memorized.

3. Selecting lexis based on our learners’ level and needs

        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.        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.

    It is therefore 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. The selection of new lexis will also depend on our students’ level. Exam-oriented classrooms will need a more detailed focus on different lexical items than those with adult learners who want to learn English for communicative purposes.

        In order to grasp our learners’ attention and increase their willingness to participate in the lesson we need to focus on their different learning styles, on their personalities, their feelings, their likes and dislikes. We also need to provide them with a variety of different tasks that will satisfy their needs and at the same time promote vocabulary acquisition (ex. role plays and simulations for the kinesthetic ones, paragraph sequencing for the visual types etc.). Intrinsic motivation also plays an important role here. If our students need to feel motivated to take part in the lesson and the activities and therefore effectively ‘absorb’ the new linguistic input we expose them to.

4. Focus on collocations and lexical chunks

    When selecting new lexis for our vocabulary lessons it is important not to teach the words separately but with their most frequent collocates. This is very beneficial for more advanced levels as our students need to begin to recognize certain words not as individual items but as part of a lexical chunk. Activities based on corpus data can be very helpful in promoting the learning of TL collocations. Our students get exposed to real life language usage and learn the language chunks in meaningful, authentic contexts. Through the study of corpus data our learners will begin to notice certain lexical patterns in the target language and the different idiomatic uses and meanings a word can adopt.

5. Active and passive vocabulary

    Based on our lesson’s overall aim and our students’ needs, we also need to consider whether we should be focusing on vocabulary items that we want our learners to simply understand and recognize or on lexis that should form part of their active vocabulary usage. For example, our learners may need to know some words actively so that they can use them appropriately in their speaking or writing but other words may only need to be learnt passively (in order for example to facilitate the understanding of a particular piece of writing, etc.).

6. Focus on meaningful input

Is it authentic? Is it comprehensible? Do the texts have enough examples of the new words? Can our students deduce meaning from context?

    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.)

Authentic materials: introducing new lexis through real life examples of language use

    As Nuttall (1996:179) points out, when selecting authentic materials for our EFL classroom we should mainly focus on whether or not they support our “overall teaching purpose and learning objectives”. For effective learning to take place, it is therefore important to ‘feed’ our learners with useful, meaningful, authentic input and not just stick to coursebook material. When we enrich our lesson with authentic materials we do not only expose our learners to real life language use, but we also expand their knowledge on the target culture, the people, their lifestyles, beliefs and values.

    When selecting authentic materials to include in our vocabulary lessons we always need to take into account the authenticity of the language used and whether or not the lexis and grammar included match our students’ level and specific needs. Our learners need to receive input from a variety of L2 sources and to read/listen to and explore a variety of different genres (newspaper articles, train timetables, authentic brochures, abstracts from books/plays, poems, interviews, news broadcasts, podcasts, YouTube clips, etc.).

Comprehensible input

    With regard to authentic texts, we always need to check whether there will be comprehension issues and whether we are making unreasonable demands on our students’ knowledge of the language. Our learners need to be able to extract all the information they need using contextual clues and not feel frustrated and demotivated by the overwhelming amount of unknown lexis and grammar. If we believe that they may not be able to figure out the meaning of certain vocabulary items from context, we might have to do some pre- teaching and at the same time activate our learners’ schemata on the topic covered in the materials.

7. Picking up new words through meaningful, communicative tasks

    Our main aim should not be for our students to merely notice new lexis through the linguistic input of the authentic materials. The key is to turn this noticing into active knowledge. To foster this language awareness, we need to provide them with authentic tasks and opportunities to use and produce the TL patterns both in writing and in speaking.

    For Harmer, ‘successful language teaching’ should be judged according to the ‘balance of the activities our students are involved in’. Since in most EFL classrooms learners have limited opportunities to practice the language outside the classroom, Harmer considers ‘genuine communicative tasks’ as an important part of the lesson. We therefore need to come up with activities that will increase student talking time (STT) and will give our learners the opportunity to utilize their knowledge and find ways to interact, express themselves in a creative way and get their message across in the target language.

    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 memorize new lexis and use it to effectively express their thoughts and ideas in the foreign language. We need to increase our learners’ willingness to get actively involved and use the TL in a more relaxed and playful way. Our learners also 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.

    The more opportunities our learners have for language production, the more they will begin to notice and try to produce certain structures in order to negotiate meaning in the TL. By giving them tasks that promote student creativity and peer collaboration, our learners will become more conscious of the meaning and the usage of the new language features and lexical chunks and this will promote their language awareness and vocabulary acquisition.

8. Recycling and repetition

Do our students get the opportunity to encounter the new lexis in multiple environments? Can they detect the meaning of the new words in different contexts?

    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. 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.


Nation, P. and R. Waring. (1997). Vocabulary size, text coverage and word lists. In Schmitt, N. and M. McCarthy, Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition, Pedagogy. Cambridge University Press

Nuttall, C. (1996) Teaching Reading Skills in a foreign language Heinemann

O’Dell, F. 1997. Incorporating vocabulary into the syllabus. In Schmitt, N. and M. McCarthy, Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition, Pedagogy. Cambridge University Press

Read, J. 2000. Assessing Vocabulary. Cambridge University Press. Chapters 1, 4 and 5

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

Sinclair, J. and A. Renouf, 1998. A lexical syllabus for language learning. In Carter, R. and M. McCarthy, Vocabulary and Language Teaching. Longman

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Best Ed Lessons

The Best Free Educational Lessons for Homeschool, Primary, Middle and High School Students and Teachers - we are non-profit, no fees, no ads

Caroline Hynds, Freelance Editor

Content editor and copy editor based in Brighton & Hove. Professional Member CIEP, Avallain Author accredited.

Dewisant's Blog

Smile! You’re at the best WordPress.com site ever

Secret ESL Teacher

Diary of an ESL Teacher

Matthew Kutter

Instructional Design - ESL & TESOL Education


Archive of seminars for educators scheduled weekly at http://learning2gether.pbworks.com


Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Henry Ford

All about ELT

Expect the unexpected


TESOL International Association advances the quality of English language teaching worldwide

ELT Connect

FREE resources and networking platform

Teachers Together

Helping new English Language Teachers in their profession


“The mind is like a sponge, soaking up endless drops of knowledge." - Robert M. Hensel

Unite ELT

Unite English Language Teachers Branch

ELT for beginners

Tips and resources to help you succeed

Transformations of an EFL teacher

Reflections of an English as a foreign language teacher..

English-Language Thoughts

English-Language Thoughts

TEFL Planet

All things TEFL and beautiful!

%d bloggers like this: