Helping Students To Learn the Vocabulary That We Teach Them

Johanna Stirling

Copyright © Johanna Stirling 2003


If only students could use all the vocabulary1 that we taught them! This paper attempts to explore ways in which we can encourage our students to systematically and effectively record lexis that we have taught them in class. Then it asks how we can help learners to transfer this record into their long-term memories so that each item is added to the repertoire of words and phrases that they can understand and, when necessary, use. There will be a description of a system of keeping a class record of vocabulary and ideas for activating this. We will also note some recent research and theory that supports suggested methods. However there are several areas of vocabulary teaching that will not be covered by this paper, such as how and what lexis to actually teach in the classroom, and how to encourage students to acquire further incidental vocabulary through extensive reading and listening. The report is organised as follows:

1. Theory of Vocabulary Memorisation

2. Recording and Storing Lexis

a. Format

b. Which lexical items to include

c. What information to include about each lexical item

d. Organisation

e. Teacher's role

f. Vocabox

3. Memorising Recorded Lexis

a. Recycling

b. Rote learning

c. Personalisation

d. Mnemonic techniques

4. Conclusion

Theory of Vocabulary Memorisation 

There has been a great deal of research into how we remember and much of this informs our decisions about how we should encourage our students to record and memorise lexis. The following is a summary of some principles that have arisen from this research 2.

a. Organised material is easier to learn than seemingly random lists.

b. The deeper the mental processing that learners engage in when learning a new lexical item, the more likely they are to remember it.3 By deep processing we mean that the learner works out the meaning of the item by referring to their existing knowledge or they work on personalising the meaning. Research shows that if there is elaboration on the meaning, for example encountering the item in different contexts, subsequent retrieval is enhanced. Shallower processing is more sensory than semantic, remembering by seeing or hearing the item only, not fully engaging with the meaning. This means the learner meets the item in only one context and research suggests this is much more forgettable in the long term.

c. New lexis should be integrated into language already known by the learners.

d. Word pairs (i.e. an English word with its L1 translation) facilitate rapid learning but the memorisation is likely to be short-lived because of the shallow level of word knowledge as discussed in b. above.

e. In order to be able to use a word appropriately and accurately a student needs to know much more about it than just its meaning. Ideally they should learn its spelling, pronunciation, grammatical behaviour, associations, collocations, frequency and register. As it is unreasonable to expect every word to be presented as such a complete package, it is important that students are made aware of particular irregularities or potential difficulties attached to lexical items and that they can add to their records as their knowledge of the item expands.

f. The academics disagree about how many times we need to meet a word before we are comfortable and confident enough to use it ourselves, or to take “ownership” of it. The figure ranges from five to sixteen. Whichever it is, we can see from this the importance and value of recycling lexis. The timing of this recycling also appears to have an effect. Gairns and Redman4 point out that 80% of the information we forget is lost within the twenty-four hours of initial learning. The ideal therefore is to employ a system of “expanding rehearsal”. This is a programme for reviewing where the intervals become longer between each review. Although a strictly-timed system would probably be too cumbersome and time-consuming in the real world, the value of reviewing the next day does seem manageable and highly desirable.

g. It seems that the very act of recalling a word makes it easier to recall again at a later date. This is known as the ‘retrieval practice effect’.

h. Some research suggests that the brain stores vocabulary in semantic groups.

i. We know students have individual learning styles and that these dictate the optimum vocabulary learning method for each of them. Some people remember by visual means, others auditory or kinesthetic. For most learners, visuals seem to enhance both retention and recall, but other stimuli, such as touch, may also be employed effectively by some students.

j. The ease of learning new lexis may also be influenced by the student’s mother tongue. Those speaking an L1 which has many similarities to English (e.g. Latin-based European languages) often learn by translating to a seemingly obvious equivalent, whereas if the L1 is completely different, students are more likely to focus on the actual concept 5

k. Some words are said to be more difficult to learn than others.6

l. We can recall words which rhyme fairly easily. Other strong aids to recall are providing the first few letters, giving opposites, giving translations and giving near synonyms.

The rest of this paper will look at implications for our vocabulary teaching at the Bell Schools in the light of the above. Of course we cannot force our students to learn in a particular way, but we can present them with a range of strategies for them to explore. If we can give reasons for using them based on scientific research, this may encourage our learners to try them. Even doing some metacognitive work, that is asking students to think in some detail about how they learn, should make them appreciate that there is not just a single way to approach the learning of new words.

Recording and Storing Lexis 


Most students seem to record new vocabulary in a small notebook; in fact many of us encourage this by providing them at the beginning of the course. Is this the best format though? Portability is the notebook’s greatest asset but is there room for students to note further information about a word rather than simply its translation or a short definition? Perhaps a bigger book would be preferable, or if a small one is used, that the various pieces of information are set out on a double-page spread.

Some other options to consider are loose-leaf files, index card binders, separate cards or a computer storage system. The advantage of these is that the lexical items can be regrouped according to different criteria and it is easy to add items and further information about an item already recorded. Separate cards are convenient for browsing. Wordflo is a personal organiser for vocabulary, the most useful feature of which are pages for recording vocabulary in a very systematic method.7 This has been trailed by Richard Denys at the Bell School in Cambridge where the majority of the students using it felt that it had improved their vocabulary learning strategies. Even if the book is not fully incorporated into your course, it is useful for the teacher to consult it for helpful ideas and pro-formas.

Storing lexis on the computer will probably become increasingly popular. There is an extremely useful programme called Vocab Book (written by an ex-Bell teacher – Mark Smith)8 which allows for very flexible and organised storage. Another method is audio recording, but this may be more useful to support a written method of storage. Certain types of vocabulary can be learnt by labelling items in the home or sticking cards on the back of the toilet door, for example.

In fact, any format students use is certainly better than nothing, as actually writing the word goes a little way to committing it to the memory.

Which lexical items to include

We all know students who write down every word that is on the whiteboard and nothing that is not. We need to make students aware of the types of lexical items that are useful for them. Ideally, we aim to train learners to decide for themselves what is important to learn, by asking questions such as “Is this word important for you? We also want to encourage them to write more than single words. It is much more useful for them to learn “tell a joke” than “joke” so they can actually use the word. Phrases such as “How do you spell that?” are preferable to just “spell”. Knowledge of chunks of language, such as strong and semi-fixed collocations, and high frequency expressions certainly help students produce more natural language than single words do.9

What information to include about each lexical item

1. Translation.

The majority of students write direct translations of the lexical item. Of course, very often this is adequate, but they should be very wary of differences in meaning and of use. Lewis10 suggests that lexis for productive use should be noted in L1 first followed by the L2 translation to aid rapid retrieval, but for receptive use the L2 item needs to be recorded first. This seems sensible if you could divide vocabulary definitively enough, but in practice may be impractical.

2. Definition

Writing an L2 definition instead of a translation gives the student the advantage of being able to take a “fresher” look at a piece of vocabulary, that is not just relating it to a word in their own language which may have subtle differences. This also provides further communicative practice of expressing meaning and allows students to note limitations to the meaning, i.e. what it is not as well as what it is. From intermediate level students should increasingly be using this method. 

3. Collocation

Collocations can be noted, especially for single words, so students are able to use their new knowledge in natural-sounding sentences. Diagrams and semantic maps can be drawn to show the relationships between words.

4. Example sentences

If learners can be persuaded to write an example sentence for each item, they will not only have a note of how the word can be used but will also have engaged in a deeper processing task of inventing the sentence. The danger however is that their sentences are incorrect and the teacher does need to check these sentences frequently. The alternative is for the learner to get the examples from the teacher or a dictionary.

5. Word’s family

For single words it is very useful to store other members of its family with it. If students record the noun for example, it is useful to have other parts of speech from the same root. Also other words that can be made from the word using affixes can be noted, e.g. opposites.

6. Pictures

Pictures often convey meaning as effectively as words and may enhance memory retention, especially when learners have to think about how to draw the meaning.

7. Register, connotation and style.

Notes on register (e.g. formality), connotation (e.g. positivity) and style (e.g. journalistic) are invaluable. Even from low levels students can be encouraged to note information such as formality.

8. Pronunciation

Especially if a word is for productive use learners need to know the pronunciation and so should record it. A phonemic transcription is ideal, but some students and some teachers are not confident enough with it and some dislike it as it is another script to struggle with. At the very least, the primary stress should be marked and silent letters indicated. If students find it helpful they could note down homophones (e.g. aunt/aren’t) or words that rhyme with the lexical item either in English or in their L1..

Of course this is a formidable list if it has to applied to every lexical item, but where necessary some of this information can be added at a later stage. This is in fact desirable as it provides recycling opportunities.


A systematically organised vocabulary store is essential if students are to be able to retrieve lexis on demand, rather than leafing through pages of randomly-noted words. Also, the very act of organising lexis helps learning as it involves deeper processing and may mirror the way it is stored in the brain. There are many different ways to organise it and a mixture of the following would probably be most useful.

1. By topic or theme. Within these, learners could label pictures or try spatial grouping (e.g. the names of different parts of the body are arranged on the page to make a picture of the body). They could also use grids of, for example, sports, equipment needed, where it is played).

2. Alphabetically.

3. According to functions/situations or speech acts.

4. By parts of speech.

5. Types of lexical item, e.g. high frequency social phrases.11

6. According to whether they are primarily for productive or receptive use.

7. Subjectively. Words are categorised according to their associations for each learner, e.g. nice and nasty words.12 

Teacher’s Role

Beyond introducing the learners to different strategies, the teacher needs to use some class time for the organisation and reviewing of students’ vocabulary records. Should teachers collect vocabulary records to check them? There are certainly advantages: ensuring accuracy, monitoring diligence and methods used. However, realistically, we have to consider how much time a busy teacher could devote to this task and whether it really encourages independent learning. 


So far we have looked at storage methods for individuals’ personal use, but we should also consider a system for the whole class. The Vocabox is the ideal low-tech tool for this. After words have been presented in class, those which the teacher or class consider useful are written on pieces of coloured paper or card and put into a box. This box, which could be a biscuit tin or the top of a photocopy paper box, is kept in the classroom so everybody always has access to it. The lexical item could be recorded in this way by the teacher or a nominated student. While the latter may sound more pedagogically sound in practice, if written by the teacher the cards are more likely to be accurate and legible. Each card could contain only the lexical item or some of the other information about it. This rather depends on how the cards are to be used (see below), but they are more flexible if they only show the item. Liz McMahon and I (teachers at Norwich Bell School)conducted some classroom research into the Vocabox13 and it is now widely used within our school and probably others. We have found it extremely popular with students and teachers, as it is flexible and accessible.

Finally it should be noted that whatever system students use, the most important consideration is that they are storing vocabulary in SOME kind of systematic way.

Memorising recorded lexis

So let us assume that we have encouraged our students to store their vocabulary in a systematic format. The problem remains: how to transfer it from that format into the long-term memory. We have already noted that the mere act of recording it aids memory and if the learners have engaged in some kind of deeper processing such as reorganising the lexis or adding further information to what they already know, this should stimulate further retention. Unfortunately these methods are not enough considering the vocabulary load our students need to acquire.


One of the most important aids to memory retention is recycling. The learner needs to meet the lexical item several more times, preferably in different contexts. There is a greater probability of this happening incidentally if learners read and listen extensively. Nation14 said “Real vocabulary learning comes through use, both receptive use and productive use". Learners form a hypothesis about a lexical item and they can only test this by using it. If they have said or written the item with no dire consequences then they will feel more confident about using it again.

Although extensive listening and reading is a very effective ongoing process it is a slow method of recycling vocabulary and somewhat hit-and-miss. So the teacher also needs to help the students to recycle recently learnt lexis in subsequent lessons. It is especially important to do this the day after it has been taught as we have seen how much we forget in the first twenty-four hours after initial learning. 

If you keep a class Vocabox, this is much easier to do, as you have all the recently-taught lexical items to hand. Here are some of the many different types of activities for recycling. 

A. Eliciting:

1. This can be done by the teacher, and the students either call out or write the words. Eliciting can take the form of giving a definition, reminding the students of a context where they met the word, giving an opposite or near synonym, suggesting a rhyme, leading in to a lexical field (e.g. “It’s not a carrot, but a….?). With a monolingual class perhaps a translation could be the cue.

2. If the eliciting is done by students then they are simultaneously practising expressing meanings and exploring their knowledge of the word more deeply: part of speech, exactly what it means, maybe other meaning of the word. 

a. This can involve one student sitting in a “hot seat” with their back to the board, the teacher writes a word on the board and the rest of the class call out clues to help him or her guess. 

b. Alternatively it can be made more competitive by having two or more groups each with a “hot seat” and they race to get their team member to guess the word.

c. A variation on this is to get one member of each group to come to the teacher to see a lexical item, then they have to elicit from their teams. 

d. Whichever way, you could say that the “eliciters” can only use pictures or mime or say one word each to elicit the item for a change. 

e. Eliciting can also be done in pairs, each student being given a small pile of words to elicit form their partner. Students often become very involved in this, even outside classtime.

B. Contextualisation:

It is also very important that the students learn to use the words in sentences, so you need to include some of the following contextualisation activities too. 

1. Students could be asked to write gapped sentences with chosen lexical items missing for their classmates to complete. 

2. Or they write full sentences on overhead transparencies for everyone to comment on or correct. 

3. Storybuilding or dialogue-building involving target words or phrases could be done in groups or the whole class. 

4. You could encourage students to use the lexis in real communication by assigning to each of them an item which they must try to use naturally in that lesson or outside class before the next lesson. 

C. Grouping:

Using class time to get students to group and regroup words is very valuable. 

1. You could either give criteria for groups, e.g. stress patterns, topic, parts of speech, formality, or get them to make their own decisions about groupings and their classmates can then guess what criteria they used. 

2. Regrouping could involve drawing or completing spidergrams. 

D. Labelling:

1. Learners could label different parts of the classroom with items from the Vocabox. 

2. This need not be confined to concrete nouns; it becomes more interesting when they have to find a home for phrases such as “I see what you mean” or “Better late than never!”. 

E. Phonemic script:

The vocabulary in the box could be revised using phonemic script if students know or are learning it (or learning to refer to charts in dictionaries). 

F. Rummaging:

“Rummaging” activities can be done with smaller groups: learners look for items in the box:

· which have silent letters, 

· that they would say but not write, 

· that they understand but do not know how to use, 

· etc.


Rote-learning of vocabulary seems to be very popular with students as it gives a strong sense of purpose and measurable progress. It generally involves learning word pairs (L2 word with L1 translation). Some research shows this to be an effective method of learning, but it is doubtful that the lexis is remembered for very long as there is no deep processing. The question also arises about whether the students can actually use the memorised item. Only if there is a direct translation of the word in their own language will this be easy, even then there may be problems with collocation. If students do want to learn vocabulary in this way it is suggested that they look at the L2 item and try to remember the L1 translation (or L2 definition or synonym) first and then when they have mastered this to reverse the process, trying to remember the L2 item.15 If learners are rote-learning with cards they can put the ones that they know to the back of the pile and those they are not sure of can be slotted into a place towards the front so they will be revised again quite soon.


Personalisation can certainly aid memory retention. Students may be able, for example to visualise themselves opening a can to remember “open a can”. Or they can be encouraged when learning an emotive word, such as “freedom”, to think what it really means to them.16

Mnemonic Techniques

Much has been written about various mnemonic techniques which may work for some students but seem rather cumbersome and time-consuming. They will be only briefly outlined here.17 The Keywords Method involves thinking up a word in the L1 which has some phonological or orthographic similarity to the target L2 word, then the learner should visualise these two together. In the Loci Method, the learner visualises a place he or she knows well, a street for example. The words are then ‘placed’ on the visualised street. To remember the learner must mentally ‘walk’ down the street seeing the words. For the Peg Method, the student needs to use a rhyme such, as “one is a bun, two is a shoe” etc. Then he gives each of his target words a number, for example “drawing pin” is number one. He must now visualise a bun with a drawing pin in it or a drawing pin eating a bun. These methods may be suitable for a small number of students to learn a small number of words but there are too many limitations for teachers to spend too much time on them.


“Which method learners use [to memorise words] does not seem to be as crucial as that they do it” state Hatch and Brown.18 Similarly, where storage methods are concerned, there are principles for more effective learning outlined above, but they are ideals and may work better for some students than for others. So, as teachers, what can we do to maximise the quantity and quality of our students’ learning of lexis taught in the classroom?

1. We can introduce them to different strategies outlined above, advising them why some methods seem to be more effective. 

2. We should encourage them to organise their personal vocabulary storage. 

3. A classroom lexical storage system such as the Vocabox provides a popular and effective way to widen students’ vocabulary quite quickly, if it is used frequently for revision. 

4. We can provide systematic recycling of lexis that has been introduced in the class, especially revising language presented the previous day.

5. We should encourage deeper involvement with the lexis than straight translation.

6. We should encourage our students to note and learn as much information about the use of an item as possible 

7. We can also encourage our learners to listen and read extensively outside the classroom, so they increase the likelihood of ‘bumping into’ lexis they have already met.

8. We should encourage them to use recently-learnt language as soon and as much as possible within the safe confines of the classroom first.


1. The terms vocabulary and lexis are used interchangeably in this paper. They could refer to single word or longer chunks of language.

2. See Schmitt and Schmitt 1995.

3. See Schmitt and McCarthy. 1998.

4. See Gairns and Redman. 1986.

5. See Schmitt and McCarthy 1997.

6. See Batia Laufer’s article in Schmitt and McCarthy. 1997.

7. See Smith and Smith. 1998.

8. VocabBook is available from Sundial Systems Ltd on CD-Rom

9. For detailed discussion of “chunking” see Lewis. 1993 and 1997.

10. See Lewis. 1998.

11. Again Lewis 1998 discusses this at some length.

12. See Morgan and Rinvolucri 1986

13. As presented at IATEFL Manchester 1998.

14. See Nation. 1990.

15. See Schmitt and Schmitt. 1995.

16. See Holden. 1999.

17. For fuller explanations see Holden 1999.

18. See Hatch and Brown. 1995.



1. Gairns, R and S. Redman. 1986. Working With Words. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

2. Hatch, _ and _ Brown. 1995. Vocabulary, Semantics and Language Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

3. Holden, W. R. 1999. ‘Learning to Learn: 15 Vocabulary Acquisition Activities’ Modern English Teacher 8/2 42-47

4. Lewis, M. 1993. The Lexical Approach. Hove: Language Teaching Publications

5. Lewis, M. 1997. Implementing the Lexical Approach. Hove: Language Teaching Publications.

6. Morgan, J and M. Rinvolucri. 1986. Vocabulary. Oxford: oxford University Press

7. Nation, I. S. P. 1990. Teaching and Learning Languages. New York: Newbury House.

8. Schmitt, N. and D. Schmitt. 1995. ‘Vocabulary Notebooks: theoretical underpinnings and practical suggestions’ English Language Teaching Journal 49/2: 133-143

9. Schmitt, N. and M. McCarthy. 1997. Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

10. Schmitt, N. and M. McCarthy. 1998. ‘Key Vocabulary Concepts for Language Teachers’ in. IATEFL 1998 Manchester Conference Reports 18-19

11. Smith, S and J Smith. 1998. Wordflo: Your Personal English Organiser. Harlow: Longman

12. Smith, M. Available from Sundial Systems Ltd. Field Cottage, Rectory Lane, Hethel, NR14 8HD.VocabBook.


Johanna Stirling  

Johanna Stirling is a freelance English Language Teaching Consultant based in the UK. She teaches, trains teachers, writes materials and gives presentations about English language teaching. She has written teaching materials for Cambridge University Press and worked on software editing too. This has included work on face2face, Touchstone, English Unlimited and Cambridge English Teacher. She has been A Cambridge Product Champion since 2006. Johanna is also a NILE (Norwich Institute for Language Education) Associate Trainer. She has a special interest in teaching spelling. To find out more see her website, The English Language Garden at and The Spelling Blog at