4 key principles to help your students grow their vocabulary

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Grow vocabulary Rachael Roberts

Rachael Roberts is a teacher, teacher trainer (CELTA and DELTA) and materials writer. She has worked in countries all over the world, including Portugal, Brazil, Poland and the UK. Rachael is also a co-author of High Note, an intensive five-level course for upper-secondary students. In this article she outlines four ways students can grow their vocabulary when learning English. 

Watch Rachael’s practical and popular Spring days webinar, The Garden of Words: How to help your students grow their vocabulary, here!

Turning the classroom into a garden of words

We often talk about growing vocabulary, and I think there are some parallels with gardening. We scatter lots of seeds (or words), but how many of them actually germinate? What can we do to make the soil more fertile? And how can we help our students harvest what they’ve learnt?

When we are talking about teaching and learning vocabulary, I think there are four key principles: 

1. Noticing: making words more meaningful

Noticing is like choosing which seeds we’re going to plant – or maybe noticing plants we admire in other people’s gardens that we’d like to have in ours.

In order to notice vocabulary, it has to be salient, or stand out, in some way. We can help to make vocabulary more salient for learners by drawing their attention to the items and by encouraging them to make meaningful and personal connections with the words.

2. Processing: making decisions and exploring meaning

If we want the words to be retained, then we also need to process them at a deeper level. Perhaps this is like the hard work of weeding our garden.

As Scott Thornbury says, “The more decisions a learner makes about a word and the more cognitively demanding these decisions are, the better the word is remembered.”

These kinds of decisions could include such things as categorizing words according to meaning, or matching them with synonyms or antonyms. Anything where students have to really think about the words and explore their meanings and how they are used in context.

3. Repeating: attaching importance to vocabulary

This deeper processing will certainly help, but for words to really stick,  we also need enough repetition. If we only come across or use a lexical item once or twice, the brain will decide that it can’t be very important, and it probably won’t be stored in our long term memories. 

So, first of all, we need repeated encounters with the words or lexical items, in different contexts, and then repetition in terms of opportunities to use the items. In our gardening metaphor, we can see this as the sunshine and the rain.

If we learn something several times over a period of time, the brain will start to create much stronger and more permanent neural pathways, and the information won’t just wither away.

Memorization and repetition can therefore be an important part of learning, but the more contextualized the better. So, we might try and learn short texts which contain the vocabulary, or work on learning words from a particular text – and also remembering as much as we can of the context in which they were used. This kind of contextualization helps us learn not just individual words, but how to use these words, making it more likely that we will retain and make use of them.

4. Retrieving: a worthwhile long-term commitment

Finally, the fourth principle, retrieval is the struggle to remember those lexical items when we have perhaps half-forgotten them. It’s a little like the hard work of digging up our harvest. This kind of challenge is often referred to as ‘desirable difficulty’ because it’s the process of having to work hard to remember that makes the words stick even more. 

We know from research that regular recycling and coming back to test ourselves, again and again, is what helps our vocabulary to grow and blossom.

Like gardening, vocabulary learning requires a long term commitment, but the results are definitely worthwhile. 

As DA Wilkins said, back in 1972: “While without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed.”

More about High Note

Grow vocabulary with High Note

High Note, which was co-authored by Rachael Roberts, is a five-level course for upper-secondary students. It serves as a much-needed link from the school experience to the world outside, opening a window into life as a young adult.

High Note’s inspiration content is aimed at teenagers and is oriented around achieving ambitions. The course equips learners with language skills, life and career competencies and strategies for exam success – as well as success in the workplace and in their future lives.

Download a sample now. 

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