Making up for lost time: Three ways to help students learn new words

Learn new words with Vaughan Jones

In the current climate, it’s more important than ever to help students find ways to practice their English outside the classroom. The more efficient students become at autonomous learning, the better they’ll be able to overcome interruptions and make up for lost time. 

To help teachers do this, I recently delivered a webinar as part of the Pearson English Ready for What’s Next webinar series. The practical session focused on helping students learn new words and remember vocabulary. I talked about why vocabulary is a challenge for many students, looked at how we can teach good learning habits and went into what tools you can use to achieve this.  

To illustrate my points, I used examples of good practice from Focus Second Edition.

Why are learning new words so challenging?

First, let’s look at the problem with vocabulary. In general, students learning new words in English, progress steadily up until the pre-intermediate and intermediate level. But after that, they start to struggle. 

This is because there’s a big difference between the volume of the vocabulary that intermediate students and upper-intermediate students need to know.   

Intermediate (B1/B2 level) students need to know about 2,500 words, while upper-intermediate (B2/C1 level) students need to know about 7,500-9,000 words. 

That’s a big jump in numbers. But the real challenge is that those 5,000+ new words are not very frequent. As a consequence, students don’t encounter them very often. This makes it difficult to recall them and make the leap from one level to the next.

While there’s no simple answer to this problem, there are ways to help students overcome it. The following framework can be a big help in any classroom: 

  1. Focus on the most important words. Always teach appropriate words for the levels your students are currently at. Focus books have 5 different levels with level-appropriate vocabulary. 
  2. Provide memorable first encounters. You never get a second chance to make a first impression. So, ensure that your students’ first encounter with a new word is as memorable as possible. 
  3. Teach effective word-learning strategies. Provide your students with useful tools, tactics and resources so that they can learn new words outside the classroom, too.  
  4. Organize repeat encounters. Vocabulary works on a “use it or lose it” basis, so make sure your students encounter the vocabulary you want them to learn again and again.  

How to teach effective-word learning strategies


There are three steps to teach students how to effectively learn new words. Let’s break them down:

1. Help students maximize their exposure to English and find opportunities to use English outside the classroom

Thanks to the internet and the technology tools at our disposal, there are lots of ways that students can engage with the English language outside the classroom.  

However, simple exposure to new language is not enough – it takes much longer and is less effective than active learning. When students actually do something with the language they’re exposed to, it is far more memorable.   

That’s why it’s crucial for teachers to help their students not only seek out English in their own time, but also to use the language, turning passive exposure into active learning. 

Encourage students to read, listen and view things that they’re interested in or passionate about in English. For example, introduce them to new blogs, podcasts, YouTube videos, or Netflix series that fit with their interests – since personalization leads to more effective learning.  

It’s equally important to help students find ways to use English in different ways. For example, to practice their writing, they can start a learning diary, make to-do lists in English, write social media posts, contribute to discussions in WhatsApp groups, create word cards – and much more.   

To practice their speaking, they can record voice memos or video stories, take part in Zoom discussions, or participate in projects like the award-winning Pearson and BBC Live classes. 

In addition, if you use Focus Second Edition for your teaching, you can also find lots of extra materials on the Pearson English Portal.

Help students learn new words

2. Provide ways for students to discover the meaning of new words

Secondly, it’s crucial to help students improve their guesswork. Instead of just asking Siri or Alexa to translate every time they encounter a new word, they should be able to guess the meaning of new vocabulary in different ways.  

One approach is to look at the morphology of words and consider word families. For example, you can ask your students to brainstorm words with a common root. Or, you can have them identify and practice common suffixes. The Focus series includes lots of exercises to help with this. 

Another activity you can do is to explore “true friends” or words that are similar in English and your students’ native language. This is especially easy if your students speak Latin or Germanic languages. 

And finally, help your students figure out how to guess the meaning of a word from the context. To do this, you need to make sure that your students don’t just hear or read new words but they also put them into use.  

The easiest way to do this is to have them create word cards. 

I ask my students to collect ten new words that they’re exposed to throughout the week and bring them to class, like a “show and tell” for words. Then, we have a debate about how useful each of those words is. This helps to connect learning inside and outside the classroom, and it’s fun!  

You can find more ideas for more fun classroom activities to improve vocabulary and memory here.

3. Provide students with strategies to consolidate their knowledge of new words

Finally, teachers should give students ideas on how to memorize words outside the classroom. 

In Focus, you can find lots of examples of how to record vocabulary in imaginative ways. You can also have your student produce word cards and use the Word Store booklet to practice tasks like matching words with images or definitions. Lastly, it’s important to teach students memory tricks or mnemonics so they can retain the new words they encounter. 

I hope you find these tips useful. If you’d like to learn more about the subject, you can watch the full webinar below:  

If you’re looking for practical exercises to help your students learn and remember new words more effectively, check out Focus Second Edition.  

Download a sample now! 

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