When teaching a foreign language, one of the key things that we stumble upon is the introduction of new lexical patterns, new phrases and idiomatic expressions. Ensuring constant vocabulary enrichment with the learners is the key principle to achieve language fluency and coherence. Hence, helping the learners to acquire and grow their word stock in a stress free environment and have fun at the same time is a challenge all of us — educators deal with.

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There are different theories and practices about what the best way of vocabulary presentation is. All of them come not merely from theory but from practice as well. Hence, there is no definite truth here. All we need to know is that if it works for the learner then WELL DONE!

Existing Theories

CELTA course gives us a very nice and structured way of vocabulary presentation — meaning, pronunciation, form (MPF). This is explained in the following way — teaching meaning is the first obligatory thing, as the learners should first understand what the word means and then deal with the form and polish its pronunciation. Pronunciation comes next as the word should be articulated properly to be understood by the interlocutors, and the form is the last one in the list, as seeing the word written might hijack its pronunciation, considering the students are not well versed in word stress and the pronunciation of certain letter combinations. This order, however, can be varied according to the language level of the learners, the material presented and the aim of the task. For instance, when working with B2 and higher level of learners we can have the presentation stages in the following order: form, pronunciation, meaning. At this level of language comprehension learners are less likely to make pronunciation mistakes and we can actually show the form and reinstate the pronunciation without working on the meaning first. This technique however, is risky with low level learners, as they might pronounce the word incorrectly or get lost in the form, thus, prolonging the assimilation stage.

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Another theory suggests that having a context for vocabulary presentation is always a must, as a lesson should not be divided into different sections like vocabulary, grammar, listening, reading, writing, but it rather should be a unity where all language skill are intertwined with each other. This, being true, does not negate the fact that sometimes we hold mere vocabulary sessions where having all the aspects included is not a must.

As we know, there are different types of learners — visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthetic. Though it is impossible to meet everyone’s needs all the time, we are trying to make sure each session contains material for each type of learner. It is worth mentioning here, that learners don’t have to be of a specific type, but can have certain aspects of each with one dominant type.

Let’s have a closer look at some practical points and choose the ones that will work well with the type of learners we are currently dealing with.

  • Realia

Using realia in class when possible increases the chance of students remembering the targeted phrases with more ease and more vividly. This works better with lower level vocabulary where we are working with non abstract notions. Topics like ‘food, everyday objects, etc.’ go well with this method. We can go further and get more creative by using realia to revise/recycle vocabulary by asking the students to name the objects, or bring the objects they want to know how to call in English to class, and mingle. This can get very noisy, fun and educational.

  • Picture

In case realia is hard to organize, pictures are always there to help thanks to the wide variety of Internet resources available nowadays. What I love pulling off during classes is trying to elicit an abstract phrase/idiom through a situational picture. It gives the students a chance to think longer, use their creativity and result in very interesting phrases.Below there is one of the idiomatic phrases I introduced during the class and students still remember it — Don’t cry over spilt milk.

First, the students brainstormed different phrases by looking at the picture. The only thing they knew was that it represents an idiomatic expression in English and they had to try to guess it. After the students mentioned the key words the phrase was revealed to them. After that, they started working with the meaning and finding synonymous idiomatic expressions in their L1.

Similarly, posters and flashcards can be very useful when working with visual learners. We can have a set of words to introduce with picture flash cards (either printed or using slides).

  • Guessing the word from the context

This has been a great vocabulary introduction practice for quite a long time with different age groups, levels of target language comprehension and interests. One of the ways is to present a text to the students where the context leads to the understanding of the key word. Most textbooks use this technique. Another way, is to show the target word in different sentences to enable the students grasp the meaning. Checking whether the students have actually understood the meaning of the word or not is quite easy, by either asking them to make their own sentences using the target word or elicit the translation of the word if everyone shares the same L1.

For example:

“Audi is a luxurious car.”

“Gucci is a more luxurious brand than Guess.”

“They entered the elegant, newly decorated, and luxurious dining room.”

This technique works nice with reading/writing type of learners. It can also work with the auditory type if we decide to read the sentences out loud instead of presenting the learners with the written one.

  • Definitions

This is another well-versed way of introducing new vocabulary. One challenge that we, teachers, might have with this, is making sure that the definition is actually comprehensible. Sometimes dictionaries provide definitions that include a lot of unknown words, hence confusing the learners even more. So, it is our job to choose/adapt the definitions according to the level of the learners to achieve a successful result.

An example of this I have come across when teaching B1 level students was the phrase “to cut down on something”:

To cut down on somethingto start using something less extensive than previously

I adapted it like this — to start using something less than before

This technique can be quite nice for both reading/writing and auditory type of the learner depending on the way of its presentation.

  • Personalization

It is a fact that learners remember things better when we give them strong associations. This can be examples from the real world around us (politics, celebrities, etc.), as well as personalized examples on students or the teacher.

Let’s say, you want to teach the phrase “to get on well with someone”. Something like this can definitely work:

“My sister and I understand each other very easily. We have the same interests, the same hobbies, the same opinion about different things and we never fight. We get on well with each other.”

We can either use the target phrase like it was in the example and ask the students to guess the meaning, or leave the space blank and let the students guess the phrase itself. The second way works better in revision sessions though.

  • Find the word

This one is my personal favourite.

Let’s say we are going to introduce 4 words: reliable, arrogant, showy, trustworthy

We can create a grid with the words, cut them in half, and give to the students:

How to Introduce New Vocabulary

The students should try to find the correct beginnings and endings for the words knowing that there are only 4 words to compile.

This can be a little time consuming, but it gives the students a chance to compile the words on their own, hence, they work with word structure, exercise their background knowledge and having so much exposure to the target words enables them to remember them better.

  • Graphs

This approach is a very nice way to help assimilate the target word/phrase easier and in a full package. Four categories are used to help the learner grasp the meaning of the word and its usage: synonym, antonym, example, non-example. The graph below represents it more clearly.

This is a full and exhaustive way of dealing with the word at hand. To make it more challenging, we can upgrade the students’ language and introduce the part of speech differences of the word as well.

Let’s say we are teaching the word ‘interesting’. The rank will go as follows

Noun — an interest (n.)

Verb — to interest (v.)

Adjective — interesting, interested (adj.)

Adverb — Interestingly (adv.)

At the same time, context and/or example sentences can be provided with these 4 words which will result in the students’ assimilating 4 words instead of 1.

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  • Ranking

This is another way of introducing sets of words. As we know, learning different shades of meaning is an effective way to enrich the students word-stock faster and help them understand the usage of each in a respective context. Though ranking is known to be a toll for vocabulary practice, it can also be used to challenge the students background knowledge and language feeling in general. Of course, here the level of the students is crucial, as we cannot demand A1 or A2 levels to have the that linguistic feeling.

Ranks work well with adjectives and adverbs quite nicely. Adverbs, however, can also be introduced with percentages as it is done in most textbooks (always — 100%, never — 0%).

Always-often-sometimes-occasionally-seldom/hardly ever-never

How to Introduce New Vocabulary


  • Classification

This is another way of introducing new language in Test-Teach-Test format. It can be as simple as asking the learners to classify the target words into respective columns (means of transport, food, clothes, etc.), to parts of speech.

This also requires a lot of exposure to the language where the students have a chance to look at the target words/phrases more than once, try to pronounce them correctly, use their background knowledge, their guy feeling. As mentioned, things which people achieve themselves and are not handed, stick in the long-term memory.

  • Translation

Foreign language specialists, trainers, educators, instructors will agree that translation is not the best idea when working with a group of people trying to learn a target language. However, to me, it is not such a bad thing after all. Quite the opposite, when used moderately and to the point, it can be quite helpful in the teaching process.

Sometimes there are ideas and abstract notions which are hard to explain in a target language and near to impossible when dealing with low level learners. Here the L1 comes to help.

This being true, we should not forget, that translation is to be resorted only after we have tried all the possible ways to convey the meaning of the word and failed. It can be used to clarify the understanding rather than reveal it from the beginning.

Anyways, in general, it’s not a shame to have a good dictionary at hand and check the meaning of the words we, as teachers might not have come across yet. It creates a healthy learning environment if it’s done moderately and once again highlights the truth that learning is a lifelong process.

Alternatively, we can tell the students that we will check the word and get back to them. We should not be surprised that the  students will take our word for it and wait for the clarification next class. So, it is important to keep our promises and get back to the students to answer their questions.

All of these said, it is worth pointing out that not all the techniques and methods will work with all types of groups and learners. Things that should be taken into account are age of the learners, interests, previous exposure to the language, background knowledge in general (this being a powerful tool when teaching in general, not just a language), their mother tongue, type of the learner and the means available at hand (technology, resources).

Let’s get creative and share more tools and techniques to facilitate vocabulary introduction. Looking forward to your comments!

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