Eight myths of learning/ teaching vocabulary

Do you have a go-to vocabulary activity that you use in class?

Do you ever have vocabulary that needs to be reviewed, and you’re not sure exactly what the best way to do it is?

Is vocabulary study best done as a homework task? How often do students study vocabulary on their own?

What exactly is the best way to learn vocabulary?

At our last get together, we debunked eight myths to vocabulary teaching. We shared experiences and best practices, and had a productive discussion about practical ways to do what sometimes seems almost impossible– get learners to expand their active vocabulary.

Click here for what the research says, and what you can do to teach vocabulary effectively.

One conclusion from our discussion was that what works depends on the learner. Now it’s your turn. Share your comments! What do you use that works?


10 thoughts on “Eight myths of learning/ teaching vocabulary

  1. The first myth was “In learning another language, vocabulary is not as important as grammar or other areas.” See them all on http://esl.fis.edu/teachers/support/folse.htm
    We felt that for English, and to a less extent German and French, vocabulary is more important than grammar for the purpose of communication. You can get your meaning across even if your grammar is not right.

    In some languages – Polish and Hungarian were mentioned – the grammar is much more important, because of the number of different cases, which strongly affects the meaning.

    On the other extreme, Chinese is an inflection-free language, and the grammar defines things like word order or combination. See http://www.chineselearner.com/chinese-grammar/basic.html and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_grammar


  2. The second myth is “Using word lists to learn L2 vocabulary is unproductive”. Folse recommends:
    ◦Don’t hesitate to use vocabulary lists.
    ◦Don’t rely only on lists.
    ◦Include your students’ likes and dislikes as well as their classroom expectations in your teaching.

    We decided that lists are useful, depending on the learning style of the student. Some write words down with translations as they see them first – the writing alone is a memory stimulant. Graham wrote them when learning French or German by grammatical function – nouns on one page, verbs on another, etc. Others create lists by semantic areas, see myth 3.

    Rewriting a list is a way of revision learning. Or just glancing through a handwritten list jogs the mind well. Entering a list into a spreadsheet is efficient only for the writer and only one – even if the list is shared, the receivers must read it and try to use the words actively, for it to be useful.

    I asked a student today how she had learnt her vocabulary. She described an excellent method, used in a language school in Australia with students from all over the world (especially Asian). When one student found a new word (for instance dove =taube), all students would announce related words which they knew (other birds – eagle, chicken, hen, swallow, …). There was a lot of noise and fun. What I like about this is that there is a lot of learning going on, and the words are being used actively, not just seen passively.


    • davidkaufher says:

      The experience that you shared from your student is fantastic! I’m definitely going to try that out in one of my classes.


  3. fabiennefeuz says:

    Thanks for another interesting evening!

    When walking home, I kept thinking about one thing David mentioned when it comes to vocabulary learning. He said that he often learns a new word (in German) that he knows he’ll never use. Well, he thinks it’s a useless word and, therefore, he wont’ make any effort to remember it.
    I wonder how often our students think that a new word we introduce to them is of no importance to them. Don’t you think this happens more than we’d like? How can we convince students that a word actually is important?
    Besides from the “traditional” vocabulary practice, such as writing sentence in context, playing games, using cards and the board, I often bring a text to class, two or three weeks later, and I make sure that in this text the very word we had issues with appears more than once. “Accidentally”! Then, while going through the text, I’ll be like: Oh look, here’s this word we learned the other day. They will either recognize it (and be happy about that), or they will at least see it again and realize that it might actually be an important word! Would you agree, David?


  4. davidkaufher says:

    I totally agree, Fabienne. The importance of repetition cannot be stressed enough here. As we talked about at the get-together, every learner is different. But for me, USING the words and grammar structures is the key aspect of learning. If I know the word will be on a test –a “real” test that is collected, or marked, or shown to my classmates– I am much more likely to study that word. If I see it in a text, as you suggested, I am more likely to not only be motivated to learn it, but to connect more neurons to it’s meaning in my brain, and retain it for future use. If using the word is necessary to complete a task, then I’m more likely to learn it.

    Again, maybe this is just me…


  5. gemmalunn says:

    Dear David,

    I’m starting an ELT Academic Reading group in St Gallen next year I saw this post and thought the vocabulary article would be a good one to start with (thanks for the link!). Do you always discuss articles at your meetings? If so maybe we could coordinate and have a joint online chat afterwards? Feel free to email me if its easier – gemma_lunn@hotmail.com



  6. davidkaufher says:

    Hi Gemma!

    Glad you’re on board! To answer your question, we don’t always discuss an article. I choose topics to focus on, and this topic –teaching vocabulary– was based around this article. A few months ago I handed out discussion questions that I made myself (I’ll upload them to the blog) and we had an excellent evening with people contributing valuable input. I think the key is to have some free conversation and then at the right moment also guide discussion on something structured and outcome-oriented. People who’ve come to our get-togethers have appreciated this format.


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