Learning vocabulary

I was teaching a class the other day, and we came across the idiom “I’ve got a memory like a sieve”. I explained that we often say this when we want to tell someone we are very bad at remembering things. Most of the students then recorded this in their vocabulary notebooks. However, I saw a couple of people with their smartphone rested on the table, quickly trying to translate a word. I guessed it was “sieve”.

“What are you doing Elena? Are you translating using Google?”

She looked sheepish, “Yes”, she replied, “I want to know what ‘sieve’ means”.

I felt disappointed for two reasons. Firstly, I do not allow translation of single words in my class; it is highly unproductive and not always accurate. If you are a google translate/multi-tran addict, I suggest you kick the habit! Secondly, because I realized that my student is not thinking in terms of chunks of language. Does it really matter what sieve is?


It is a completely different word; many words in English are used in a completely different way.

So what can you, as a student, do? Don’t underline single words. Look at the words that are around them. Ask your teacher about a whole phrase. Compare phrases in your own language and in English with your teachers help if you need to.

Secondly, think about which words are useful for you! If a word isn’t useful, then don’t worry about learning it, or at least learning it yet. When you’ve finished a class, go to an online corpus like fraze.it and do a search for the phrase, have a look how it is used, alternatively, look the phrase up in a good dictionary. Record the phrases and collocations in a book especially for vocabulary and give your page a title.

Here’s a few pictures of how I am learning Russian.

dictionary 3


dictionary 2

Forgive the mistakes!

There are a range of good resources online nowadays, most of which are free. To learn the collocations of a word, you can use a good collocations dictionary or an online tool like ozdic.com.

Matt Vesty.


Relay Game

Цель: отработка лексических и грамматических конструкций.

Необходимые материалы: не требуются.

Уровень: любой

Подготовка: преподаватель делит доску на две части и на обеих пишет целевую конструкцию, к примеру, ________ allow(s) us to ________, показывает, что студентам будет необходимо заполнить пропуски в предложении, чтобы получилось что-то вроде: Internet allows us to communicate quickly. После этого класс делится на две команды, которые приглашаются к доске. Участники команд выстраиваются в линию, первый студент, написав свой вариант, передаёт маркер назад следующим товарищам. Побеждает та команда, которая первой напишет 10 предложений. Затем преподаватель может обратить внимание студентов на примеры удачного или не совсем удачного использования словосочетаний и грамматических правил.

В случае индивидуальных занятий процедура может оставаться такой же, только без элемента соревновательности.

Square Game

Цель: повторение изученной лексики.

Необходимые материалы: доска, текст с пронумерованными словами.

Уровень: любой

Подготовка: преподаватель выбирает текст длиной в несколько предложений — может быть, уже хорошо знакомый группе с предыдущих занятий — и нумерует слова в нём, например:




















have paddle,

























Во время занятия преподаватель рисует такую же, но пустую нумерованную таблицу на доске:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30

преподаватель делит студентов на две группы, затем объявляет, что сейчас он дважды прочтёт короткий текст, во время чтения студентам не нужно ничего не записывать, а достаточно просто расслабиться и слушать (или же, в зависимости от группы, можно наоборот изначально попросить студентов запомнить как можно больше). После того, как класс дважды прослушал текст, преподаватель предлагает студентам вспомнить как можно больше слов, работая в группах. Когда обсуждение завершено, преподаватель поочерёдно просит каждую группу назвать по одному слову из текста и вписывает их в соответствующие им по номерам ячейки таблицы на доске.
Восстановление предложений таким образом способствует направлению внимания учащихся не только на отдельные слова, но и неизбежно на словосочетания: студент может вспомнить слово side и затем будет пытаться понять, какое именно слово шло рядом с ним и т.д.

The Lexical Approach – What is it?

In 1993, Michael Lewis published a seminal piece of work “The Lexical approach” that underlined the need for change in (English) Language teaching. While some of his assertions were adopted and can be found in many of the leading coursebooks used in ELT today, the dominance of grammar-led language teaching has continued and the full impact of The Lexical Approach has not been felt. There are a variety of reasons for this, ranging from simple problems that simply not many teachers know about this approach, to the more political problems of what makes good-value ELT coursebooks and what meets students’ expectations of the language.  A significant proportion of research in Second Language Acquisition supports many of the central tenets of the Lexical approach, of which we will discuss in this essay. The lexical approach and teaching lexically is a huge topic that can in no way be fully discussed in this short essay. However, further posts will discuss some of these principles in more detail and further reading is suggested at the end of this post.

So what is the lexical approach?

The mantra, if you like, of the lexical approach is simple:

«language consists of grammaticalized lexis not lexicalized grammar”

In other words, the most important aspect of a language is not its grammatical system, but its lexical organism. In “The Lexical Approach”, Lewis outlined that not only is vocabulary teaching at present woefully inadequate, but also we have not been concentrating on the aspects of lexis we should be.

Lewis suggested that Lexis can be broken down into 4 (rough)categories:

  • Words: By far the biggest category e.g. Bicycle. However, this category, surprisingly, is not the most important.
  • Polywords : Words that do not change – ever. E.g., “By the way”, “Cup of tea”, “Overdone”.
  • Institutionalized phrases: They never change, but they also have a different meaning from what they mean, e.g. “What a buzz!” “I see what you mean, but…”, “That’s all very well”.
  • Collocations: Word partners, often found in close proximity, e.g. “close proximity”, “do homework”, “agree to, negotiate, carry out — A contract”
  • Fixed and Semi-fixed expression: Possibly the most important category these sometimes change a little or always remain the same. “I’ll see you soon”, “Just because I’m a _____________ doesn’t mean I can’t __________________”.

With regards to collocation, there is no logical reason for these. It could easily be “make your homework”, however it is not. The choice here is arbitrary and does not follow a particular rule.

Can you think of some collocations that pair with the following words?

  • Imagination
  • Guess
  • Area
  • Presentation

So why are these things important?

Well, we simply do not store these relatively common phrases in our minds in small pieces. We store them as chunks. These chunks give us increased ability to speak fluently.

Imagine that you have been given a task to build a model airplane. Which of these sets would you prefer?

  • In thousands of tiny pieces with no instructions?


  • In thousands of pieces with a picture as an example of what the finished plane should look like.


  • A set where the parts are separate, but the big parts are already put together for you – complete with instructions, so you can see what the plane should look like.


If you gave these to three groups of people, who do you think would finish first? Of course, the answer is the first group. After the first group has completed it, they will have a good idea of how the big pieces are constructed by looking at it. They have  a better view of the overall plane. This metaphor also works with language. As teachers, we should be aiming to give students as much “big language” as possible, especially in the early stages of learning and assisting them in noticing how the language is put together afterwards.

Mistakes – Always grammar?

In 1972, the British Linguist David Wilkins commented “while without grammar little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed”. This is awakening. When a non-native speaker produces a grammar mistake, it causes few problems for native speakers of the language; however, those with vocabulary problems are a real source of misunderstanding.

Main principles and classroom implications of the lexical approach

  • As language consists of grammaticalised lexis, and not lexicalized grammar, we should focus on giving students chunks of language with real communicative functions at all levels of learning. Phrases like “Have you been to______________?” “I’m thinking of +ing”, “Could you pass the _____________, please?” Can be taught even at the lowest levels. Students will gain grammatical accuracy later in their language learning and much of their language learning will be derived from their knowledge of these chunks.
  • Successful language is a wider concept than accurate language. As teachers, we should ficus more on student expressing meaning successfully rather than accurately.
  • Grammatical error is natural to the learning process. Grammar errors that do not impede communication should be given less focus when we correct our students.
  • Listening has enhanced status. Listening is an important part of the learning process.
  • Language should be recycled over and over. Teachers should drop phrases like “we have done the present perfect” from their vocabulary. Only through meeting vocabulary items and grammatical structures often will students master them.
  • Teacher talking time is useful only when it is comprehensible and relevant. However, teacher-talking time is one way for student to get lots of input.
  • Teachers should help students notice grammar and vocabulary patterns.
  • Lexis should form the organizing principle of a course.
  • Students should be taught phrases and expression along with collocations without grammatical analysis, especially at lower levels.

Further reading

  • Baigent, Maggie (1999). Teaching in chunks: integrating a lexical approach. Modern English Teacher 8(2):51-54.
  • Lewis, Michael (1993), The Lexical Approach, Hove: Language Teaching Publications.
  • Lewis, Michael (1996). Implications of a lexical view of language. In Challenge And Change In Language Teaching, Jane Willis and Dave Willis (eds.). Oxford: Heinemann.
  • Lewis, Michael (1997). Implementing the Lexical Approach: Putting Theory Into Practice. Hove: Language Teaching Publications.
  • Lewis, Michael (2000). Language in the lexical approach. In Teaching Collocation: Further Developments In The Lexical Approach, Michael Lewis (ed.), 126-154. Hove: Language Teaching Publications.
  • Nattinger, James R. and DeCarrico Jeanette S. (1992). Lexical Phrases and Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Pawley, Andrew and Syder, Frances Hodgetts. (1983). Two puzzles for linguistic theory: native like selection and native like fluency. In Language And Communication,JackC.RichardsandRichard W. Schmidt (eds.), 191-225. London: Longman.
  • Thornbury, Scott (1997). Reformulation and reconstruction: tasks that promote ‘noticing’. ELT Journal 51(4): 326-334.
  • Thornbury, Scott (1998). The Lexical Approach: a journey without maps? Modern English Teacher 7(4): 7-13.
  • Willis, Dave (1990). The Lexical Syllabus: A New Approach To Language Learning. London: Collins ELT.
  • Woolard, George (2000). Collocation- encouraging learner independence. In Teaching Collocation: Further Developments In The Lexical Approach, Michael Lewis (ed.), 28-46. Hove: Language Teaching Publications.

Talking about the future at C1 and C2 levels

At C1 level, learners are starting to use the future perfect simple to make assumptions about the present. There is also some evidence for the expert speaker politeness strategy referred to in the B level grammar gem (using the future perfect to ‘assume that something is the case’). See the second example below taken from a formal letter:

As you will have heard, this year’s work experience programme in Britain was in general a success. (Certificate in Advanced English; Greek)

I hope I will have reassured you. (Certificate in Advanced English; French)

However, the researchers note examples such as these are few and far between in the learner data. Course book writers preparing new material at an advanced level may wish to focus more overtly on uses of the future perfect simple like these, which are very common in native/expert speaker language.

Our data shows that C1 learners are also using might or may to talk about future expectations:

As far as I’m concerned, we should definitely do some additional publicity, particularly for the new offerings which might be coming up. (Certificate in Advanced English; Dutch)

There is evidence of C1 learners using a greater range of adverbs when talking about the future, as well. This is especially true in Business English writing, as the second and third examples below show:

If you have ever read a fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen you will surely have discovered why this man is so famous worldwide. (Certificate in Advanced English; Danish)

However, sales will possibly have fallen to 5000 units again by the end of the year. (BEC Higher; German)

As the new store is going to be the first and only one in Moscow, and, to make matters worse, it is going to be located close to our most successful outlet, it is undoubtedly going to have a detrimental effect on our company. (BEC Higher; Polish)

Talking about the future at C2 level

The C2 level is referred to in the CEFR as ‘Mastery’ and it is interesting to see that learners are still expanding their knowledge of future forms. Additional uses found in our data at C2 include:

• the future perfect continuous to make assumptions about the present (still with very low frequency in comparison to first language use)

I do not think that this aspect is really necessary because it is supposed that you will have been studying very hard to occupy that job. (Certificate of Proficiency in English; Spanish)

• the present simple with only when, followed by will and an inverted subject, to refer to the future

Moreover, I think that only when people manage this will they be able to move on with their lives and offer something new to humanity. (Certificate of Proficiency in English; Greek)

And, sadly, I also believe that only when something really catastrophic happens will citizens face reality and accept that measures must be taken. (Certificate of Proficiency in English; Portuguese)

• the use of shall to talk about long-term intentions

I must believe, believe in myself and in everybody else, and mainly in what I look for, this way I shall never lose hope. (Certificate of Proficiency in English; Spanish)

I shall always remember it as the city of lights. (Certificate of Proficiency in English; French)

What does all this evidence tell us about the teaching of future forms? It is clear that learners are gradually broadening their repertoire and sophistication of use as they move up the CEFR levels. The research underpinning the development of the English Grammar Profile indicates strongly that, as teachers, we should never assume that once a structure has been taught at one level, there is no need for it to be revisited at higher ones. Quite apart from the necessary revision and recycling of existing grammatical knowledge, it is important for learners to be aware of the many additional ways they can draw on to express themselves clearly and naturally. A cyclical approach to the teaching of grammar will ensure that learners are adequately equipped with the depth of knowledge needed at a particular level. To this end, the researchers are describing in great detail what learners are actually capable of at each CEFR level, and these findings will inform a whole new generation of materials from Cambridge University Press.

Source — English Vocabulary Profile.

Using horizontal and vertical approaches to promote vocabulary learning

Language does not occur in a vacuum. Even the most seemingly obvious sentence does not reveal its full meaning when it stands alone, for example, “my mother is 45 years old” is ambiguous unless it is surrounded by context and co-text.

  • Why is the speaker saying this? (Are they being sarcastic, giving information, showing outrage?)
  • To whom?
  • How are they saying it?

So why do so many coursebooks, resource books and grammar guides present language in such a way? This does not help students learn the language or participate in discourse. In this post, we will explore some of the ways in which teachers can encourage their students to exploit the material provided by both coursebooks and self-study material by highlighting vertical and horizontal lexis.

We’ve all done it. We’ve taken a grammar or vocabulary exercise with sentences like in the picture below, had students work in pairs, elicited the answers and maybe wrote them up on the board. The students have corrected their mistakes and then we’ve moved on to the next part of the lesson. The trouble is, we are instilling students with a dangerous expectation. Namely, that by completing a seemingly endless number of tasks such as these, our students will go out into the real world and be able to participate in conversations in a variety of situations. But as was mentioned before, language doesn’t appear alone. Spoken language occurs as part of an utterance, which in turn, is part of discourse.

When introducing new lexis, what is it that students need to have clarified for them?

Usually, it will be meaning. And by meaning we can derive context and co-text (the surrounding language with which a word or phrase typically occurs). One of the teacher’s greatest responsibilities in the classroom is to present language not only in its typical meaning but also in its context and how it is used alongside other pieces of language. Doing this helps prime* students for other pieces of lexis in the future.

horizontal and vertical

Take, for example, the second line of our exercise in the picture.

  1. I had a pleasant surprise when I received my wages. I had a bonus of £100

Now, if we think horizontally about this kind of sentence, we think about what the speaker might’ve said before or after this sentence. So after checking in class, I’d say something like:

“Right, good. Now. What do you think the speaker might have said before or after he said this?”

You might have prepared some ideas earlier, or let the students’ imagination run wild. Something like this springs to mind.

“I’ve had a really good day today”. (before)

“I might go shopping/treat myself this evening” (after)

If you’re going to concentrate vertically (where we think about what the person you are speaking to might say), you might get something like:

“Lucky you!”

“Oh that’s nice, how are you going to spend it?”

To have students engage more with this kind of task, you could write your suggestions on the board as a gap fill and paraphrase their meaning for students to guess.

“ I might t____________ myself this evening”.

“Any ideas? It’s when you want to do something nice for yourself, to reward yourself, like, I worked really hard on my project so I ________________ myself to a night out.

You can adapt this for almost any vocabulary exercise (particularly those which seem only to focus on nouns).  This helps you take the attention away from the book, consolidate meaning of the words you want to teach and also to recycle vocabulary to help keep it fresh in students’ minds.

Some might argue that by doing this exercise, too much vocabulary is pushed onto the students. However, this exercise not only consolidates, but also primes the students for future learning of words in context.