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You’ve got to have a system: vocabulary development in EFL


vocabulary development in ESLJulie Norton, a university lecturer and materials writer, considers the benefits of adopting a systematic approach to vocabulary development and suggests a checklist for evaluating the vocabulary included in teaching materials.

Takeaway Value

All learners want to feel that they are making progress, so it is important for them to take away something at the end of each lesson. Learning new vocabulary is very motivating, particularly for adult learners, because they often feel they have learnt a great deal of grammar at school. Vocabulary is an area where they can make tangible gains relatively quickly, provided they are given appropriate guidance and support.

Vocabulary learning is more effective when it is focused and systematic rather than incidental (Nation and Newton, 2009). For example, explicitly teaching the form and meaning of a word, including its spelling, pronunciation and grammatical requirements (e.g. irregular plural, countable noun, phrasal verb etc.) is more effective than leaving vocabulary learning to chance or dealing with it on an ad hoc basis as it arises in class. Learners usually need to encounter a vocabulary item several times before they can recall it. It also helps them to see a word or phrase in a variety of contexts and to have the opportunity to use it to express their own meanings, so practice is crucial.

Coursebooks have several advantages when it comes to presenting vocabulary in a systematic way. For example, they aim to teach a certain number of words per lesson and per unit. These words are recycled in revision sections and in consecutive units of the book. Word lists and extra practice activities are often included at the end of the book.  There are also other components, such as workbooks, online practice, and apps which can usefully support and extend vocabulary development inside and outside class.

Knowing you are learning the right words

Coverage of the most important words should be a priority of a language course. Learners have a finite amount of time, so it seems sensible to focus on the most useful lexical items and the most frequent or prototypical meanings of these items first. A systematic approach to vocabulary development can assure learners that they are focussing on the right words and help them gain control over essential, high frequency items.

In recent years, computer corpora (electronically held collections of spoken and written texts) have been drawn upon to inform the development of language teaching materials to ensure coverage of the most frequent words and phrases.  The Oxford 3000™ is a corpus-informed list of the three thousand most important words for language learners which have been selected according to three criteria: frequency, range and familiarity. The keywords in the Oxford 3000 are frequent across a range of different text types and from a variety of contexts. The list also includes some words which are not highly frequent but which are familiar to most users of English (for example, parts of the body or words used in travel).

Developing awareness of vocabulary as a system

Words do not exist in isolation: they form partnerships and relationships with other words and pattern in certain ways (e.g. regular spellings and sound patterns). Presenting vocabulary as a system by focussing on word-building (e.g. affixes); the underlying meanings of words; and collocations (words that often occur together), for example, can make aspects of this system more explicit for learners, speed up vocabulary learning and develop greater language awareness.

A check-list for evaluating systematic vocabulary development

Here is a list of questions that teachers can ask to engage more critically with the vocabulary content of their teaching materials.

  1. Can you easily identify the target vocabulary in the lesson?
  2. Why are students learning this vocabulary?
  3. Is it useful and appropriate for their level?
  4. How much new vocabulary is taught in each lesson/ in each unit?
  5. Have students been presented with enough information to use the new vocabulary? (e.g. context; collocation)
  6. How many opportunities do students have to use the new vocabulary in the lesson/in the unit? Is this enough?
  7. What strategies are included for learning and developing knowledge of vocabulary (e.g. developing awareness of vocabulary as a system; recording and recalling vocabulary)?
  8. What opportunities do students have to revise and study this vocabulary outside class? Does the course package provide other components to facilitate vocabulary development?


Nation, I.S.P. and Newton, J. (2009) Teaching ESL/EFL Listening and Speaking, New York and London: Routledge.

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11 thoughts on “You’ve got to have a system: vocabulary development in EFL

  1. Thank you so much for this article. I support the approach of teaching and learning vocabulary in a systematic way especially with high school students and adults. It’s effective to focus on key words of a theme, to learn word building, derivatives, words that are often mixed, etc. If we count the words of a unit students can see their progress, of course the other thing is to use words actively in different context.

  2. It’s reassuring to know that vocabulary needs to be taught systematically. However, when teaching without a coursebook, students tend to note down vocabulary chronologically, with no way to classify it for future reference. I am looking for a way for students working on or offline to transfer new words immediately to a personal digital word list with room for definitions, examples and audio. Do you happen to know if such a thing exists?

    • Hello dear colleagues! It is very interesting and useful to read the articles and your ideas about our not easy job. Referring to Susannas question I can share my own experience. When I understood that most of the students in my class were audials, I started recording vocabulary and sending via Bluetooth or mobile telephone applications . It is really useful in to ways: first of all your students will always have the feeling as if you are talking to them and than of course it will be easier to memorize. And you can sometimes add some jokes which will cheer them up. Thanks again to everybody!

    • I share your same concern.

    • Being able to teach vocabulary well is something I’m very interested in. Having prepared a lot of students for English exams – especially those of a higher level – I realize how important having a systematic way of teaching vocabulary is. I still haven’t found a great book that I can use – especially in relation to teaching vocabulary for various essay topics.

      One book I love is Garnet’s Academic Vocabulary book – which teaches students to fish (understanding vocabulary), so to speak, rather than giving students the fish (a list of words to learn). And Pete Sharma recently came up with a Vocabulary organizer which looks good.

  3. Thank you very much for reading the blog and for your comments. I am afraid I do not know the best advice for Susanna but I am sure there must be an efficient way to do this and would welcome any information or suggestions.

    Many thanks and best wishes,


  4. How about Ankidroid as a suggestion for Susanna? You can access the app through a web browser and synchronise it with your phone or tablet. I haven’t tried audio content yet, but pictures work ok.

  5. Yes and No. For me, items 3 and 4 on the checklist are the most important. Vocabulary development is an essential part of ESL/ESP. I regularly give my students wordlists at the beginning of a program with the requirement that they both translate the word/word form (noun – verb – adverb – adjective – preposition – verbal phrase – collocation, etc.) to help with their own understanding of the word, and that they provide examples of the use of the word in context to demonstrate some understanding of the use of the word (this encourages dictionary use). The reason I said, “no”, is that in a normal classroom setting, it is impractical to concentrate on vocabulary development for more than two – three new words per lesson. While this is of use to the students, it tends to miss a thorough understanding of the use of all of the words in the wordlist. This comes to a second reason why I said, “no”. The level of the student in ESL/ESP directly correlates to self-actualization in learning. Beginner level students, no matter how motivated by their teacher, their school, and other internalized/externalized learning motivators, often lack the confidence (internalized self-motivation) to learn and develop L2 language skills. Intermediate level students on the other hand, have already developed a good/high degree of confidence in learning and developing their L2 language skills. The result is that the teacher can cover more specific vocabulary in a class because the students themselves are more accommodating to the notion of language development and self-actualization in terms of knowledge acquisition – they do more of the work themselves with the teacher acting more as a facilitator of learning than an instructor.

    I view the level of the student as having a direct impact on both the student’s ability to learn new vocabulary but also on the systematic teaching of vocabulary in a classroom setting. The fact is that early stage L2 learners have so much new vocabulary to learn that alternative measures need to be employed to encourage vocabulary development – you simply cannot cover the full range of new vocabulary in an average class. With nods and due respect to Oxford, one of their competitors, MACMILLAN, in its’ “In Company” series of ESP books is one of the most valuable resources I have encountered for vocabulary development. Why? The books come with Unit wordlists (not whole book wordlists), and often repeat vocabulary to show learners how new words can be used in different contexts. By way of a criticism here, and it may well be my complete failure, I have been aware of the Oxford “3000” wordlist for a long time, but does anybody know how you can actually get this list or how/how often it is changed/updated?

  6. Pingback: Recap of Interesting Resources and Blog Posts – August 2014 | Stop Complaining – Enjoy Teaching!

  7. Thank you for your comments. You can access more information about the Oxford 3000 here:


    It would be great to hear if anyone has used this tool in their teaching.

    Best wishes,


    • I try to integrate the Oxford 3,000 wordlist into my lessons as far as possible according to level and need of course. I used it, in fact, as a supplement to a textbook based syllabus in a case study as part of my Master’s dissertation.

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