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25 ideas for using unit word lists in the classroom

Teacher and young adult students developing their skills with classroom activities

Many ELT series have unit word lists, either in the student book, or available in the teacher resources. However, few teachers make active use of these unit word lists on a regular basis. In an attempt to address this situation I have produced a set of 25 activities which teachers can easily incorporate into their regular teaching practice.

All of the activities have the following three principles:

  1. they can work with almost any ELT unit word list;
  2. apart from the students having access to unit word list itself, they require only basic classroom resources i.e., pencil, paper, board and marker;
  3. they require no previous preparation from the teacher.
Example from: Smart Choice 2nd edition, OUP

Note: Unless otherwise stated, students need to be looking at the word list to do the activity.

  1. Which words do you know (before starting the unit)? – Individually, before starting the unit, students put a tick (✔) on the right next to all the words they know.
  2. What is your favorite word? – Individually, each student identifies their favorite word from the list. Students explain their choice in groups and/or to the whole class.
  3. Which ones are similar to words in your own language? – In small groups, students look through the unit word list and identify all the words that appear to be similar to words in their own language. These could be cognates or false cognates. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  4. I don’t like this word because… – Individually, each student identifies a word from the list that they don’t like. Students explain their choice in groups and/or to the whole class.
  5. Rapid underlining – The teacher chooses between 5 and 10 words from the unit word list and calls these out quite quickly. Individually, students listen, find and underline these words in the list. Students then compare and check that they have found the correct words.
  6. Find the word in the unit – The teacher chooses a word from the word list and calls this out and the students need to find the word in the unit of the course book. This can be done as a race.
  7. Which is the most useful word? – Individually, each student identifies from the unit word list the word they think is the most useful. Students explain their choice in groups and/or to the whole class.
  8. How many of the words are things you can touch? – In small groups, students identify how many of the words in the unit word list are things that can be touched. The teacher elicits and discusses. There might be many different ways to interpret this and can lead to interesting discussion.
  9. ‘Killing’ vocab items – In small groups, students decide on 3 words they want to eliminate from the unit word list and which will not appear in the next test. The teacher then elicits from each group the 3 words they chose. The teacher writes these words on the board and identifies which 3 words are the most frequently chosen from all the groups. The teacher promised not to include these in the next test. (Dudley, E. & E. Osváth. 2016. Mixed-Ability Teaching. OUP)
  10. Rapid translation – In pairs, students take it in turns to choose a word from the unit word list. The other student has to try to give the translation in their own language.
  11. How many have you seen today? – In small groups, students identify how many of the words in the unit word list are things / concepts / actions they have seen today. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  12. Identify the words from a definition – The teacher chooses about 5 words from the unit word list and then one word at a time tells the students a definition of each word. Individually, students look at the list and underline the words they think the teacher is describing. The teacher elicits, checks and discusses.
  13. How many have 3 syllables? – In small groups, students identify how many words have 3 syllables. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  14. Which word is the most difficult to pronounce? – Individually, each student looks at the unit word list and identifies the word they think is the most difficult to pronounce. The teacher elicits and helps students pronounce the words they chose.
  15. Bingo – Individually, students choose any 5 words from the unit word list and write these on a piece of paper. The teacher reads and crosses off words at random from the list until a student has crossed off all of their 5 words and calls out ‘bingo’.
  16. How many words have the stress on the second syllable? – In small groups, students look through the unit word list and identify how many words are stressed on the second syllable. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  17. Which is the most difficult word to spell? – Individually, each student looks at the unit word list and identifies the word they think is the most difficult to spell. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  18. Test your partner’s spelling – In pairs, one student looks at the unit word list and chooses 5 words and dictates these to the other student (who is not looking at the list). After the dictation of the 5 words the students both look at the list and check the spelling.
  19. The teacher can’t spell – The teacher choices 5 words and spells these aloud to the student but makes a deliberate spelling mistake in 2 or 3 of the words. Students listen while looking at the word list and try to identify which words were misspelled.
  20. Quick spelling – In pairs, students take it in turns for one student to choose a word and spell it aloud quickly to other student. The second student tries to say the word before the first student has finished spelling it aloud.
  21. Which word has the craziest spelling? – Individually, each student decides which word, in their opinion, has the craziest spelling. The teacher elicits the words from the students and the class identifies which word was the most frequently chosen.
  22. Which are the 3 longest words? – In small groups, students look through the unit word list and identify the 3 words with the most of letters. The teacher elicits and discusses.
  23. Guess my word – In pairs, students take it in turns to choose a word from the unit word list. The other student needs to ask yes/no questions to work out the word.
  24. Can you make a sentence using 4 of the words? – Individually, each student makes a sentence using any 4 of the words from the unit word list (combined with other words to create coherent sentences). Students then compare and decide which sentence they like best.
  25. Which words do you know (after finishing the unit)? – Individually, after finishing the unit, students put a tick (✔) on the left next to all the words they now know. They can compare this with the number of words they knew before starting the unit and see their progress.

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Philip Haines moved to Mexico from England in 1995, and currently works as the Senior Academic Consultant for Oxford University Press Mexico. He has spoken internationally in three continents and nationally in every state in Mexico. Philip is the author/co-author of several ELT series published in Mexico.

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The Vocabulary – Grammar Continuum: A third approach to activity design

The Vocabulary-Grammar Continuum: A third approach to activity designAlice Savage and Colin Ward are professors of ESOL at Lone Star College – North Harris in Houston, USA.  This article is adapted from their presentation ‘Beginning Writing Students and the Vocabulary-Grammar Continuum’ at the 2014 International TESOL Conference in Portland, Oregon.

Words are powerful things. When we look at research-based word lists, such as the General Service List or the Oxford 3000, we come across many useful words that can inform our teaching of vocabulary in the classroom.  We know these words are the most important for our students to learn. Yet, from the perspective of the student, the task of acquiring these lists of words can be daunting.

One challenge is length.  How can students learn hundreds, or even thousands, of words when learning only a select few at a time?  And once new words are introduced, how can they be internalized without a sufficient amount of recycling and repurposing?

Another and more interesting challenge is meaning.  Meaning turns out to be a complicated notion when dealing with high-frequency words. For example, the Oxford 3000 includes three main categories. The first includes content words such as red, car, fast, which are obvious and easy to teach. The meaning is sharp and clear, so it can easily be demonstrated with a white board, a photo or pantomime.

The second category includes grammar words.  The words so, is, the, of, and their high frequency siblings hold a prominent position on the list and yet resist attempts to be neatly defined as solitary words. These worker bee words have become so directly associated with specific functions that they have become grammar (Larsen-Freeman, 2013).  Their place on a word list is obvious, and they get much treatment in grammar syllabi.

Then there is a third more elusive category, which we call shadow words. Words such as join, thing, important and place are extremely useful but difficult to teach because they hide in the shadows of other words.  Rather than being specific in meaning like the content words, shadow words tend to be abstract, vague, and flexible. They may not call attention to themselves, but they are important because a great number of other words like to partner with them in collocations. (Schmitt, 2000).

As a result of their accommodating nature, shadow words can be very useful when taught in phrases. For example, become is quietly helpful.  Phrases such as become an engineer, become friends, or become rich illustrate the supportive nature of become. When become is taught with other words, learners can better pick up the meaning of both. Become does not like being alone. It needs friends.

Shadow words can also have multiple personalities.  They take on different meanings depending on their context.  Have appears on high-frequency word lists because it collocates with so many other words—have fun, have a sister, have to leave, have an idea, have enough money—yet each pairing has its own personality.

So, in looking at all these different types of words that populate high frequency word lists, it becomes clear that vocabulary is not just one thing.  While some words can meaningfully stand alone, many of the most common words prefer to be in groups. These words unleash their full power when paired with other words in collocations (word partners), lexical chunks (groups of commonly occurring words that include grammar), and prefabs (fixed expressions that allow students to frame ideas by slotting in different vocabulary) (Hinkel, 2004).

Perhaps it is possible to conceive of teaching language a third way, not to present vocabulary lists, word form charts, and grammar items separately but together on the same continuum.

There are many benefits to this approach.  If students are exposed to words in these groupings, they have more opportunities to gather and use words in their natural environments. Furthermore, these distinct environments can help classroom participants make decisions about which meaning or meanings to focus on (Hyland, 2004).  For example, play means one thing when talking about children and toys, and another when used in an academic setting as in, Teachers play a role in helping students choose vocabulary.

Teaching words in phrases also mitigates the difficulty of learning parts of speech because students see adjectives being used before nouns, and nouns as objects of verbs or the subjects of sentences. They can establish cognitive hooks for storing the words in the same manner in which they will be used (Schmitt, 2000).

Finally, words in phrases maximize vocabulary learning by providing whole unit chunks of meaning that clarify individual words at the same time.  A list of 12 phrases includes more language than a list of 12 individual words.  For example, the lexical chunk blew snow in our faces can be visually depicted in one go while teaching 5 different words, including content words, shadow words, and grammar words.

The following example activities demonstrate how vocabulary and grammar can support each other in providing useful language for specific writing tasks. While each activity has a specific aim, the basic structure can be adapted for different topics and purposes.

Activity Type: Categorizing

Activity Type: Manipulating chunks 

Activity Type: Flow Charts

Having students attend to the boundaries beyond individual words can begin to help them see vocabulary and grammar on a continuum and may be one approach to making vocabulary learning more meaningful and efficient.  Collocations, lexical chunks, and prefabs can be used to introduce not just content words, but also grammar and shadow words.  Through scaffolding, students can then learn how to mix and match these words to produce new lexical strings.   They will see that words are not just dynamic, but do in fact have many friends.



Hinkel, E. (2004).  Innovative and Efficient Construction Grammar.  Selected papers from the 21st International Symposium on English Teaching.  English Teacher’s Association, Republic of China (ETA-ROC), Taipei, 51-59.

Hyland, K. (2004).  Genre and second language writing.  Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2013).  Transfer of Learning Transformed.  Language Learning 63:Suppl. 1 pp. 107-129 Language Learning Research Club, University of Michigan
DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9922.2012.00740.x

Schmitt, N. (2000).  Lexical chunks.  ELT Journal, Volume 54 (4), 400-401. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Savage, A. & Ward, C. (in press). Trio Writing.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.


#qskills – How can we help students to use words from the Academic Word List?

Today’s question for the Q: Skills for Success authors: How can we help students remember and be able to use words from the Academic Word List?

Cheryl Zimmerman responds.

We are no longer taking questions. Thank you to everyone who contacted us!

Look out for more responses by the Q authors in the coming weeks, or check out the answers that we’ve posted already in our Questions for Q authors playlist.


#IATEFL – What exactly is ‘academic vocabulary’?

Student reading book in libraryDiana Lea is editor of the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English (OLDAE), published in January this year. In this article, she looks at what academic vocabulary is and how it differs from general English vocabulary. Diana will be speaking about the OLDAE at IATEFL 2014 on Wednesday 2nd April.

Is academic vocabulary fundamentally different from general English vocabulary? In creating the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary of Academic English (OLDAE), we were compelled to think very carefully about this question in order to decide what should and should not be covered in such a dictionary. Fortunately, other researchers had already put in a lot of work in this area. Our starting point was the Academic Word List (AWL) (Coxhead, 2000), which will be familiar to most teachers of EAP: 570 word families that will account for roughly 10% of most written academic texts. But these words are all included – and marked – in learners’ dictionaries already. What more is needed?

A word list is a useful tool for setting targets and monitoring progress, as students can tick off words that they ‘know’ – but it does not actually teach. What does it mean to ‘know’ a word?

In the first instance, obviously, you need to know what it means. For some words this will be relatively easy, because they carry roughly the same meaning in most contexts, for example achieve. Other words have a number of different meanings; many of these may be related to each other, but used in slightly different ways (e.g. capital). Yet other words have a quite specific meaning in a particular area of study: consider the use of the words variable and significant in the context of statistics. It is fair to say that academic writing generally takes a more precise and nuanced approach to meaning than much of the speech and writing that we encounter day to day. To understand academic vocabulary in context, students will benefit from an account of these words that is based on genuine academic usage, not general usage. That means a corpus of academic English.

The 85-million-word Oxford Corpus of Academic English contains undergraduate textbooks and academic journals drawn from a range of disciplines across the four main subject areas of physical sciences, life sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Analysis of this corpus enabled lexicographers to give a precise and nuanced account of the meaning and use of words in academic writing. For there is more to knowing a word than just knowing what it means: if students are to use a word correctly and effectively in their writing, they need to know how it behaves in context and how it combines with other words. As one teacher we interviewed said of her own students, ‘They know many words in isolation, but usage they find difficult.

A complete account of a word in a learner’s dictionary of academic English needs to cover its meaning – or meanings – its grammar, any prepositions or grammatical structures it commonly combines with, any peculiarities of usage in particular disciplines, useful synonyms, and – for the most important words – lists of collocations in different grammatical relations. And all these points need to be supported by example sentences that are clear, illustrate the points well, and are based on authentic academic texts.

Cycle dictionary entryThe entry for cycle only includes the meanings that are important in academic writing. This enables the academic meanings to be treated in more detail.

A more precise meaning that is particular to biology is identified in a ‘HELP’ note.

Cross-references indicate entries for compound words with their own precise definitions.

The example sentences show genuine academic usage, based on the texts in the Oxford Corpus of Academic English.

Complementation patterns with prepositions or other words are clearly signposted before the examples that illustrate them.

Collocations and common phrases are shown and exemplified in a special section of the entry.

Academic vocabulary is the vocabulary needed to write clear, appropriate academic texts. It includes, on the one hand, a lot of ordinary general vocabulary – but transposed to an academic context. At the other extreme, there is specialist subject vocabulary. This differs between different academic disciplines and can be highly technical; typically, students will need to learn these words as part of their subject studies, whether or not they are also learners of English. In between these two extremes is the ‘general academic’ or ‘subtechnical’ vocabulary represented by the AWL. The OLDAE covers the AWL, plus all the general vocabulary needed for defining it, plus the synonyms, opposites and collocates of all these words.

A word list is a useful starting point but a dictionary sets the words in context and enables students to use them effectively in their own writing.


Coxhead, A. (2000). ‘A New Academic Word List’, TESOL Quarterly, 34(2): 213–238. See also www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/resources/academicwordlist/

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