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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.


Who is the Oxford 3,000™ actually for?

Oxford 3000Bjorn Candel is an EFL teacher in the UAE. In this post, he looks at how the Oxford 3,000™ – a list of the 3,000 most important words in English – can be used with EFL students.

Frequency-based vocabulary lists like the Oxford 3,000 are powerful language learning tools. In fact, they are way too powerful to stay in the hands of teachers and EFL publishers. That’s why I give each of my students the Oxford 3,000 in an Excel or Numbers file, with empty columns for definitions, example sentences, word family information, collocations etc.

A blank copy of the Oxford 3,000 Excel file

A blank copy of the Oxford 3,000 Excel file

Focus tool

The Oxford 3,000 is a perfect tool for focusing students on studying vocabulary. A huge amount of research and work has gone into compiling this list of vital words for learners of English, and students can take advantage of this by checking if new words they come across in a text or a language activity are on the list. If a new word is in the list, I tell the students to learn it. If not, they have to decide if they feel that word is important enough to make the effort to learn it.

Ambitious and lazy students

Using the Oxford 3,000 is a great approach to vocabulary learning for ambitious students. The list becomes a guide where these students can focus on the words they really need to know to progress in English. And it is a focus tool that helps them become more independent as language learners.

Using the Oxford 3,000 is also a great tool for lazy students. They don’t have to make an effort to decide which words to focus on. If the word is in the list, they simply learn it.

Why an empty list?

I give my students an Oxford 3,000 list with no definitions or example sentences for the simple reason that finding the definition and typing it in the list helps the learner remember it. They are actively working with the new words, not simply looking up dictionary entries. And by actively adding and compiling the information, the Excel or Numbers file also becomes a personalised vocabulary record for the student.

Collocations and word-family data is entered in an Oxford 3,000 Numbers file

Collocations and word-family data is entered in an Oxford 3,000 Numbers file

How many words did you say?

A list of 3,000 words is incredibly long (my Excel file is 310 pages). It’s easy enough to find a new word in the list by using the Find function. However, to make the list easier to work with, I’ve also added a column labelled Date. Whenever a student has worked on a particular word, they simply add the day’s date at the end of the row.

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