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Enabling students to become autonomous learners of vocabulary

Teaching words

I taught English as a Foreign Language for many years in Japan and also for a short time in China. During my time as a teacher I always tried to focus on teaching words. I did this for a couple of reasons. First, in my experience as a foreign language learner, I saw the value in learning vocabulary. Learning words helped me to communicate a little bit more effectively, and allowed me to understand a little bit more. Moreover, I found vocabulary learning to be motivating. I might not see the gains that I made in speaking, listening, and grammar, but I could see that I knew more words each week, and this encouraged me to keep studying. Second, I could see that my students always made an effort to learn vocabulary; in every class as I walked around the classroom I could see that students had written new words in their books.

Despite my best efforts to teach vocabulary, I was always a little disappointed by the progress of my students. However, now that I have a better understanding of the research on vocabulary learning, I realise that I was part of the problem; I could have done a better job helping my students to learn vocabulary.

There are too many words to teach!

In my webinar, I will talk about several issues that I believe are really important to teaching and learning vocabulary. The first and basis for the talk is the fact that there are far too many words to teach. Native speakers of English know about 15,000 words, and to understand books and newspapers, students need to know around 8,000-9,000 words. Students may only learn a small proportion of these words in the classroom, which means that if they are to be successful in their lexical development, they need to learn the majority of words on their own outside of the classroom. This means that one of the most important jobs for teachers is to help their students to become effective and efficient autonomous learners of vocabulary.

Vocabulary learning strategies

There are several vocabulary learning strategies that instructors can teach to help their students to become more effective and efficient autonomous learners. All of these strategies are fairly simple, which is perhaps why typically little classroom time is spent on mastering vocabulary learning strategies. However, because of their great importance, it is worth spending a great deal of classroom time ensuring that students can effectively learn words on their own.

I will touch on a couple of vocabulary learning strategies in my webinar. The most important one involves working with different types of input that students might encounter outside of the classroom to show students that they can understand and enjoy English on their own. Input that students might be motivated to learn from such as English television programs, YouTube videos, shopping sites, and songs. Initially a great deal of these types of L2 input may be too difficult for students. However, with support from teachers over a sufficient period of time, students may find that not only can they have reasonable comprehension of the input, but they might also see that they can enjoy learning with it. Essential to this strategy is showing students that there are opportunities to enjoy learning English outside of the classroom, and how making the most of these opportunities is fundamental to L2 development. With teaching vocabulary learning strategies, it is not what is gained during the classroom that is of greatest value, but rather what is gained when students are encountering and using English outside of the classroom that is key.

In my upcoming webinar, I look forward to discussing with you how to help students become autonomous learners of L2 vocabulary. I believe there are some useful points in my webinar that would have helped me do a better job of helping my students to learn vocabulary when I was an EFL teacher. Hopefully there will be some value in the talk for each of you.

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Stuart Webb is a Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Western Ontario. Before teaching applied linguistics, he taught English as a foreign language in Japan and China for many years. His research interests include vocabulary, second language acquisition, and extensive reading, listening, and viewing. His latest book (with Paul Nation), How Vocabulary is Learned was published by Oxford University Press in 2017.