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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.