Teaching Vocabulary at School

Posted on Dec 7 2016 - 4:28am by Zdenda

Vocabulary is much more important than grammar. If you know the meaning of the words you can understand a text even without knowing the grammar. If you listen to a recording and you know the vocabulary, you will understand the meaning of the message. If you watch a video and understand the words, you can enjoy the film. However, if you know just the grammar you will not understand much. Therefore, we should devote a lot of classroom time to teaching vocabulary.

Unfortunately, most of us don´t spend much time teaching vocabulary. Many teachers of English assign vocabulary as homework and students have to learn the words at home. It is not an entirely bad method. My research shows that 50% of students actually learn the vocabulary on their own. The bad news is that the other half of students don´t do it. They do not learn the vocabulary and after a while they are completely lost. That´s why I think that we should teach vocabulary at school.


All the best experts on teaching vocabulary, like Paul Nation or Keith Folse, agree that the best way to teach foreign vocabulary is by using translation. It is the best way for our brain to remember the vocabulary. And in this post, I would like to share with you two methods I have been using to teach vocabulary in my classes. Both of the methods are very effective.

Teaching vocabulary – Remembering Tables

In my article in the magazine English Teaching professional (issue 105), I share with the readers the Remembering Tables method of teaching vocabulary. To do this in your class you need to prepare tables similar to the following:

In the tables on the left, the words are given in both English (in bold letter) and in MT (in this case in Czech). On the right, the tables contain only the Czech words.

At the beginning, read the words in the first table and ask the students to repeat them. Then give the students 20 seconds to study and memorise the words. After this time, they should cover the table and write the words into the table on the right. When they have finished, they uncover the table and check their answers. You go on like this with the rest of the tables, giving the students 30, 40 and 45 seconds respectively.

It is a great classroom activity, but the preparation is a nightmare. To simplify it, I asked a friend to make a word macro which would do all the work for me. And here is the result:

Remembering tables Macro

Download the file. Then create a text file which contains 16 lines – use Notepad for this. On each line there is the word in English the plus sign and the word in the students’ mother tongue (e.g. work+pracovat). Save the file. Then open the downloaded macro. It asks you to Select Text File Containing Words. Click SELECT and choose the txt file you have created. And bingo, your tables are finished and you just print them.

Teaching vocabulary – vocabulary books

I teach a group consisting of challenged children. Some of them live in bad conditions, some of them have really low IQ and some have behavioral problems. They are fine, but their test results are appalling. But this week I experienced a great teaching success. These students remembered over 80% of the words I taught them. While previously they scored about 50% on average, this time they were nearly twice as successful.

How did we achieve this? I prepared the following vocabulary books for them.

I printed this as a brochure and then I made small books out of it. I handed them out and I asked the students to complete the tables in their free time during my lessons. In the tables with the free lines, students should copy the English words twice and the Czech translation once.

In the other tables, students have to translate the words. If the word is in English, they translate it into their MT and if the word is in their MT they translate it into English (this is 3 times as frequent as the former translation).

The preparation took some time, but the results were fantastic. Try it out and you will see for yourself.

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