Published 18th January 2016


What’s more, English vocabulary is not straightforward. We have words which look the same but sound different and have different meanings:

It’s really windy today.

That’s a really long, windy road;

words which look the same and sound the same but have different meanings:

He’s so mean.

What do you mean?;

and words which sound the same but don’t look the same and have different meanings:

It looks like it’s going to rain.

He’s had a very long reign as king.

Then we need to consider the fact that words are not entities on their own, they have families and each member needs to be used in a different way in order to make sense:

happy, happily, happiness, unhappy.

And let’s face it, without vocabulary, there’s not much you can do, even if you have grammar.

What all this means is that learning vocabulary is a big challenge for any language learner. No matter what level they are, there are going to be words that they don’t know. Which brings us to the issue of active versus passive knowledge.

A learner can have a passive knowledge of a word, which means that they will understand the word if they hear it or read it. However, they will never produce the word in their own English. In order for that to happen, a learner must have an active knowledge of the word. In order for a learner to have an active knowledge of the word, the learner must know the form of the word (how it is spelled, the different word forms) and the function (how and when it is used).

For example, in order to really know the word chat, we need to know that it is a regular verb, it means to talk in a light-hearted manner, and it is used in an informal context.

Only once all this is known can the word be used in production accurately and appropriately. Basically, there is a lot of information which is involved in learning a new word, and there are literally tens of thousands of words that need to be learnt.

So, how can we help our learners tackle this seemingly impossible task? Make sure you introduce loads of opportunities for repetition in your lessons. Even if you feel like you’ve dealt with the same vocabulary for a lifetime, your learners will appreciate the extra practice. Also, spend some time focussing on the different aspects of vocabulary so that your learners really learn a word and know how to use it. Finally, make sure there are plenty of opportunities in the classroom for the learners to use their vocabulary creatively and freely.