Published 23rd April 2018

Learning vocabulary is one of the great challenges of learning a language, not only because there are literally thousands of words in a language to learn, but because one word can have different meanings, different words can have similar meanings, words can have literal and figurative meanings and words are usually used in chunks or collocations.

Subsequently, this area of learning has been studied in depth and there have been a lot of theories in the ELT field about the most effective way to teach vocabulary as we try to find the best way to help our learners learn vocabulary. One such theory is that of lexical sets.

What are lexical sets?

The theory in question posits that the best way to learn vocabulary is in sets of words which fit together semantically. In other words, words that belong to the same meaning set; for example, knife, fork and spoon or sunny, rainy and cloudy.

Because of this theory, the majority of ELT coursebooks utilise this method in their coursebooks.

The problem with lexical sets

Even though this may seem logical, research has in fact shown that teaching vocabulary in lexical sets hinders rather than helps learning. Learners who learn vocabulary in sets have problems remembering the correct item in a group; in other words, they confuse the different words they have learnt together. Consequently, learning vocabulary items in related sets makes learning take longer and was considered more difficult to learners.

This can be difficult to understand if you think of English word sets – because we are already familiar with the words and their meanings – but if you consider words in a foreign language which have related meanings you may start to understand why learners would get confused. If you don’t already have a meaning attached to a word, the different meanings of these words can easily be mixed up.

How can we help our learners learn vocabulary?

Ultimately, there are a few things we can do to help our learners learn vocabulary without resorting to teaching in lexical sets.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Don’t teach vocabulary in related sets. Teach vocabulary as it comes out in your lessons i.e. in context and try to reduce any opportunities for interference from similar vocabulary items.
  • Don’t teach related words together, for example antonyms or synonyms.
  • Teach related words at different times.
  • Teach related words in very different contexts.
  • Only show the relationship between related words when one of those words is already known well.
  • Teach your students not to learn vocabulary in lexical sets.

When teaching vocabulary, be aware of how your coursebook presents vocabulary to be learnt. You may need to manipulate the materials slightly in order to prevent teaching vocabulary in lexical sets.