Principles For Teaching Vocabulary

Principles For Teaching Vocabulary


Jointly written by MAE904 (Language Teaching Methodology) students of NIE, Singapore



Words! Words! Words! The building blocks of language acquisition. Without grammar, comprehension is difficult but without vocabulary, comprehension is impossible! Vocabulary instruction is a vital component of any language and literacy programme. Research has shown there is a strong correlation between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension. Learners who possess limited vocabulary are at a higher risk of reading difficulties. This has shown to exacerbate over time if not remediated through a well-rounded vocabulary infused curriculum. The teacher must take careful consideration in the approach, design, and implementation of the vocabulary programme.

The learner profile is the centrepiece of the type of vocabulary instruction a teacher plans in any classroom. Teaching to meet learner’s vocabulary needs is a significant step to a successful vocabulary programme. The three Ms, meaningful input, many opportunities for output and mastery through practice encompass a comprehensive approach to vocabulary instruction for any learner.

The vocabulary programme is designed to include both explicit and implicit instruction. And varying levels of autonomy on a given task will help learners gain vocabulary in terms of depth and breadth. Additionally, most frequently ignored, there is an ongoing need to perform a formative assessment of learners. This enables the teachers to plan and re-plan lessons to meet the needs of their learners.

Since learners vary and the needs of learners vary, there is certainly no “best” or ‘right” way to introduce vocabulary in any classroom. This is dependent on the words that are of focus, and the schools’ direction and ultimately the governing bodies who hold authority.

Listed below are some guiding principles in vocabulary instruction that would enable teachers to make informed choices in their classroom to best meet the vocabulary learning needs of their students.

Principle 1 – Identify vocabulary that learners need

This is to begin with the end in mind. Before you even begin teaching, what would your learners eventually need? Young children learning to speak would not have the same language needs as adult learners preparing to enter the workforce. By setting clear objectives for explicit vocabulary instruction, the curriculum would be able to effectively equip students with the necessary vocabulary repertoire they need.

Principle 2: Words are not created equal. Focus on high-frequency words first.

Some words are more useful than others for language learners. Focus on high-frequency words at the initial phase of learning, i.e., words that have high utility and appear frequently in daily usage. K1, K2, K3 vocabulary lists can empower learners to understand and use the new language. The word walk, for example, is a high-frequency word that can be used in combination with other high-frequency words to express a variety of meanings. So, ‘walk’ should be taught first before other words such as ‘stroll’ (walk slowly and nicely) and ‘plod’ (walk slowly and with difficulty) are introduced.

Once students have acquired high frequency words, they can gradually learn mid and low frequency words as these words appear more often in authentic texts such as unabridged novels, newspapers, news broadcasts, magazines and academic texts.

Principle 3: Words are not used alone. Teach words with collocations and build connections.

Often, words travel with others to convey complete meaning. One important aspect of teaching vocabulary is to teach the collocations of words. This can help learners not only learn individual words but also enable them to communicate more complete and complex ideas effectively. It also extends from a single word to more related words or phrases and increases the vocabulary size more efficiently. For example, when teaching the word target, also include its collocation ‘hit/ miss the target’. On the other hand, vocabulary can be easily expanded by building connections of the word with related words. For instance, for the same word above, teachers can also relate ‘target’ to its synonyms ‘goal’ and ‘objective’. When teaching these words, it is recommended for teachers to guide students to study the words in their collocation and connection with other words.

Principle 4: Multiple meaningful encounters with target words

Vocabulary learning can be challenging for most second language learners. Firstly, learning a new word would mean learning its form, function, and its communicative purpose. Hence, learning it only once may not be effective in retaining the word knowledge. Providing students with extensive examples and readings that include the target word together with multiple opportunities to explore the use of the word independently will enable a more fruitful vocabulary learning outcome. For example, apart from selected readings that contain the word that is used multiple times, the teacher can also use the word deliberately in the classroom through many forms, e.g., teacher talk and visual input to enhance the learning.

Principle 5: Use a variety of text types to explore vocabulary in different genres.

Through a variety of text types, students will be able to identify vocabulary that is commonly used with different text types such as procedures, information texts or persuasive texts. Through this approach, vocabulary can be taught with different contexts of use and with different types of texts, ensuring that students not only build up their vocabulary but are exposed to authentic text types (recipes, advertisements, newspapers, etc.) which hold their own unique vocabulary. Additionally, this equips students with the ability to engage with new vocabulary when exploring language in the real-world.

Principle 6: Move your vocabulary laterally with Word Families.

Love them or hate them, you, and your family share something in common. Vocabulary is no different. Word families are groups of words that share some sort of pattern that makes them instantly identifiable (can + identify). Prefixes and suffixes are the usual ones you should know about. This might sound unbelievable (can + not + believe), but the importance of word families is not surprising (unsurprising). So, the next time you learn a new word or just want to know how adaptable a word you already know is, look up its word family.

Principle 7: Multitudinous engagement in a multimodal and multi-sensorial way

Multiple intelligence theories are tapped in this principle. The Internet offers a myriad of resources that can engage people in viewing, listening, touching with textual, visual, audio materials. Extensive, interesting, and authentic input can be provided through the Internet. In today’s world, numerous technologies can provide lots of games for students to learn vocabulary. Some software can help students understand vocabulary through sensory input, such as from video, sound, and pictures. The Internet can provide them with extensive and authentic material for learning vocabulary such as news and comments shared on social media. Students can also learn through interaction with others on the Internet. Beyond the internet, traditionally played games such as word puzzles and charades that are popular during “family time” are exciting and interesting ways to engage learners beyond the classroom. These resources and tools are effective for enhancing students’ vocabulary development.

Principle 8: Explicit teaching accompanies implicit teaching.

Explicit teaching involves having the teacher deconstruct the target words for the students independent of context. This allows students to gain in-depth knowledge about the definition and accurate use of the target word. Focusing on a target word is usually taught via vocabulary-focused lessons. Many strategies can be used, such as mnemonic practice.

Guided noticing is a teaching approach which can be effective for explicit vocabulary instruction. Noticing is also based on strong theoretical foundations (e.g., the noticing hypothesis). Instead of teachers simply listing words and meanings for students to memorise, the guided noticing approach allows students to learn by noticing how the new vocabulary is used and then making meaning using contextual clues. The highlighting, retaining and practising of vocabulary will help learners develop their vocabulary size.

Conversely, implicit vocabulary teaching focuses on words in a natural setting and teaching can occur when assisting students in text comprehension. As explicit and implicit teaching come together, students’ vocabulary growth is seen in terms of breadth and depth.

Principle 9: Vocabulary teaching needs to be integrated with the four language skills.

Vocabulary instruction needs to be integrated with the teaching of the four language skills so that a word can be not only understood in reading, but also easily recognized in listening, written correctly in writing, and articulated clearly and properly in speaking. Each language skill provides a different input and output response, giving vocabulary a variety of different means by which to be utilised. Pronunciation, contextual use, spelling and social meanings all need to be taken into consideration when teaching vocabulary. This means that students will gain a holistic appreciation of what a word means and how it is used in rich and authentic contexts. By embedding vocabulary in this way, we can expect students to be able to use newly acquired words for meaningful and purposeful communication using the target language.

Principle 10: Provide opportunities for incidental learning of vocabulary. 

Vocabulary acquisition can go beyond the classroom. Teachers can encourage and support students to read extensively after class. Extensive reading not only motivates students’ self-learning but also creates chances for incidental vocabulary acquisition while reading in a familiar context and a relaxing environment. By repeatedly meeting the same words in the multiple meaningful contexts, students understand the meanings of new words unintentionally and easily. For instance, teachers can recommend graded reading series suitable to students’ different levels and suggest tips to keep a record of words learnt incidentally during the reading process. The more advanced students can read popular unabridged novels such as Percy Jackson series or Harry Potter series.


We hope that the principles presented to you in our eBook help to guide you in your noble quest to unlock worlds in your classrooms. You will find everything you need. Identifying your student needs to know which words to teach first? Got it. Remembering to focus on the amount of teaching, revisiting, and practising you will undertake? It is there! And applying what you have learnt to the other language skills? You will be able to do it.

Vocabulary teaching represents an immense part of our jobs as teachers. We have a responsibility to help develop our students’ vocabulary breadth and depth. We believe that this, as shown in the poem below, will open the world for them.


Words build language

Language builds meaning

Meaning builds understanding

Understanding builds the world

The wider one’s vocabulary, the wider one’s world

Words build the World

Good luck, wor(l)d builder


To view or download the ebook version, click here.

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