May 31, 2014

Experimental vocabulary practice

Image by Peter Megyeri
on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
My interest in experimental practice was piqued at the TESOL France’s last annual colloquium where I attended interesting sessions on the topic by Mike Harrison, and Christina Rebuffet-Broadus and Jennie Wright (see my conference report HERE)

For those who have done the DELTA, experimental practice may be associated with trying out different, non-mainstream teaching methods or approaches, such as TPR or the Silent Way. But, as Christina Rebuffet-Broadus, co-author of Experimental Practice in ELT: Walk on the Wild Side which recently came out on the Round, assured me during a brief chat we had after her workshop at TESOL France, experimental practice can also be conducted on a micro-level.

And this is what I have encouraged teachers to do on the in-service teacher training courses in vocabulary teaching I have been giving this year. As part of these INSETs teachers are usually required to submit a final paper showing evidence of application of course content. The final paper usually consists of a lesson plan and reflection. Instead, on my INSET courses teachers were asked to experiment with a different technique for presenting, teaching and practicing new vocabulary.

Here's just a handful of ideas to get you started:

With or without L1

Some still labour under the assumption that L1 should be banned from the classroom. When clarifying the meaning of a new word, it's often easier to supply L1 translation (if there is a more or less direct equivalent in L1) instead of launching into a lengthy explanation in English while students are mentally searching for an L1 equivalent. How about using L1 to clarify the meaning of new items (words, collocations, chunks)? And, conversely, if you always use L1 translation to clarify meaning, how about changing tack and defining new items strictly in English?

Start with L1

Say you use L1 to clarify the meaning of new items and have no qualms about. How do you go about? You probably write the new items on the board in English and then clarify / translate.
Why not write the items you want your students to learn in L1 first and then provide English translations? This might actually be more effective because it will arouse learners’ curiosity and create a “mental need” for the word or phrase in English. And then the learner might be more receptive when you supply it.

Ways of clarifying new meaning

There are many other ways of clarifying meaning of new items. Why always use definitions and L1 translations? You can use images pictures, realia, mime. See this Chia Suan Chong’s post where she lists different ways of clarifying new lexis. Have you tried all of these?

From vertical to horizontal

Many textbooks organise vocabulary in semantic sets, for example COLOURS: red, blue, white, etc.  In an earlier post I discussed the pitfalls of this method. Why not convert vertical sets into horizontal? Instead of teaching blue with red teach blue + sky. See more details on how you can do this HERE.

Pre-teaching or post-teaching

Reading texts in coursebooks are always preceded by pre-teaching vocabulary. As Carol Read recently noted in a Facebook discussion: why pre-teach vocabulary before reading if it is about to come up in a perfectly contextualized sentence?

The same is true with listening texts. And the reasons for pre-teaching here are even more obscure. Research suggests that providing background information about the topic and repeat listening are more effective than pre-teaching a few odd supposedly difficult words before listening. Anyway your learners probably won't process the recently taught words and catch them in a stream of speech. I have witnessed it many times – especially with IELTS students.

How about skipping the pre-teaching activity and going straight into reading or listening? New or half-known items can be dealt with after the activity.

Hugh Dellar has also spoken against pre-teaching vocabulary before vocabulary exercises (see his video-presentation HERE). In his view, it defeats the purpose of a vocabulary exercise which should serve as an indication to the teacher of what students already know. It’s better to let students get on with the exercise and spend time post-teaching any items that pose difficulty.

From word to chunks

If you usually write single words on the board, how about presenting new vocabulary in chunks and encouraging your students to do the same in their notebooks? When teaching different jobs (doctor, accountant, lawyer) teach them together with the grammartical pattern they are likely to occur with:

He/She works as ... (doctor, lawyer)

Even personality adjectives can be taught as part of lexico-grammatical frames:

He/She is very sociable / intelligent
He/She can be a bit annoying / nosy sometimes

For more ideas on how to move from single words to chunks in teaching, read this post

Human vocabulary experiment by @chucksansy and his class
via eltpics on Flickr

I am not saying that the ideas presented here are necessarily better and will work with all students but if you never try them you’ll never know will you? And this is what experimental practice – or at least the way I see it - is all about: going out of the comfort zone and questioning our practices.

Have you ever experimented with any of these "techniques"? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below.


  1. The article is excellent, I love the references that I can follow up on and the collective teacher input - I love the word 'experiment' because I use it a lot - it's part of my mindset and philosophy - it's the key to creativity:)

    1. Thank you for your comment, Sylvia.
      That's the beauty of having a great PLN you can learn from and share ideas with.

  2. Leo, thanks for this article!
    I also have my qualms about pre-teaching vocabulary, unless it's only a word/chunk or two. You know, those items without which comprehension will be REALLY impaired. I have found that students tend to bypass most of the lexis which is pre-taught in the actual reading process. It's as if they were meeting that item for the first time. Listening poses even more challenges because of phonology, I think, especially if the pre-taught item gets lost amidst of sea of ellisions, blendings and schwas.

    1. Yes that's what I meant when I said that students won't be able to catch them in a stream of speech. "Gets lost amidst of sea of ellisions, blendings and schwas" is putting it so poetically - I could have never done the same.

      Thank you for stopping by, Luiz!

  3. Thanks Leo!
    I do agree with what you've shared above. I'm actually a fan of experimenting with the untried myself. The problem, however, is how to assure learning is taking place. What I mean is sometimes everything goes perfectly well, or at least it seems so, but in the end, students have trouble using the newly taught lexis. The question I'm posing is: if you were to teach your students certain vocabulary items, once you'd clarified the meaning, how would you help the students activate the vocabulary?
    Thanks for your insightful article again & I'd really appreciate it if you could help me out here.

    1. Hi Seyed,
      I see what you mean. Students seem to understand the meaning but fail to use the new vocab correctly. It's because clarifying meaning - however successfully and ingeniously it's done - is not enough, in my opinion. Learners need to be explicitly taught how a new word is used, what other words it goes with (collocations), what grammatical pattern it tends to occur in (colligation) etc.

      Then you need constant revision & recycling. Other techniques which might help are personalisation activities, input flood etc.

      I cannot really provide a quick-and-easy recipe as activating new vocabulary is probably one of the biggest challenges for an EFL teacher but generally what I write about on this blog has a lot to do with the topic.
      Perhaps this post is a good place to start:
      or this one:
      Do let me know if it helps.

  4. Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations. They have been out and about, on people's lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. Applying right word at the right place is very necessary. To get a hand over vocabulary get in touch with


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