Keeping word lists

2 Feb

Most coursebooks these days come with word lists (and if they don’t, they should!), at the end of each unit or at the end of the book, organised by unit. These are only a starting point, and will never be enough in themselves. First of all, they cannot correspond  to what a teacher has done in class (teachers will choose not to do some activities in the book, and there is inevitably a certain amount of vocabulary that just ‘crops up’ in the course of a lesson – vocabulary that needs to be added to such lists). For this reason, these lists need to be editable, as they, for example, in the new editions of Straightforward.

However, even with these lists, students need to be able to use the information they contain. They need, for example, to understand the abbreviations that indicate part of speech. They also need to understand the codes that indicate frequency (e.g. the red stars that are used in some books), because this tells them at a glance which words are most important. Research suggests that most students just learn lists without prioritising and selecting (Moir & Nation, p.164), but we need to encourage to take a little more responsibility for their learning through judicious selection.

Students also need to understand the phonemic representations of the words on the list. This is not just because the way a word is pronounced is a central part of being able to use it. It seems that the ‘sound representation of a word is much more central to the existence of a word in the mental lexicon for most learners than the written form’ (Milton, 2009, p.93). For this reason, we should encourage students, when studying, to repeat words aloud, since this ‘helps retention far better than silent repetition’ (Gu, 2003).For the same reason, activities that provide oral practice / recycling of words will be more useful than written gap-fills.

Translation equivalents will need to be added to word lists, but it is important to demonstrate to students that, contrary to commonly held beliefs, the translation is ‘not sufficient to enable effective use’ (Moir & Nation, p.164). Depth of vocabulary knowledge includes grammatical information, but equally important is information about collocational partners. Not only will this enrich the students’ ability to use these items: it also seems that collocational patterns may be easier to memorize. George Woolard (in press) argues convincingly that, rather than individual words, students should be rote-learning chunks and message frames. Word lists, then, should also be phrase lists.

Putting together useful word lists and collecting the information necessary for them entails effective dictionary use. We know from research that most learners do not make best use of dictionaries (Nation, 2008, p.89). Some training will be beneficial, and all the major dictionaries offer free support on their websites. At the most basic level, many students will need to be shown appropriate resources. Good, free online dictionaries and apps for smartphones exist (e.g. and, for some languages, there are now excellent bilingualized dictionaries (e.g.

Psychological research has demonstrated that learners are more likely to remember words that they have generated in some way (Sharafian, 2002). For this reason, teachers may occasionally want to give their students word lists to study that have to be worked on in some way first. If the list contains individual words, students could be asked to generate these words from cognates, antonyms, partially-gapped words, etc. If the list contains chunks or phrases, these could be jumbled or gapped.

When it comes to studying at home with a word list, we should encourage our students to annotate, doodle on them, use colour highlighting and underlining. If we want them to come up with examples, we should encourage them to invent bizarre examples (as they will be much more memorable) or examples that are personalized in some way (again, because this enhances memorization).


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