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Word cards in class

2 Feb
  • Train the students in producing word cards, and get them to compare their cards.
  • Talk to the students about the forgetting curve and the importance of regular learning.
  • Get students to work in pairs, testing each other on their cards. Nation (2008, p.147) suggests they can ask each other about meaning, pronunciation, spelling, word parts and how to use the word.
  • Ask students for regular feedback on their progress in this kind of learning.
  • See also the practical suggestions in the post ‘Word lists in class’ (above)

It may also be useful for the teacher to have a set of word cards that are kept in a ‘vocabulary bag’ or box. You can make your own quickly and cheaply, or you may prefer to produce / download more attractive ones using a website such as

Many of the activities that I describe in the post on ‘Word associations practice’ (see below) can be adapted for use with vocabulary bags, but you will also find a wide selection of activities for these bags at the link below:


Word lists and technology

2 Feb

In recent years, there has been an explosion of developments for mobile learning and quite a few of these offer technological versions of word card / word list study.

Two which have caught my attention are Gengo Flashcards – see and the British Council’s MyWordBook – see

For more information about apps that may help learners with vocabulary acquisition, have a look at this post on the Education Technology in ELT blog:

Other blogs which will be handy for keeping up to date with the latest technological developments include:

Memory training

2 Feb

The art of remembering – ars memorativa –has a long history, dating back, at least, to the classical Greek period, but now largely forgotten, except by magicians, card sharks and participants in the World Memory Championships. Essentially, memorization techniques revolve around mnemonic devices, such as the loci method. Should we train our students in such techniques? Arguably, yes … and especially for exam preparation … but it is beyond the scope of this handout to deal with the subject in any depth. Joshua Foer’s very entertaining book, Moonwalking with Einstein, provides a good account, and Tony Buzan’s books give extensive practical advice. There’s huge amount of material on the subject online: just google ‘memory training’ to get 92 million hits!

Mind maps

2 Feb

Getting students to organise word lists into mind maps is such an obvious idea that it hardly needs stating. However, persuading students (or teachers, for that matter) to use them is not always easy. Jim Scrivener (Straightforward Upper Intermediate Teacher’s Book, Macmillan 2007, p.66) writes that mind maps ‘are good because they are not just a linear record of the things that came up in a lesson […] but they force the learner to make sense of and structure it, finding a way of organizing this data. The apparently simple decision of “Where shall I write this?” and “How shall I write this?” is already assisting the act of memorizing and storing within the brain. Mind maps are also superb for accessing information later on.’ In order to encourage students ‘sell’ the idea of mind maps to your students, Jim (p.74) suggests the following:

  • Allocate class time to mind-mapping and other vocabulary recording activities.
  • Check the students’ vocabulary recording work and get them to compare their approaches.
  • Give your students partially completed mind maps which they must finish off.
  • Emphasize that mind maps are personal, and that there is not one way of doing them.
  • Encourage students to return to mind maps and rework them.
  • Use mind maps yourself when presenting vocabulary on the board.

It is also a good idea to ask students who produce particularly good mind maps if you can copy them for use with other classes.

Flipped classes

2 Feb

In order to acquire the number of vocabulary items that they need, a substantial portion of a student’s learning will need to take place out of class. When it comes to vocabulary acquisition, how should class time be best spent? Perhaps, we would do better to devote the limited time we have available to communicative practice of vocabulary, rather than using it to present new items. If we don’t use class time to recycle / revise vocabulary, it probably won’t happen much outside the class. A study by Moir and Nation (2008: p.166) found that, although some learners recognize the importance of revision, they don’t actually spend any study time at home revising previously learnt words, preferring to restrict themselves to the weekly list that they have been given.

This idea finds an echo in the currently popular notion of ‘flipped classes’ in mainstream US education. You might like to watch an inspiring TED talk on the subject by Salman Khan.

The idea is very simple. Essentially, Khan recommends that teachers devote classroom time to practice of whatever it is that the students have been learning … after they have studied the topic at home in the form of uploaded Youtube video clips. The medium (video clips) is different from a more traditional study sheet (or word list), but the arguments for a more considered use of classroom time remain equally forceful. Here’s an example of something I am experimenting with: it’s not exactly Hollywood, but you’ll get the idea. Students watch this at home: more time in class available for practice.

SF Pre Int 5A compound nouns

There is a useful blog entry (with lots of links) on flipped classes at the website of the consultants-e.

Word associations

2 Feb

We don’t know exactly how words are stored in the brain, but the mental lexicon has been described as a ‘gigantic multidimensional cobweb’ (Aitchison, 1987, p.86). Words are not stored in individual slots, but distributed across networks of associations. Obviously, the size of the web (i.e. the number of words) is important, but equally important is the strength of the connections within the web (as this determines the robustness of vocabulary knowledge). These connections or associations are between different words and concepts and experiences, and they are developed by repeated, meaningful, contextualised exposure to a word. In other words, the connections are firmed up through extensive opportunities to use language.

In the post below (Word association activities), I list a selection of classroom activities that aim to build connections between words. These activities require little or no preparation, are communicative and collaborative, and have no right or wrong answers.

Just for a bit of fun, you might like to look at three clips I have found on Youtube. They all relate to word associations.

  1. The magician, Derren Brown, doing a very clever trick with word associations:

  1. A cleverly edited comedy sketch with Barrack Obama!

  1. A very funny comedy sketch (contains swear words)

Word association activities

2 Feb

Activity 1:Associate this!

  • Ask the class to look at a selection of words from a word list. Ask them to look at the first word on the list and then to find another word on the list which they can associate with it. Ask one student to say her / his associated word and to explain the association.
  • Now ask the class to focus on the word that has just been mentioned (by the student). Ask them to find another word from the list that they can associate with the new word. Ask a volunteer to give the new word and explain the association. Once the students have grasped the activity, they can carry on in small groups.

Activity 2: Picture associations 

  • Collect a set of large, varied images (for example, torn out of a magazine or downloaded and printed): 7 or 8 of about A4 size should be enough. If you have posters on the walls of your classroom, you may be able to use these instead.
  • Write a list of words that you want to recycle on one side of the blackboard. You could include up to about 20 words. Attach the pictures to the other side of the board (or make them visible to the class).
  • Ask the class if anyone can find a connection between any of the words and any of the pictures. Encourage them to use their imagination. Elicit two or three responses, asking the students to explain the connections. If students are slow to offer a response, you may give an example yourself.
  • Divide the class into groups (of 4 – 5) and tell them they must find a connection between all of the words and at least one of the pictures. When you / they have had enough, do feedback on the exercise with the whole class.


  1. Tell the students in groups to choose just one picture, and then to look for connections between that picture and at least six of the words on the list.
  2. Tell the students to choose one picture (but not to tell anyone else which picture they have chosen). They must then choose three words that they can associate with the picture. They tell their words to a partner, who must guess which picture was being thought about.
  3. Tell the students in groups to prepare (orally) a narrative which includes seven or eight of the words on the list. They will find this easier if they relate their narrative to one of the pictures. Once the groups have prepared their narratives, they can pass it on to other groups (à la Chinese whispers).

Activity 3: Words in sentences

  • Write a list of words that you want to recycle on the blackboard. You should include over 25 words. Divide the class into groups and explain the rules of the ‘game’. With lower levels, the rules can be explained in the students’ mother tongue.


The object of the game is to make sentences that contain words from the list on the board. If you use just one of these words in a sentence, you get 1 point. If you use two of the words, you get 2 points. If you can make a correct sentence with three of these words, you get 3 points. The more risks you take, the more points you can score. But if your sentence is incorrect, you’ll get no points and you’ll miss your turn.

  • Give the groups four or five minutes to begin working. Then ask one group to send one of their members to the board. This person will write a sentence that their group has prepared.
  • Tell the group if the sentence is correct (and give points) or incorrect (but do not explain why it is incorrect!). Give everyone a little more time before asking someone from the next group to come to the board to write a new sentence or to correct a sentence that is already there.
  • When a word has been used correctly in a sentence, cross it off the list. It cannot be used again.
  • Continue in this way until you or the students have had enough. With the whole class, look through any uncorrected sentences on the board and look at any words from the list on the board that students seem to have been avoiding.

Activities such as these, when a class is familiar with the procedure, can be a useful way of starting or finishing a class. They also work well towards the end of a term. They require quite a lot of talking, and hopefully some of it will be in English!