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Effective Vocabulary Learning: Inside and Outside the Classroom

The proficiency of English language learners is often distinguished by their vocabulary. Intermediate learners frequently express the need for a wider vocabulary to enhance their proficiency. The ability to use language naturally often separates a learner with a strong C1 or higher level of English from their B1+/B2 counterparts. This natural use of language is often the result of skilful control of collocation.

The Importance of Vocabulary

Vocabulary is the cornerstone of language proficiency. It is the building block that allows learners to express themselves accurately and fluently. Despite its importance, vocabulary teaching and learning often take a backseat in language classrooms, with more emphasis placed on grammar.

Teachers often report feeling less confident when teaching vocabulary compared to grammar. This could be due to a variety of reasons. For one, vocabulary is vast and ever-evolving, making it difficult to cover comprehensively. Additionally, unlike grammar rules which are relatively fixed, vocabulary usage can vary greatly depending on context, making it harder to teach.

Despite these challenges, vocabulary remains central in the language classroom. A strong vocabulary allows learners to communicate effectively, understand others, and express their thoughts and ideas. Without a wide vocabulary, learners may struggle to make themselves understood or understand others, even if their grammar is impeccable.

The question then arises: how successful are we as teachers in guiding our learners to becoming good vocabulary learners? This is a complex question that depends on various factors, including teaching methods, learner motivation, and the learning environment. However, one thing is clear: for learners to become good vocabulary learners, vocabulary learning needs to be intentional, systematic, and a central part of the language learning process.

In conclusion, while vocabulary teaching and learning may pose challenges, its importance in language proficiency cannot be overstated. As educators, we need to equip ourselves with effective strategies and tools to teach vocabulary and foster an environment that encourages vocabulary learning. Only then can we guide our learners to becoming proficient language users.

Making Vocabulary Central

This article suggests that we need to make vocabulary the centrepiece in our classrooms. It introduces Paul Nation’s principle of the four strands as a way to encourage vocabulary development through deliberate and incidental learning inside and outside the classroom.

The Four Strands

The four strands principle states that a well-balanced language course should consist of four equal strands – meaning-focused input, meaning-focused output, language-focused learning, and fluency development. Each strand should receive a roughly equal amount of time in a course.

Tips and Tricks

The article then provides four simple tips and tricks to make vocabulary learning more effective for our students.


For those interested in this topic, we invite you to watch the workshop Vocabulary Inside and Outside the Classroom: Some Pointers for Successful Vocabulary Learning and Teaching that Neil Harris, a Teacher Trainer & Director of Marketing at CELT Language School, has produced for GTEFL.


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