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TEFL Masterclass – Vocabulary Inside and Outside the Classroom: Some Pointers for Successful Vocabulary Learning and Teaching

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Neil Harris – Teacher Trainer & Director of Marketing @CELT Language School.

Neil Harris started his career in ELT in 1993 after completing a CTEFLA with IH London. He quickly realized that language learning and teaching was his true passion. Neil has worked in a variety of roles in the UK and Italy, including as a teacher, Senior Teacher, EAP Lecturer, DoS, Teacher Trainer, Business Development Manager, and Director of Marketing. Currently, Neil focuses on developing online ESP medical English and teacher development programmes in his role in agent-based marketing and course development.

What you will learn

If you ask an intermediate learner what she or he needs to be more proficient in English, very often the answer is more words, or a wider “vocabulary”. If we look at what distinguishes a learner with a strong C1 or higher level of English from his/her B1+/B2 counterpart, it is often the ability to use language naturally as a result of the skillful control of collocation.

Likewise, teachers often report less confidence when teaching vocabulary than grammar. Vocabulary is clearly central in the language classroom, but how successful are we as teachers in guiding our learners to becoming good vocabulary learners?

This workshop begins by looking at the centrality of vocabulary learning and suggesting that we need to make vocabulary centre stage in our classrooms. It then 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 before looking at four simple tips and tricks to make vocabulary learning more effective for our students.

Workshop Summary

The Importance of Vocabulary in Teaching

Neil Harris emphasises the significance of vocabulary in the classroom. Harris posits that vocabulary isn’t merely a list but encompasses the relationships between words. Despite the typical focus on grammar in teaching, he believes vocabulary is equally crucial, echoing Michael Lewis’s sentiment that language is centred around lexicalised units. Harris stresses that familiarity with 800 to 1000 words is vital for 75% comprehension in spoken language, hence the need to prioritise vocabulary in teaching strategies.

Paul Nation’s Approach to Vocabulary

Paul Nation, a prominent figure in vocabulary research for educators, has made significant contributions with works like “Learning Vocabulary in Another Language” and “Teaching Vocabulary Strategies and Techniques”. He proposes the ‘four strands of vocabulary learning’ for optimal teaching:

1. **Meaning-Focused Input:** This involves learners engaging with new vocabulary while consolidating known words through text and audio tailored to their proficiency level.

2. **Meaning-Focused Output:** Learners actively use vocabulary in spoken and written contexts, engaging in activities that challenge their understanding and stretch their knowledge.

3. **Language-Focused Learning:** This familiar strand to teachers emphasises traditional vocabulary exercises that delve into word usage, context, and strategies.

4. **Fluency Development:** This focuses on refining already known vocabulary, ensuring swift vocabulary retrieval without introducing new terms.

Harris observes that while the third strand is commonly used in classrooms, fluency development often takes a backseat. To enhance vocabulary teaching, a balanced blend of all four strands is advocated.

Insights on Vocabulary Teaching

Drawing from his experiences, Harris shares insights on vocabulary teaching. He underlines the significance of limiting the number of words introduced in a session, suggesting a focus on seven words, give or take two, for quality learning. Additionally, presenting words thematically, as opposed to traditional lexical sets, may yield better cognitive processing and learning outcomes.

Effective Vocabulary Techniques

A robust teaching technique, spaced repetition, is highlighted. Due to the sheer volume of words, students should select the most relevant vocabulary for them. Harris also introduces online tools beneficial for vocabulary teaching, including the Oxford Text Checker and the English Vocabulary Profile from Cambridge. To conclude, Harris reiterates the paramountcy of vocabulary in language learning, suggesting structured approaches, multiple exposure methods, and the incorporation of Paul Nation’s four strands for holistic teaching.

Reflective Questions

Have a quick think about the reflective questions below in order to get the most out of the workshop:

  1. How well do your learners recall new vocabulary in the hours, days and weeks after their first encounter in class? How do you know? What do you do to encourage students to review their vocabulary learning after that first encounter?
  2. Directed vocabulary teaching includes developing in class time the students’ metacognitive awareness of how they learn vocabulary. This includes working with flashcards and thinking about what it means to learn a word (form, meaning, pronunciation, collocations, example sentences etc.) What vocabulary learning techniques do you discuss with your students and which have been most successful?
  • Dronic, V. How (not) to teach English vocabulary. The CATESOL Journal 31 (1).
  • Nation, I.S.P. (2008). Teaching vocabulary: Strategies and techniques. Heinle Cengage Learning.
  • Nation, I.S.P (2013). Learning vocabulary in another language. 2nd Edition, Cambridge University Press.
  • Sagar-Fenton, B. & McNeill, L. (2018, June 24). How many words do you need to speak a language. BBC News.
  • Wenn, S. & Nation, P. (2017). How vocabulary is learned. Oxford University Press

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