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Federico Riva

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The Principles of Building a Strong Vocabulary

The Principles of Building a Strong Vocabulary | ITTT | TEFL Blog

Perhaps more than anything, the size of a student's vocabulary puts a limit on what he or she can and cannot do in English! Because although I think that grammar certainly has a place in the teaching of English, my own experience has shown me that the number of words and phrases in your language arsenal will be a bigger determining factor of your ability to understand and to use a language actively. Here I will explain why I believe that vocabulary is key when it comes to mastering English and at the same time give some examples of how to teach English vocabulary effectively to students in line with the ESA methodology.

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Jacob L. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.

Active vs. Passive Vocabulary

As was mentioned in Unit 7 of the TEFL course, a student will almost certainly be able to understand far more words than he or she can produce. But whether we are talking about a passive or an active vocabulary, knowing words and phrases is the primary prerequisite for both understanding or producing meaningful English. They are the building blocks of a language, whereas grammar is the collection of rules determining how those building blocks should be put together. In this way, my thoughts are in line with the lexical approach as briefly mentioned in Unit 3.

Also Read: Can I teach English abroad if I have children?

Benefits of a Large Vocabulary

Students at all levels will benefit from a larger vocabulary. Complete beginners will need a certain amount of basic words before they can put words together and begin studying grammatical structures. Intermediate students will most likely be most limited by their vocabulary when trying to understand native texts or audio, and a greater vocabulary will grant them access to more material from which to study. And advanced students will also need to keep increasing their vocabulary to approach the English level of a native speaker.

Vocabulary might represent the biggest task that a student is faced with going from a complete beginner to native-like proficiency because there are so many words in any language. With grammar, there is a finite amount of knowledge and once you know the basics you can pretty much express anything; knowing more grammatical patterns will add more nuance to your English, but will not to the same extent increase your ability to understand others or to express yourself.

male teacher and two students

Also Read: Guide to Teaching Receptive Skills in the EFL Classroom

Ways to Build a Strong Vocabulary

Vocabulary can be learned deliberately or incidentally. If the teacher chooses to teach vocabulary in a lesson, that would be an example of deliberate vocabulary acquisition. If I were to plan a vocabulary lesson, I would start by determining a theme that I thought would be of interest and importance to the students – let's go with hobbies. The engage phase would then get the students thinking in English by asking about their spare time and giving some examples of things that you can do for enjoyment. Depending on the level of the students, the study phase would have the students fill in some gaps in sentences appropriate for the student's level, and some time could be spent drilling troublesome pronunciation. The activate phase could be a group activity with students asking about each others' hobbies (perhaps a bingo-like game similar to the one the teacher and students do in the second video of Unit 10), or they could prepare a short presentation about their hobby to be given to the whole class at the end of the lesson.

Much – if not most – vocabulary acquisition will happen incidentally when students are doing other activities in English that are not specifically designed to teach vocabulary. So having the students do other activities like reading or listening to the material of interest, having students do role play, having students practice their pronunciation, or having students do grammar exercises, will also help teach new vocabulary and reinforce vocabulary that is already known.

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All in all, a larger vocabulary will give students access to more native material that in turn will benefit their English ability further, creating a positive feedback loop. Increasing your vocabulary is also a very tangible way of seeing their progress in English which will help give students a sense of accomplishment and keep them motivated.

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