Strategies in vocabulary learning

Last week I published a post on vocabulary. I’d like to start out by thanking everyone for their great responses, I came away with a lot of ideas and lots to think about. In the post, I gave a run-down of some of my aims for the next few weeks/months/years. since starting though my focus has taken me off in different directions and I’ve realised consequently that what I will actually publish might not resemble the initial post.

Vocabulary learning strategies are divided into categories by Schmitt (1997: 207-8),  Stoffer (1995), Nation (2001: 218) and Gu and Johnson (1996: 650-651). I came across these taxonomies here on Magda Kadubiec’s wonderful blog and I owe her a reference in this case. For more information I suggest you visit her blog or get hold of any of the literature mentioned above. I have sorted the strategies into a table and put it in the appendix and will try and link the strategies I’ve come across and thought of to this, just to keep it a little bit theoretical.


1. Appealing to the senses

  • This technique works especially well with young learners. A colleague of mine varies the pitch, the volume and the speed of her voice when introducing vocabulary. The difference in sound is thought to increase the chances of vocabulary retention. 
  • Another colleague has young learners spell words on each others’ backs to help solidify the image of a words shape in memory. This technique is also useful with dyslexic learners because the mind creates a link between the sense of the word – feeling the word – and eliminates the block between hearing  or reading a word and making mental image of it.
  • Young learners again: get learners miming actions, miming nouns (eat pizza, take the dog for a walk, do homework).
  • Stange movements, for example, pronouncing a word while doing a funky yoga style movement.
  • Using sounds for abstract concepts like feelings, music works very well for this.
  • Alternatively, instead of making a connection between a word and a sense, you can use a sense to find connections to words. Place learners back in the situation in which they came across new vocabulary, establish how they felt, what they were wearing, how they were sitting, what could they hear. Give them a word that came up in class and see how much they remember. More detail on this idea  here
  • Making a mental image of a word upon encountering it. Take 5-10 seconds just to visualise a scene to connect to the world, then visualise the word and spell it out in the air with your finger. For example, ‘mettere troppa carne al fuoco’ in Italian I made a vision of a bbq with a man panicking because there are too many steaks to fry – the idiom means to have too many things on the go at the same time.

I would categories many of these as ‘Encoding strategies’, ‘activation strategies’ or ‘Consolidation – memory’ strategies.

Organising Strategies

1. Encoding

The strategies below are focused on ‘encoding’ a word over ‘decoding’ a word; going from word level to a higher, more complex level of information. For example, searching for the definition of ‘extreme’ is decoding, while finding ‘extreme weather conditions’ or /ɪkstri:meʒəz/ would fall under encoding. To empower students, work on the following strategies is helpful:

  • Monolingual dictionary training: teaching learners to go beyond just the definition and look for information on collocations, register, frequency, colligation, pronunciation, examples, derivatives and word class. Also, using context to select the most fitting definition, i.e. not taking the first example.
  • Online dictionary training and paper-based dictionary training.Using bilingual dictionaries. Using suitable online dictionaries to find word information (mentioned above).
  • How NOT to use google translate.
  • Training students to use language corpora for their own research into language. Words and phrases is a good place to start. This strategy has the added bonus of providing practice of guessing meaning from context. There are drawbacks, beware of these. You can find many of them here.

2. Finding

  • Practise mining texts for vocabulary in class, sorting them into collocations and storing them.
  • Set homework for learners to find texts that interest them and repeat. It’s also worth highlighting the difference between mining and reading… so that they don’t see every time they read as an occasion for mining vocabulary.

More on texts in this informative and helpful post by Michael Swan 

3. Storing

  • Creating word lists according to theme/topic/ or perhaps wordlists of words more similar to or different from L1 cognates.
  • The writing of vocabulary cards at the end of class, the start of class, during class. Use these as store of vocabulary, available at all times to use as revision. Hand them out during activities for student to record new vocabulary as it emerges, use them for vocabulary input during activities and ask learners to explain to each other after or recall the context in which the lexis was introduced.
  • Training in keeping a lexical notebook. See my post on lexical notebooks previously for more information.

These are strategies for students. I’ll be addressing strategies for teachers in my next post in which I’ll look at the topic under ‘rehearsal strategies’.

Below are a few lesson skeletons if anyone is thinking of implementing vocabulary strategies in their classrooms. If you have any comments or additions to make they’d be very welcome.

Lesson skeleton: Discussing strategies

Preparation: draw up a list of vocabulary strategies suitable for your learners.

  1. Start the lesson by asking learners how they feel they learn English best, how they were taught at school to learn English and how much time they spend learning English outside the classroom. Push them hard to find out any beliefs or habits that might shape their views, e.g. teacher never tests them, learnt words with translations in school out of context, never kept a vocabulary book.
  2. Explain what a strategy is and have learners draw up separate lists of possible vocabulary strategies. Have a representative of each group move another and explain their choices.
  3. Make a consolidated list and compare to the list you have drawn up. Have learners compare and discuss which they think are useful/not useful for them and why. Finish off the activity by having learners make a list in their books of which strategies they are going to try out in the coming weeks.
  4. Provide feedback or examples of any strategies discussed in class or make a list and make it the focus of the next lesson.
  • Having learners discuss strategies raises their awareness of the topic.
  • Discussing the suitability of strategies involves them in the process and means the ones they choose are more likely to be tried.
  • Discussing their previous learning experiences helps you to understand their current vocabulary habits and make appropriate suggestions in feedback.

To consider:

  • Learners may be used to teacher-led instruction on this topic; explain the rationale of the activity before.
  • Don’t expect too much from learners when they draw up their lists. They may simply not have any information to bring to the table. Mingle and input some ideas. 

Lesson skeleton: Lexical notebook training

Ask learners to buy a notebook to be used as a vocabulary book and bring in a lexical notebook of your own (if you have one).

  1.  Ask learners to discuss how they store vocabulary. Do they think it’s organised? Easy to read? What sort of information to they use?
  2. Mingle and discuss, adding ideas.
  3. Draw up a list of: what a good vocabulary notebook should/shouldn’t include. It’s helpful to do this after the dictionary training and discussing strategies as learners will have a better idea of what to include.
  4. Discuss any interesting points like translation, L1 cognates, notes on grammar specific to learners’ difficulties, neat and tidy presentation/structure, use of colours, highlighters, pictures etc.
  5. Ask learners to reogranise some vocabulary they have already stored on the first pages of their vocabulary notebooks they brought to class, input more information about the words and encourage learners to use dictionaries, Google, the internet, to find more examples

Extension: check vocabulary notebooks on a bi-weekly/monthly basis and give feedback on structure and language, make suggestions and add more vocabulary. Use notebooks in class to recycle language stored in them.


  • A vocabulary notebook is a personal thing, therefore its implementation needs to consider also individual learning styles and the final product must resemble these. Each notebook will be different. Discussing this in the lesson helps.
  • Doing this at the start of the course helps make sure learners have a record throughout the course.
  • Fosters independent learning.

To consider:

  • Learners simple may not have time to keep this up outside of class.
  • Different learning styles need to be considered. Allow learners to reject the idea on valid grounds, i.e. not laziness.
  • Lexical notebooks take time. Following up on the lesson is vital. 

Lesson skeleton: Dictionary training

Preparation: Take some lexis looked at during the course until now. Bring in some dictionaries, some paper. Draw up a list of what’s important in knowing a word (see appendix 2).

  1. Give learners appendix 2 and ask them to rank these in order of importance. Discuss answers and provide feedback according to your beliefs about language. I generally rank collocation among the top 3. See if your learners do the same.
  2. Distribute some dictionaries and ask learners where we can find this information. Ask them to use a word they have already studies in class to lower the cognitive burden of the activity and avoid them randomly browsing the dictionary.
  3. Ask them to create a mindmap of information about the word, containing as many categories as possible from the list.
  4. Give feedback on students’ findings. Give them some freer practice of finding words and encoding them with a dictionary.

Extension: Bring dictionaries into class regularly and dedicate 10 minutes at the end of the lesson to encoding new words.


  • Learners realise there is more to knowing a word than just L1-L2 translation.
  • Dictionary trained learners are empowered researchers of language.
  • Reduces the workload on the teacher; learners are more independent.

To consider

  • Monolingual dictionaries could seem a daunting prospect. Introduce them slowly and according to the level.
  • Learners might not see the rationale of the activity; it might be worth explaining.

Appendix 1

Schmitt Gu and Johnson Stoffer Nation
Discovery – Determination Guessing
– Using background knowledge/wider context
Using linguistic cues/immediate context
Strategies with authentic language use Planning
– choosing words
– choosing the aspects of word knowledge
– choosing strategies
– planning repetition
Discovery – Social Dictionary Strategies
-Dictionary strategies for compensation
-Extended dictionary strategies
– looking-up strategies
Strategies used for self-motivation Sources
– analysing the word
– using context
consulting a reference source in L1 or L2
– Using parallels in L1 and L2
Consolidation – Social Note-taking strategies
-Meaning-orienated note taking
– Usage-orientated note-taking
Strategies used for organising words Processes
– Retrieving
– Generating
Consolidation – Memory Rehearsal Strategies
– Using word lists
– Oral repetition
– Visual repetiton
Strategies to create mental linkages
Consolidation – Cognitive Encoding Strategies
– Imagery
– Visual encoding
– Auditory encoding
– Using word-structure
– Semantic encoding
– Contextual encoding
Memory strategies
Consolidation – Metacognitive Activation strategies
– memorising facts linking them to numbers or familiar words
– remembering lists by picturing them in specific locations.
– Establishing an acoustic and imagine link between an L2 word and another
Strategies involving creative activities
Strategies involving physical action
Strategies used to overcome anxiety
Auditory strategies

Appendix 2

1. What the word means.
2. Collocations, .e.g. Take a shower, take a nap.
3. The grammar we often find with the word (e.g. articles, tenses, prepositions).
4. How we say the word.
5. How we translate the word.
6. Is the word formal or informal?
7. Common phrases in which we use the word.
8. Word class (e.g. noun, adjective, adverb).
9. How the word is spelt.
10. A written record of the word.

7 thoughts on “Strategies in vocabulary learning

  1. Emi Slater says:

    Fantastically useful Dale! Amazing blog. Will try and do everything described over the coming months and will let you know how I get on.

  2. phil2wade says:

    I got a CPE/Adv 121 recently who mainly wants speaking stuff but in L1 my main diagnosis was poor and limited lexis and grammar. To solve this I’m going to try to use online dictionaries, thesaurus and collocation sites. I plan to teach her how to teach herself by demonstrating the sites when the needs arise and then using the language. I’ll also do some writing for consolidation and to work on different registers and conventions.

    Well, this is the plan. I’ve taken this route because:
    1)He’s used to being spoonfed
    2)He’s reached a plateau and doesn’t know how/why CPE is harder than his CAE he passed
    3)He’s in a foreign environment so is never challenged so doesn’t realise his weaknesses.

    Here’s my Scoopit so far:

    • dalecoulter says:

      Hi Phil, thanks for the comment. I have a similar student and I’ve used the same sorts of strategies. One thing I’d consider is the students’ motivation. It might be the case for being a hard-arse teacher and force them to use the strategies before giving a choice. As an advanced learner myself, I know how easy it is to get comfy and just not bother.

      Love your by the way, can I give it to my students too?


  3. phil2wade says:

    Sure. I made it as a resource for the class for developing learner autonomy ie I’ll get my st to use the sites in class and suggest stuff for HW. I’ll add more asap.

  4. Karl says:

    Really enjoyed reading your interesting and useful post. As a learner of a second language and also as a relatively new English Trainer (working in Germany) full of vigour, I am always looking for information and innovative methods to enhance 2nd language aquisition especially in the vocabulary arena. I would just like to add, I find it very useful to encourage my learners to find the other derived forms of the word and then to create their own sentences using each form of the word. I encourage them to make the sentence as personal, funny or as crazy as possible to assist with retention and motivation.

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