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.

Lexical notebooks

In a previous post, I talked about lexical notebooks without really explaining their make-up or meaning to me. I need to admit right at the start of this post that I am no expert in keeping a lexical notebook or linguistics, nor do I consider myself a good language learner. However, I have found that keeping everything in one place, using a few techniques which I hope to demonstrate below, and a bit of revision, I have become a better learner of Italian lately and above all more confident and secure in my learning.

1. Idioms

The learning of idioms, especially for exams like CAE and CPE, is vital for many of our students. I dedicate pages of my book to lists of idioms which have come up in conversation or which I know there is a corresponding phrase in English I use. What are the problems I have encountered when learning idioms in Italian?

The learning of idioms, especially for exams like CAE and CPE, is vital for many of our students. I dedicate pages of my book to lists of idioms which have come up in conversation or which I know there is a corresponding phrase in English I use. What are the problems I have encountered when learning idioms in Italian?

1. Lack of context 

I never remember idioms when I read them listed on a page of a book of idioms. To remedy this I type the idiom into Google in various forms (past, future, infinitive) and look at the different contexts in which it appears. I take a few examples and write them in my book.  The more information you have about a word, the more likely you are to remember it and reproduce it. 

2. They are not always clear

I either ask a housemate to give me a paraphrase of the idiom or try to think of one myself. This expands my vocabulary, utilises more of my linguistic resources and gives me a point of reference for meaning (in Italian) when I need to revise.

Learners of English are lucky enough to have a plethora of online resources available to them in the form of websites and corpora. In a recent development project a colleague of mine and I developed some materials using examples from The BNC and Google Corpora to encourage students to deduce meaning of idioms from context. There is definitely some promise in this idea, I would like to include this in my learner training this year, including exercises with idioms and teaching students to use these tools available to obtain more information about a phrase/idiomatic expression on their own.

2. Collocation trees

David Warr’s Language Garden blog and seeing a student of mine using these inspired me to start doing the same myself. It is visually stimulating and adds a little variety to my book.

In fact,  I found that I kept making mistakes with this word ‘cena’ and realised it was time to put things straight, so I dedicated a page of my notebook to remedying this problem. I am the sort of student that self-monitors a lot, correcting myself and being very aware of the mistakes I make. On the plus side, it gives me lots of material to learn by myself.

3. Colligation: The grammar contained within a phrase

One of the most challenging obstacles to overcome in Italian is when to use their subjunctive tense. Ask an Italian and they will rant for hours about the inflection of Italian verbs and how hard they are to learn, but I have certain reservations about the difficulty of learning verb endings; there’s no thinking required, no depth.

Having not had much success with the pedagogical grammar rules recited to me in Italian class a few years ago, I thought a new solution was needed. I came across something called colligation, which I understand to be the grammar patterns which are contained within the DNA make up of a chunk. E.g. ‘have an affair’ appears in the BNC in almost all cases in the continuous tense (past or present). It seems worth making a record of these syntactical secrets when teaching and learning to help students use phrases in the forms in which they are found. 

In this case I have opted for a longer distance colligation, based on general usage of the subordinate clause with a verb. I have heard the term ‘based on usage norm’ and this is what I have used.

So what does this mean?

I keep a record of what type of verb follows certain expressions (indicative or subjunctive) and base my usage upon that. 

It means I have a store of chunks I know are followed by a subjunctive, reducing the cognitive load while I speak and cutting out the need to learn too many confusing grammar rules.

I can keep a record of style-sensitive changes in the use of these two moods in Italian. That way I do not end up sounding like an academic in a chat with some friends when I am out and about. In English this could take the form of the stylistic differences between ‘will’ and ‘going to’.

How do I find this information?

Mostly on Google, looking at the context in which the phrase is used: facebook or social networking sites = more spoken, newspapers etc = more formal, interviews with political figure = more formal. I admit it is not fail safe, but for learning independently it helps.

4. Pre/post modification

Add an adjective before a noun and you pre-modify. A noun which has a pre-modifier can then be extended with a post-modifier. Students studying English who need to use more complex sentences could really benefit from this knowledge. OK, that is enough demonstration of pre/post-modification. If you have been seduced by them then I suggest reading Dave Willis’ ‘Rules, Patterns and Words’ (2003).

I keep a record in my book of the lexical and grammatical patterns of Italian syntax. Italian is a heavily post-modified language so I focus my efforts on noticing the types of structures that occur after the nouns. As I have no Italian teacher, I try and paraphrase the example to help me understand it more and ask friends to help me.

How does this help me?

1. I am better able to deconstruct complex Italian sentences.

2. I can contain more information in a spoken sentence.

5. Collocations in context

Words attached to a context are of course of great benefit to a learner of a another language. For this reason I make sure I keep pages of vocabulary I have found or heard concerning topics I usually talk about.

You might notice some highlighted areas. These are areas I need to be careful of because of mistakes I know I have made in the past.

How does this translate to my teaching?

1. I encourage students to find as much information about an idiom as possible, as it makes it more like to be produced. Training learners to find examples and decide which idioms are useful for them i.e. are they likely to use them? One does not buy films or books that are of no interest, so why idoms?

2. I teach ways of keeping vocabulary organised in a notebook, giving learners a push away from long list of decontextualized words and towards fewer words and kept in the company of their lexical friends.

3. Show students the importance of knowing the grammar contained within the phrases we use, where to find it and how it can help them learn fewer grammar rules and use grammar better and more naturally.

4. I teach and encourage students to improve their use of phrase structures, like formulaic expressions but formulaic structures.

5. I want to encourage students to ask more questions about the the grammar they find in use, noticing common structures and recording them in a sort of basic form to be called upon and used when needed.

6. I give homework that involves mining articles which interest students for lexis/collocations/phrases that interest them, hoping that this might become a habit.

In this post I have looked at form and meaning, using examples of how I have adapted what I have learned about language to learn Italian, translating my second language learning experience into how I teach. I have missed out pronunciation, which will form the basis for a future post.

A month of learning

It’s been a month since I last sat in a classroom in London and taught. Since then a lot has changed in my life. For one thing, my new home is Rome. Yes, I have swapped Buckingham palace for the Colloseo, and tea and toast for caffè and cornetto.

I’ve been learning Italian for almost three years. It was September 2008 that I arrived in Florence with a phrasebook and a six-month language course booked. Effectively, my teaching experience started as a student, sitting the other side of the desk, watching my teachers, thinking that this job looks quite fun.

My Italian went about as far as ciao and pizza. I remember my first trip to a bakery on my second day in Florence. I did not have a clue what to say… I paid attention to how others were ordering their bread; they were all saying ‘kwesto’. Without any idea of what this meant, I understood it was what I had to say to buy some bread, so I said it. It turns out ‘questo’, as I learned later, is a demonstrative pronoun.

What made me think back to this experience was the fear and taciturnity/reticence I felt. The latter fed off the former. It is a strange feeling, like staying silent despite knowing the words and having the desire to say them. I still feel it today after three years. Today for example, I was in the supermarket, doing the shopping, and I wanted to buy some ham. Instead of giving into the fear and picking up some pre-packed ham I went to the counter and threw myself in the queue, wrestled to the front and ordered some ham. Even if now I could easily hold a conversation about how the ham is made, the thickness of the slices or the merits of one brand over another, I still feel hesitant. The fear is still there, I have just got better at throwing myself into these situations.

Last week I spent a few days by the sea with one of my friends here. Every day, without fail, we all went to the beach and every night, like clockwork, we went out. After five days I was utterly shattered. I have to admit, keeping up with native speakers for that long is more than hard work; it’s mentally draining. What for them is a relaxed conversation with friends is for me intense speaking and listening practice. Following a constantly changing topic, full of references to friends and local culture, with a splash of local dialect thrown in for good measure is far from easy. What’s more, I wanted to make a good impression. I did not want them to think I was the quiet one, or that I was bored and did not like them, so I tried my best to involve myself in the conversation as much as I could.

‘Prendere la parola’ – taking the floor, for me, requires immense concentration, but at the same time, not too much concentration. I am not sure if that makes sense. What I mean by this is I need to keep track of the topic of the conversation to be able to get a word in. Think about it too much, try too hard to make a good contribution and the moment passes and you are stuck thinking about the past. Then, for an Englishman, there’s the added factor that Italians interrupt each other all the time, talk about meaningless topics and rant on and on before getting to what they really want to speak about, quite the opposite of conversational culture in the UK. It’s a long road with many blind corners and side streets, easy to get lost.

The good news is I have started to gain more confidence when speaking to two or more people, feeling more relaxed and like I can shift the topic, take the floor and actually have something to say, like more of an equal. Strange though that I should feel unequal when in the company of a group of native speakers, right?

Two days ago I was sitting with a friend in a park overlooking the whole of Rome. We were seated in the shade underneath the trees in an attempt to escape from the scorching sunshine. While we were chatting, my friend asked if I remembered any of the new words or phrases they had taught me from the weekend before, so I took out my notebook and showed her.  With each phrase, she said, “it’s like going back into a conversation, I remember where we were, what we were doing for each one of these”. It was what I imagined looking through one’s notes after a Dogme lesson would be like. There was a good two pages’ worth of vocabulary and expressions that had come up over the weekend, each born in a personalised context, because it was what we were talking about.

Personally, I find it much easier to grasp the meaning of a phrase and recall it having heard it in the context of a conversation in which I was involved. No higher order thinking skills needed, no elaborate text for it to spring out from. That is how I learn best.

In the past week I have filled the pages in my vocabulary book with new phrases from conversations, overheard while eavesdropping on the bus, from the news, DVDs, books, films, magazines, you name it. I revise it and add more information to it daily. What is driving my motivation? More than anything it is the satisfaction of saying a new phrase or hearing some vocabulary I learned the previous day in conversation. This is my positive feedback and I find it by myself. This is success: my internalised view of the achievement of my goals, it is the driving force behind my motivation.

How does this affect my classroom?

1.    More role play

At times I have thought it was boring or repetitive, going through the same scenario over and over again. But the only way I have got better at asking for bread and ham is by asking for bread and ham. Even if it is slightly contrived, in the sense that the other person in the role-play is unlikely to ever be a banker or a deli assistant, I think the practice is necessary. Repeating the transaction helps to make it more of a habit rather than something you have to think about, freeing you up to pay attention to finer details in the transaction, maybe even making it interaction?

In my classroom, there will be more role-play for transactional uses of conversation in the situations the people in the room are likely to encounter.

2.    More practice of interactional uses of conversation

I know the words Italians use to manage conversation but throw me I the deep end and they help very little. The people in my classroom will have more practice of rapidly changing topics of conversation, interrupting, taking and leaving the floor, adjusting to it and adding to the flow of topic in the hope that the cognitive demand of following the topic, inputting your opinion and moving on reduces to a point at which the conversation is enjoyable and effortless.

I did this back in London by splitting the class into different groups and asking them to go and speak about the topics attached to wall (at first recycled topics, to make things easier). Each group took a topic and started speaking. In the mean time I took a student from each group and gave them either the task of interrupting and changing the topic, requesting clarification, or simply catching the topic of conversation and joining in. After a few interruptions the group catch on and it loses its novelty a bit, but everyone agreed it was good practice. At first I thought the most challenging part was the actual interruption but actually it is the part before, when listening in and formulating your turn.

Another way of doing this was an activity we used to recycle vocabulary.

  1. I wrote topics on the board, regularly changing while they discussed them, using chunks of language from previous lessons.
  2. After a minute, or thereabouts, I tapped on the board, which meant there needed to be an instant change in topic. Whether the topic was stupid, serious, or had no meaning at all was not important (which is often the case in conversation). What mattered was that it was instantaneous to make the process of changing topic at speed natural like breathing.

3.    Lexical notebooks

I started using them a few months ago after a DELTA assignment. Some students took to them and some did not. From now on, they are compulsory. I understand that people learn in different ways and we should strive to match the individual’s style of learning. However, without an information-rich record of it, no matter how many pictures or frilly gizmos are attached, it is a lot harder to remember.

I also keep everything in chunks in my notebook. I rarely learn a word on its own. For teachers, this does not come as much of a shock. But I wonder how many students know about this? Of course, many materials are designed in that way and teachers try to teach vocabulary in that way. How many of them have sat down and said, “don’t learn the preposition ‘to’ and ‘from’ or the verb ‘get’, learn them as parts of larger chunks, your life will be much easier… It’s the same amount of effort for the brain to memorise this than one singular word.” I had this very conversation with a low-level class just before leaving London and they were shocked. It was like someone was letting them in on a massive secret. Certainly, I had no idea of this in those first few months of learning Italian, my vocab books were full of singular words with translations; nobody had ever told me otherwise.

4.    More memory training

I touched on this in a previous post on memory. I am no expert on linguistics or neurolinguistic programming but from what I have experienced, what I learn during personalised, meaningful interaction is much easier to retrieve from the dusty archives of my memory.

I have also learned that such a large part of language learning lies in memory. I was reading only the other day about this in Marcia Lima’s blogpost on the secret to language learning, which led me to writing this post. Learning a language requires a well-trained and persistent memory.

I want to find out which students use memorisation techniques, how they do it, if it works well for them and how it could work better. Then include more personalised memory training as part of my learning training. At the same time I would like to add more activities for memorisation to my small bag of existing tricks.

5.    Reticence

Maybe I am tired, maybe I just want to listen for a bit, maybe I am feeling a bit nervous today. What it doesn’t mean is I am afraid of making a mistake or I do not know Italian, that I am stupid or trying to be awkward. I just do not fancy speaking right now, OK? In my first language people accept it, so why not here? In my own language, if I do not have anything to say about a topic, I just say nothing, or I change it. Perhaps I just want to listen to you speak for a bit?

I like to think I have always had patience with people who do not speak in class. I have never complained outside of class about them or pressured them to speak more. I have chatted to them about it and gone through the different reasons it could be, attempted to provide stimuli for them to speak about. At the end of the day, it is hard being mute. What I mean by this is that when you are living in a foreign country, your voice is much quieter, every transaction is much more difficult. No wonder people walk into the classroom and find it hard to speak. Fear can manifest itself in a number of ways and does not always owe itself to making a mistake. I make mistakes regularly in Italian, it does not bother me in the slightest, but sometimes I am silent, sometimes I am afraid of something. That something is hard to locate but it is there. On the other hand, sometimes I have just need to get warmed up and then away I go…

I know that these issues are going to be at the forefront of my mind from now on. The reasons for silence depend on the person and can vary from one day to the next, I know for sure that mine do.

So this brings my post to an end. My first month in Rome has been an absolute pleasure, not only for the weather, the food and the company but also what I have learned and discovered about myself. Now I ought to start searching for a job again…