Teaching Vocabulary
Modern English Teacher, 8, 3, 1981
Vivian Cook  Spelling data  Writing Home  SLA Home

Whatever the function you're trying to express, whatever the grammatical structure you're trying to use, you won't get very far without the right vocabulary. It's no use being able to request food in a restaurant if you don't know the word 'soup' or the word 'bread', or whatever food you actually need. Yet in language teaching, the subject of vocabulary is almost forgotten; we still work on the assumptions popular thirty years ago that all we need to do is limit the vocabulary and introduce it in small doses. From reading articles and going to conferences, you might think that vocabulary was a dirty word, so little is it used in public. This article is an attempt to look at one principle of vocabulary teaching and to see how it works out in some teaching examples.

What exercises can one think up that try to keep to this principle? Here are three, some old, some new, that in different ways seem to meet the target.  

Kim's Game. In case you know it by one of its other names, by Kim's Game I mean the game used for training spies in Rudyard Kipling's Kim. A collection of objects is briefly shown to people and they have to try to remember as many as they can. The way I've used it in teaching is to assemble a collection of about 10-15 objects, some of which the students already know, some of which are new to them. Then one starts with an 'identification' exercise, holding up the objects and saying what they are. They're shown on a tray for a minute or so, then covered with a cloth, and the students have to write down what they can remember. This has been widely used by teachers already, and can be done with visuals or in other ways. But the reason for mentioning it here is that it can not only introduce new vocabulary, but also gets the students to use it actively by trying within a minute or two to remember the actual items and the vocabulary that goes with them. 

Again, known by different names; what I mean is the game in which one person gives commands: the others have to carry them out; the trick is that they must only obey commands that are preceded by 'Simon says . . .'. This is a popular classroom game with many variants. To focus attention on its use for vocabulary teaching, one technique might be to teach the parts of the face: Touch your eyebrows', 'Touch your cheeks', 'Simon says touch your nose'. The teacher introduces the vocabulary needed, and the students carry out the actions; in due course the students may take over the ordering role. They are reacting to the new vocabulary with physical movements; they are doing something that will help them to remember. On a much larger scale, this is the basic idea behind the teaching method called 'total physical response'. Obviously, only a certain range of vocabulary can be introduced and practised in this way but a teacher can doubtless think up all sorts of ingenious variations. The most complicated I've done is based on an idea by Gertrude Dorry in which one player says I'm touching my elbow' at the same time touching some other part of his or her anatomy, say the knee; the second player has to reply I'm touching my knee' at the same time touching his or her elbow. This variant can only be done at very advanced levels and even then soon creates utter chaos! But in all variations of 'Simon Says' the students can be required to make active, meaningful use of new vocabulary immediately.

Here is an example of a more complex and original kind. The students see cartoons or photos of various characters with their names and jobs printed below them. Then they get a chart:



Beautiful or ugly

Rich or poor 


Tall or







Bjorn Borg













Some of the vocabulary of jobs has already been taught; the adjectives have not. The teacher first demonstrates the meaning of the vocabulary in the conventional way. Then the students have immediately to fill in the chart giving their reactions to each character: do they think Margaret Thatcher is beautiful or ugly? rich or poor? and so on. Thus they are using the new vocabulary actively to register their own opinion about someone. After this, they go on to a fictional exchange between two characters:

Jenny: Margaret Thatcher is beautiful.
Is she?

Jenny: And she's a politician. Peter: Is she?

One character then fades out, and the students have to give reactions to what the other character says:

Jenny: Bjorn Borg is rich. Student:. . .
And he's a tennis player. Student:...

Finally, the students take over both parts of the exchange and have to say things first about the characters shown and then about any others they care to mention. So, in this stage, they are using the new vocabulary to say something themselves; they are forced into using it and into making a choice whether they consider somebody has one attribute or another. The two essentials of the technique as a whole are immediate receptive use of the vocabulary by the students to register their own opinions, and immediate productive use for them to actually say something relevant to them. The proportion of new to . old vocabulary can be adjusted as the teacher thinks fit in this type of exercise and it can, of course, be used in all sorts of ways. A much later example might teach abstract nouns describing qualities. It starts with a chart:

What qualities do you need for different sports?

football  swimming karate running

clever    (cleverness) _____   _____  _____ _____     

strong    (strength)  _____   _____    ______    _____

First the students answer the questions supplied by the teacher, 'Do you need to be clever for football?' etc.; one space is left blank for each student to supply some other sport with which he or she is familiar, a feature that I am very keen on in this kind of chart. Each of them ticks the appropriate box. Then they have an exercise which starts:

'Which sport needs the most strength?'
'Which sport needs the most . . .?'

Each of them has to give their own opinion about the sport that needs most of each of the qualities; finally, they have to specify the qualities needed for each sport:

For football you have to be strong and tough.

For swimming you have to be ... etc.

In this case, most of the adjectives and the sports are already known; what is new is the nouns related to the adjectives. Once again they are practised by forcing the student to make a choice about their appropriateness and to use them to say something actively. For everyday teaching use, then, all that is needed is on the one hand a way of getting the student to react to, classify or remember the new vocabulary items; here this is done by a chart on which the student records his own ideas, but the same effect might be achieved in other ways; and on the other hand a way of giving the students a model of how native speakers might discuss this topic, and the opportunity of discussing it themselves.

These three techniques all involve the student actively as much as possible; they rely on the student using the language for a reason to remember something, to do something, or to express something. Obviously these are only some of the many techniques that can be used to fulfil this principle, and this principle is only one of the many that we should be considering for the teaching of vocabulary.