Number one for English language teachers

Article: Working with words

Vocabulary is a very broad area in foreign language learning. In this article Keith Kelly explores two main points: identifying which words to teach and techniques for dealing with new words.

Content subjects such as Chemistry or History are likely to be very dense with new words for learners working through the medium of English as a foreign language. In some contexts it may seem as if teachers and students spend most of their time dealing with new words in their subjects, especially if mother-tongue textbooks have been translated word for word into English without any simplification of the language. In such contexts it, is understandable that teachers and learners adopt quick fixes for dealing with the weight of new words. Many go through texts to identify unknown words and then list them on the board for students to copy and learn. Some colleagues have been known to produce complete glossaries of words to accompany their subject textbooks and so go some way to alleviating the word weight these books carry. It is common for students learning a subject through a second language to build their own word lists, often with an explanation, translation and transcription, within topics and within new units of work in their textbooks. Sadly, learners under such pressure to cope with the load of new lexis often resort to rote learning.

We know that learners differ in their styles of learning and in their very learning needs. This means that in organising and recalling vocabulary students will need exposure to a wide variety of techniques if we are to be sure that their particular learning style is catered for in our classrooms. Rather than teaching vocabulary items in isolation, Scrivener suggests that teachers present vocabulary as chunks of meaning in context (2005). Lexical chunks offer word items in their immediate surroundings, with their collocates (words with which they frequently appear), and with the related phrases which make up idioms.  

Identifying words

First we have to decide which words to teach. A good place to start is by looking at the words in the subject being taught and to decide how important they are. We can do this in a number of ways.

a) Frequency of use

Clearly, it makes sense to teach words in a way which reflects the usage of words in the subject. This is not to say that words of low frequency are less important. For certain areas of the subject it may be that some word items are quite rare when compared to the whole of the subject but are essential for a specific sub-topic. A good example might be a word like 'cellulose' in the topic of cells and tissues in Biology. If we do a search in a science textbook such as the Macmillan CXC Science Series (Chung-Harris, 2005) we find that this particular word appears four times in this textbook in a single unit. If we do a similar search for a general academic word like 'control' in the same book we find that this word appears on 92 occasions and in a wide variety of contexts. Control may look less important than cellulose, but we can quickly see that this is far from the case.

The division of subject-specific words and general academic words in a specific topic is a good place to start to make decisions about organising words to teach in a given content subject. The two examples above give us an indication as to how we might begin this process. The subject-specific words are likely to be obvious to both teacher and student and, generally speaking, it is these words which tend to be highlighted in textbooks on the market today. Key words may be in bold print, for example.  Where the words are not highlighted, the teacher will need to survey the unit of work and do something to make them identifiable and accessible to learners. With these important words identified, the teacher can use tasks such as those listed below, or others, to present and organise them in the classroom.

General academic words in a specific topic are not likely to be highlighted in the textbooks. The example given above takes 'cells and tissues' as context, and in this Biology topic teachers may cover content to do with types of cells and tissues as well as the structure, function and location of cells and tissues as well as perhaps a comparison of different types of cells and tissues. In short, for all of these content areas in this sub-topic, teachers will need to identify verb phrases (control, pass through, protect), adverbial phrases (tend to be), prepositional phrases (next to, around), comparatives (greater than), and work on these areas of the language in a similar way as the key subject-specific words in the topic through organisation, presentation and practice tasks.

b) The most common words in science

If we do an analysis of the discourse of a secondary science textbook, we are likely to find a lot of useful information to feed into our work with words in the classroom. This analysis has been carried out on academic subject language at a tertiary level with the following academic word list: Such an analysis still needs to be carried out at secondary level in order to feed into the work of subject teachers working through the medium of English as a foreign language. 

Here is a list of the top 100 words from the Macmillan CXC Science Series (Chung-Harris, 2005):

16205 the632 used347 some
6989 of629 at347 their
5218 and626 blood340 plants
5192 a608 not339 may
4454 to588 page337 make
4410 in582 your337 up
4269 is544 body331 we
2315 are544 so324 all
1724 that540 if319 does
1557 water526 have305 surface
1555 as515 light304 between
1420 it514 explain302 give
1347 which510 food297 different
1279 for488 also292 because
1256 from481 into292 soil
1158 or471 through292 where
1143 be453 use288 very
1132 on442 one271 was
1118 what440 why268 many
1079 this411 called267 but
1045 figure407 these264 out
1027 with405 temperatures253 object
969 by399 cells253 them
940 can398 such242 force
913 you390 more250 then
807 will386 do249 its
767 energy381 other240 oxygen
755 they375 there240 system
735 when373 has237 during
675 air358 each237 using
665 science357 two230 after
640 how353 heat230 cell
350 than230 would229 plant

Figure 1: Top 100 words in Science by frequency

This is a numerical list and as such is not of practical use for teachers. What is of more use is to expand this search to include all words in the book and then begin to filter out the function words from the useful content words. Once this has been done, we can filter further to create a list of verb phrases. This list can be sorted into subject-specific verb phrases and general academic verb phrases. When we have got to this stage things begin to get a little more interesting and useful for developing and supporting work with words in the CLIL classroom.

Categorizing words

1) Subject-specific words are words in a given subject without which you simply cannot teach a given topic. Here are eight from the Biology topic of 'The Living Organism' all beginning with 'c':

cell membrane,  cellular, cellulose, cell wall, chloroplast, chromosome, circulatory, cytoplasm

2) General academic words: students will need these words to function in the 'learning' of the curriculum through the medium of English. Here is a list of the 10 most frequently occurring academic verb phrases resulting from a survey of a secondary Geography book along with the number of occurrences in each case:

101 provide, 107 include, 108 increase, 117 make, 141 give, 162 describe, 186 form, 264 study, 289 identify, 293 explain

Let's take a closer look at 'increase'.
The Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learnersoffers:

Increase verb [I] to become larger in amount of number: Our costs increased dramatically over the last decade. ? + by The population has increased by 15 per cent. ? + in The club has been increasing in popularity. ? + with The chances of having twins increase with a mother's age.

Prepositions are a clear focus for work with this verb phrase, and examples from our concordancing survey of the Geography textbook give us many examples. Here are two:

  • Eastings increase from left to right and northings increase from bottom to top.
  • Natural increase in a population occurs when the birth rate is greater than the death rate.

Another area to look at would be collocation. The term increase can be used in many contexts. In terms of Geography, a survey of the textbook can provide very useful examples of collocation for contextualizing the term in a geography setting:

  • increased rainfall and flooding
  • increased demand for food
  • increased burning of fossil fuels
  • increased death rates
  • increased population growth

Presenting these words in this way will put in place good habits in learners in archiving words which are essential for their success in the subject. This approach will encourage students to collect word information independently and so build the subject-specific and general academic words they need.  The Macmillan Vocabulary Practice Series ( Science and Geography)resources offer a wealth of practice and support for learners embarking on the study of these subjects through the medium of English.

How to choose words and their function in subject language

It makes sense to focus on verb phrases where students are asked to talk or write about cells and tissues, their types, structure, function, location and comparison. In fact a verb phrase focus will be very valuable in most sub-topics of subjects across the CLIL curriculum. Some areas of the content curriculum will demand a focus on other function areas of the language of the subject. A good example is in the sub-topic classifying living things in Biology. There is likely to be a need to focus on adjectival phrases in order to study the characteristics and similarities and differences of living things.  This will be in addition to the noun phrases for the names of key animals and plants in the topic.  Verb phrases for talking or writing about cells and tissues in Biology might usefully be presented in the following way:

Verb phrasesAdverbial phrases


… are made up of…

… organized in…

… is a self-contained unit

… contains…

… feels/looks like…

… are separated from…by…

… are small…

… tend to be…

… can take other shapes…

… it includes…

… have…

… is a part that contains…

… consist of…

… are joined together... (to..)


…there are …

…have various shapes…

…are divided into…

…are arranged in…



… is found in…

…surrounded by…

… form…

…form one or several…


…is located under/around…

…is most abundant under…

…is common in…

…is found mainly in…

…along … runs…


…have parts which…

…builds up…


…exhibits …



…has the function of…


…builds up…



…very often…


… likely to be…


Figure 2: Organizing verb phrases for cells and tissues

Presenting words: An activity

Two minute taboo

1. Show the students a table with 5 x 6 cells with a word in each of the cells.
2. Split the class into two teams.
3. Give each team one minute to guess words in the table as you describe them.
4. Do this by describing words at random from the table (you may like to cut up the words and select one randomly from the pile). For each word they get correct give them one point. Stop describing words after one minute. Count the number of words the students guessed correctly.
5. Now do the same with the other the second group and see which team got the most correct.
Once you have done this activity once, it will be easy to use the same activity with different groups of words in other lessons. It will also be a good platform for talking more about the words themselves in this lesson. With the words on the screen or board, ask students to group them in any way they choose. Take feedback at the board or screen and rearrange the words into groups suggested by the students. These groups may be arranged in many ways. Your students might suggest pronunciation such as words ending in 'ation'. They may group the words according to syllables and syllable stress.  Any of these methods of presentation and many others are very useful for students to develop their own techniques for organising words for learning them.

Organizing words

Scrivener (2005) suggests many useful ways of organising words:

  • Alternative lexical items list: offers a table with lexical item, pronunciation, translation, grammar, collocation, example, idea
  • Pictures: students write words on a picture including images of word items
  • Word web / Mind map / Memory map: Scrivener (2005) describes word web and mind map synonymously. Word webs suggest an organisation of words in a web on the page where the words are arranged along the threads of the web. Mind maps on the other hand suggest any arrangement of words in a structure fanning out from a core or key word. Mind maps can also include visuals, audio and animation perhaps using MindManager software. The idea of word organisation in mind maps can be much more sophisticated than that of a word web.
  • Collocate table: here words are offered in a table where the row headings are new words and the column headings are their possible collocates. Students indicate in the cells of the table with a tick which words collocates go with which key words.
  • Familiar pictures: the idea here is that students use a picture of something or somewhere which is very familiar for them. This may be a map of the world, a picture of their home or their bedroom, and within the familiar picture students arrange the new words to be learnt.
  • Verb table: the row headings are verbs and the column headings are either adverbial items or phrases, and students indicate in the cells which verbs go with which adverb phrase.
  • Word pages: here students create substitution tables where the key word is in a central column and the columns on either side contain numerous words and phrases which go with the key word. Students create sentences from the columns and the key word.
  • Topic webs: students create sub-headings from a key topic and add words to the sub-headings.
  • Lexical item page: students arrange words in a table which has column headings for noun (thing), noun (person), adjective, verb, adverb, phrases.

This list of techniques shows that there are many ways of organising words in ways which will facilitate learning and memory. The key for learners is to find out ways which work best for them.  Writing lists of random words from texts, or lessons, with translation and transcription and covering up each word one after the other to text memory is only one way of learning new words. It may not be the best for all learners. Presenting a wide and varied collection of techniques to learners who are carrying a heavy weight of words in their learning will go some way to lightening their load.


Chung-Harris, T: 2005, CXC Integrated Science, Macmillan
Kelly, K: 2008, Science Vocabulary Practice Series, Macmillan
O'Dwyer, P: 2002, The Human Planet, Geography for Junior Certificate, Gill & Macmillan
Scrivener, J: 2005, Learning Teaching, Macmillan

See Keith Kelly talking about developing CLIL materials and subject-specific language on YouTube.

For more hints and tips for working with words click here.

Keith Kelly has been working as a freelance education consultant since August 2003 on education projects mainly focusing on the teaching of content through the medium of a foreign language. He is an experienced teacher and teacher trainer, a team member of Science Across the World, and an Associate Tutor for the Norwich Institute for Language Education (NILE). Along with John Clegg, he is co-author of the CLIL MA Module for NILE and Leeds Metropolitain University. Keith is also a founder and coordinator of the Forum for Across the Curriculum Teaching (FACT) and author of the Macmillan Science Vocabulary Practice Series. 

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