Number one for English language teachers

How to write vocabulary activities

Type: Article

In an extract from ELT Teacher2Writer’s training module, Philip Kerr offers some helpful tips on how to go about writing vocabulary activities, considering word selection, word frequency and grouping vocabulary items.  

Preliminary questions | Which vocabulary items? | Task 1: Word frequency | How should we group vocabulary items? | Vocabulary breadth or vocabulary depth? | Task 2: Collocations

Preliminary questions

Your approach to writing vocabulary materials will inevitably be influenced by your beliefs about language learning and teaching and, more specifically, your beliefs about the role of vocabulary in this process.

I am old enough to remember a time when published teaching materials were almost exclusively concerned with grammar (mostly tenses) and vocabulary was introduced (usually in the form of word lists) as a way of practising the grammar. Things changed in 1984 with the publication of The Cambridge English Course (CUP) by Michael Swan and Catherine Walter – the first major international coursebook series with a strong lexical strand to the syllabus. The importance of vocabulary in language learning materials was given further boosts in 1990 with the publication of Dave Willis’s The Lexical Syllabus (Cobuild) and in 1993 with the publication of Michael Lewis’s The Lexical Approach (LTP). Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, it almost goes without saying that vocabulary tasks will form a substantial part of any package of language learning / teaching materials.

We’ve come a long way in 30 years. There is now general agreement about syllabus priorities, but the devil is in the detail and we are a long way from any consensus. It may well be the case that no consensus will ever be reached, as we increasingly recognize that there is no single ‘right way’. The right way to do things will be informed by insights from research but equally from the requirements of particular teaching contexts. The best teaching material is invariably very aware of the particular contexts in which it will be used. As you think about the contentious issues that are discussed below, keep the context for which you are writing materials firmly in mind.

Which vocabulary items?

If the vocabulary set that you need to write an exercise for has already been determined for you, you may feel that this question does not concern you. However, the chances are that you may want to modify, even if only slightly, some of the items in the set in the light of the considerations below.

It has often been suggested that we should select vocabulary items by considering their frequency. It seems reasonable to give priority to high-frequency items, as these have a greater surrender value. The frequency of an item is easy to check by looking at a good online dictionary for learners, such as one of the following:

A useful and simple tool for getting an idea of frequency is a search engine, such as Google or Bing, which will tell you the number of results returned by a particular item. If you want to check which of two items is more frequent (at least, online), you can use GoogleBATTLE which allows you to compare the frequency of two key words. This is only a rough-and-ready guide (because it only gives you information about the frequency of items that come up in Google search results), but it’s a huge and totally up-to-date corpus, nevertheless.

Task 1: Word frequency

Before reading further, you might like to compare your intuitive knowledge of some vocabulary items with actual frequency data. Native speakers, in particular, often overestimate their ability to ‘judge’ a word.

1. The vocabulary set below was presented in the opening unit of a B1 (Pre-intermediate) coursebook. Divide the words into three groups:
a   seven words that are in the top 3,000 words;
b   three words that some databases list in the top 3,000, and others don’t;
c.  six words that are not included in the top 3,000.

Why do you think the writer chose to include the six lower-frequency words?

aunt      best friend     classmate     colleague      cousin     daughter     grandfather    
mother-in-law     pet     neighbour     niece     roommate     son     son-in-law     uncle

2. The set of phrasal verbs below was presented near the beginning of a B1 (Intermediate) coursebook. What are the two least common phrasal verbs? Why do you think the writer chose to include these two low-frequency phrasal verbs?

He was able to sort the problem out. / They came across the bear near a river. / Tizio got over his injury. / Their friends and families saw them off. / A van picked her up after only five minutes. / The van dropped her off near the finishing line.

The set of reflexive verbs below was presented near the end of a B2 (Upper intermediate) coursebook. Which of these words could you expect students at this level to understand the meaning of (even if they cannot use the words accurately)?

adapt yourself        content yourself         deceive yourself        destroy yourself      
distinguish yourself         endanger yourself       express yourself       pride yourself      
remind yourself     sacrifice yourself

When you have finished, check your answers by clicking the link under ’Related resources’.


The frequency of a word is determined by looking at its occurrence in a computerized corpus. Obviously, the choice of corpus will affect the frequency of a word. Do the students that you are writing the material for need a particular variety of English, such as British English, American English or English as a Lingua Franca (ELF)? As a materials writer, you’ll need to check out the properties of the vocabulary items that you are considering for inclusion in an exercise. A couple of good learner’s dictionaries near your desk or on your desktop will prove very helpful.

You may also be interested in checking the appropriacy of vocabulary items for the level of the students. English Profile has a corpus of learner English that can be searched in order to find out at which level students typically use a given vocabulary item. At the time of writing, subscription to this service is free, but this may change at some point in the future.

You may, of course, have good reasons for wanting to focus on vocabulary items that are neither high-frequency nor typically used by learners of the appropriate level. These reasons may include such things as the usefulness of the item for tasks which will follow on from the vocabulary work (e.g. a reading or listening task) or the fact that the item may be included as part of a list which the students will be tested on.

Although we typically think of vocabulary items as being single words, there are very good reasons to broaden the range of items to which we want to expose learners. Many applied linguists have discussed the importance of lexical chunks in the way that language is both used and learnt. Chunks may be collocations, grammatical patterns that are typically associated with a word (e.g. dependent prepositions or adjectives followed by a gerund or an infinitive), set phrases and idioms, sentence frames (e.g. There are very good reasons to + infinitive), etc.

Longer stretches of language, such as ‘useful phrases’, may be easier for students to learn and use than individual items. The learnability of a vocabulary item does not necessarily correspond to its frequency or usefulness, but it may be a justification for teaching it, especially at low levels. Good examples of such learnability are phrases like Happy birthday that are widely used in non-English-speaking cultures or words that are ‘true friends’ (e.g. fitness, job, piercing and steak in French, German and many other languages).

How should we group vocabulary items?

Vocabulary items are most commonly grouped and taught in semantic sets (i.e. which are related in terms of meaning), such as days of the week, parts of the body, or adjectives of personality. The second most common approach to grouping vocabulary items is by using lexico-grammatical categories, such as pairs of gradable and ungradable adjectives, words beginning with a particular prefix or phrasal verbs that contain the particle out.

This approach seems logical and published material rarely does anything different. However, research suggests that, especially at lower levels, this may not be a terribly good idea, as learners mix up very similar items. Tuesday and Thursday, for example, are easily confused and there is no compelling reason to teach them at the same time.

An alternative approach is to:

  1. look at the material (e.g. texts and tasks) that students will be using in the next lesson or two;
  2. predict the items that will be problematic;
  3. select a set of these in the light of the considerations of the above section;  
  4. write material that will introduce these items.

Vocabulary breadth or vocabulary depth?

The vocabulary syllabuses of most coursebooks and vocabulary study books are driven by a desire to provide as wide a coverage as possible: the more words the better. This seems to be popular with many teachers and the best-selling coursebook New English File Upper Intermediate (Oxford University Press, 2008), for example, has ‘vocabulary banks’ with dozens of new vocabulary items on a single page.

An alternative strategy may be to devise materials that encourage learners to extend their knowledge of high-frequency words, as opposed to broadening their repertoire of low-frequency words. Learning a word (especially a high-frequency word), after all, is a gradual, incremental process. It is clearly impossible to learn all the things that one needs to know about a word in one go! Consider, for example, the fourth most common noun in English: way. Look at the following exercise, which is designed to extend low-level (A2/B1) German-speaking learners’ ability to use this word. Here, learners’ knowledge of a high-frequency word (i.e. vocabulary depth) is extended through a simple translation task.

Rearrange the words to make translations of the German phrases.

1. Wie macht man das am besten?

   best    do    the    this    to    way    what’s

   What’s the best way to do this?

2. Wir sind weit weg von zuhause.

   a    from    home    long    way    we’re


3. Wie geht’s nach Hause?

   home    is    way    which


4. Wir mussen eine Lösung finden.

   a    find    must    way    we


5. So mag ich es.

   I    it    like    that’s    the    way


6. Ich hab’s auf eine andere Weise gemacht.

   another     did    I    it    way


7. Nur so macht man es.

   do    it    only    that’s    the    to    way


8. Er hat sich verirrt.

   he    his    lost    way


Task 2: Collocations

The sixth most common noun in English is thing. Use a dictionary, your own language knowledge or online resources to write a list of seven or eight sentences / phrases which could form the basis of an exercise to develop students’ (level A2/B1) ability to use this word. Think particularly about common collocations of this word.

Check your suggestions by clicking the link under ’Related resources’.

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