A discussion about the value of pre-teaching vocabulary.

How do you ‘pre-teach’ vocabulary? Very often teacher’s books or lesson plans with reading texts mention pre-teaching vocab but they are usually vague about how to go about doing this. Often the words are not logically or thematically connected in any way, and the pre-teaching activity is only there to make the text activity work.
Is there any point in doing this pre-teaching? I often feel that teaching such disparate groups of words is a waste of time as students forget them all unless they come up very often.


Hi Bryan,

I must admit I share your doubts about the value of pre-teaching. I remember a colleague, a teacher trainer, telling me how he was watching a class where the teacher was painfully pre-teaching the vocabulary for a listening activity. It took something like 20 minutes or so. Just as the teacher was about to play the tape, a late-arrival entered the class. The late-arrival seemed to make just as much sense of the text as did the other students, despite having missed out on the pre-teaching. It makes you wonder what was really happening in those 20 minutes.

As you correctly note, the words that are often selected for pre-teaching have little logical or thematic connection – although it might be a useful exercise to ask learners to try and guess what the connection is. This might help them “configure their hard discs” so they are more cognitively disposed to making sense of the text. This is what is meant by “activating a schema”.  I sometimes use the keywords of a text for this purpose: these are the words that occur with a statistically significant frequency, and they invariably are “what the text is about”. To find the keywords I use a program called WordSmith Tools (published by OUP) which crunches through a text in a matter of seconds, and throws up the words that occur in the text with a frequency that is more than their normal frequency. For example, in this text I am writing now, these are the keywords so far:

  • keywords
  • frequency
  • pre-teaching
  • teacher
  • text
  • words

Notice, for a start, that keywords are usually nouns. Notice, too, that the keywords give you a fair idea of the topic, at least of the first two paragraphs of the text. As preparation for a text, I might give the students these words and ask them:

a) to look up any of the words on the list that they don’t know;

b) to hazard a guess as to what the text is about.

Note that I haven’t bothered pre-teaching “cognitively disposed” or “statistically significant”, which also occur in the text. This is because they are clearly not central to the overall gist of the text, and they can probably be left until later, or worked out from context.

Working out meaning from context: this seems such an important and useful skill that it suggest that pre-teaching might, in the long run, be counterproductive. Who, after all, is going to pre-teach learners when they encounter a new text in “real life”?  Surely it’s better that they get training in how to deal with unfamiliar vocabulary rather than being spoon-fed all the time?  One of the real benefits of using texts is the training it gives learners in becoming autonomous text users. Plus the incidental vocabulary they pick up on the way. The vocabulary learning that emerges from the text may be of more value than the vocabulary teaching that leads into the text. An argument for post-teaching, rather than pre-teaching.

Pre-teaching belongs to the mind-set that teaching is about pre-empting problems, rather than training learners how to deal with problems. Thus we pre-teach grammar rather than give learners an opportunity to express their own meanings, and thereby discover the grammar that they need. And we pre-teach pronunciation lest learners transfer their mother tongue pronunciation and irreparably damage their hard disc. And we pre-teach vocabulary so that learners can experience painless reading and listening, even though reading and listening in a second language is never painless.

If you have to pre-teach – e.g. because there are so many other difficulties in a text that you need to soften it up for them – then do it as quickly and as efficiently as possible. If the class all speak the same L1, then do it in their L1. If they have access to dictionaries, let them look the words up themselves. And keep the number of items to an absolute minimum. Cut to the chase. Get to the text, get into it, and get out the other end. And, instead of pre-teaching, try post-teaching instead.