A discussion on learning vocabulary and the difficulties of connecting form and meaning.


There is no doubt that learning vocabulary is a complex process, consisting of a number of different stages. While the process is still not fully understood, some models for learning have been put forward. One is suggested by Brown and Payne (Hatch and Brown 1995:383) which includes five stages:

    1. having sources for encountering new words
    2. getting a clear image of words, both visual and auditory
    3. learning the meaning of words
    4. making strong memory connections between form and meaning of words
    5. using words

Because the sources are often prescribed, that is teachers have to teach the words in the books they are given, and the final stage, being able to use the word is arguably a result of the preceding stages, I offer some activities for the second, third, and fourth stages; giving a clear image and auditory model of words, and making connections between the new words and meanings, that is, words students already know in L2, and L1 meanings should not be ruled out in early stages of learning.

Many of these activities are at the shallow end of vocabulary teaching techniques. While deep techniques such as ones which give students more information about use and collocation may be more effective in the long term, I believe that shallower activities, those that associate one word with one other word to create a word pair which are more or less synonymous, for example stimulating means interesting, have a place in teaching. This is especially true where students need quick revision, for example for weekly tests, and when they are learning for receptive rather than productive use, for example for multiple choice vocabulary questions. They are also suitable at an early stage in the learning process, where students are learning basic information about recently encountered words, such as the spelling and core meaning. Schmitt (2000:132) notes that many learners favour shallow activities and they are more favoured in some cultures, and suitable for lower level learners.

Ur (1991:67) states that it is better to spend time in short bursts, briefly teaching words, then revise over the following days and weeks, rather than spending a lot of time teaching words on one occasion. These activities, which can be used to revise, say 5-15 words in a slot of 15 minutes or so, may be employed in this kind of framework.

The activities are divided into three sections, the first looks especially at spelling, the second at variations of word cards, where word and meaning is written on the same piece of paper, and finally, there are activities where listen to new words and connect them with other words.

Activities focusing on spelling

Some words intersect with other words because their meanings overlap. As an example, the word refusal has a partially common meaning with words like deny, say no, reject, (throw) out. We could represent it visually as follows:






















This gives us an image of the new word and other words with similar meaning by showing them literally as intersections. Put some diagrams on the board, then clean off all the letters of the word that are not part of other words (see below). See if students can remember the word.

  d   o      
r e   u s    
e n   t a    
j y     y    
e       n    
c       o    

Some other examples: essential intersects with important, vital, must have, and disastrous overlaps with terrible, awful, very bad.

Painting words
‘Paint’ the words you want your students to revise with an imaginary brush and paint on the wall. Go over the letters back and forward as if really painting so that students get the feel of the word. You could describe the shapes of the letters: ‘Now I’m painting a big curve, a half circle’ (as you paint C). ‘The next letter is a vertical line, up and down, with a loop to the right, now a little tail’ (as you paint R). Kinaesthetic students would enjoy painting the words themselves. One possibility would be to have actual pots, for example plastic cups containing the imaginary paint with the synonym stuck on a piece of paper on the outside, for example, paint the word accurate from the pot labelled correct.

Guess the word
Choose a word and write a number for each letter of the word plus an extra one at random on the board, so if your word is pretend, you will have numbers one to eight. Assign each letter from the word a number at random, but do not show the students. The extra number represents the synonym or meaning, in this case: ‘act in a different way to how you really are’. Put students in two teams and each turn they choose a number. Replace the chosen number with the letter it represents, then let them guess the word. The teams take it in turns to choose a number and guess, until one team wins. Of course, it will get easier as more letters are uncovered, and when the meaning is revealed.

Spell aloud
Spell out the words and meanings aloud, for example d-i-s-p-l-a-y = s-h-o-w while the students listen without seeing the words or hearing them said as words. After each word pair is spelt, ask students to say them aloud, and give help if necessary. Then write all words and meanings on the board at random and tell the students try to match them. By getting students to visualise the word first then say and hear them before seeing them written, we reverse the normal process learning, so getting students to think about words in a different way.

Variations on word cards

Vocabulary tables
Take one piece of A4 paper for each word. Fold these in half lengthwise. Write the new word on one half and the meaning on the other; the words should be upside down to each other when the paper is open so that when the paper is folded, the words appear on opposite sides, with the tops of the letters near the fold. Show the words to the class and drill them if necessary.

Using a table at the front of the class, open the pieces of paper a little so they stand up, and so that one side of the papers can be seen from one end, and the other side can be seen from the other end. Ask a student to stand at either end of the table. One calls out a word that he can see, the other has to find the appropriate synonym from the words that he can see. If the second player is right, he chooses a word from his side, and so on. Increase the number of students involved by immediately replacing a student who gives a wrong answer, or having teams of two, three, four on either side of the table.

Half words
Write words in large letters with a marker on one side of pieces of A4 paper, horizontally, and meanings on the back. Now make two cuts in each, one from the top to the centre and another from the bottom to the centre. The ends of the cuts should not meet, but be about 2cms apart, that is slightly to left and right of centre, so that the paper can be twisted to show half of one word and half of the other at the same time. Holding one half in each hand, turn the paper to show the class:

    • The complete new word
    • The complete meaning
    • The first half of new word and second half of the meaning Ask students both words
    • The first half of meaning and second half of the new word Ask students both words
    • Half of new word only (fold the paper back on itself) Again ask students both words
    • Half of meaning only (fold the paper back on itself) Again ask students both words

Thus, you gradually reduce the amount of information, forcing the students to rely more on memory. Note: have a practice before the lesson as the way you write the words on the paper is important.

Round the class
Make as many word cards as there are students in the class and seat the students in circles of ten or so if possible. Each card should have a recently learnt word one side and the meaning on the back. Give one to each student and tell the class to pass the words around the circle. Stop when everyone has seen all of them. Now choose one student and ask him to stand up. He turns to the student next to him on his left, who asks him the word on his card. The standing student tries to remember the meaning and then moves on to the next student, where again he is asked a word, and so on round the circle. The student next to the first student follows him round the class, answering the same words, then the third student, and so on. When students have completed the circuit they sit down and become questioners. Continue until all the students have been round the circle. Student should put a tick on their card each time the word is answered correctly, so at the end it can be seen which words need more work.

Activities involving listening

Words in a bottle
Take two empty bottles. First, ‘put’ the words you want to revise in a bottle, by saying the words into it and closing the lid. After three words (e.g. repair, visible, ruin) ask students if they can remember the words in the bottle. In the second bottle put in the meanings, in random order (in this case, can be seen, mend, destroy). Check the students can remember these. Now pretend to pour the contents of one bottle into the other, close it, shake it and say that when you open it the words will come out in their correct synonym pairs. In fact, the students should say the pairs when you take the lid off!

Drill pairs of synonyms with the first sound in each swapped over, so job, work become wob, jerk, likewise marry, wed become warry, med; trust, rely on become trely on, rust and arrange, organise are orange, arrganise.

Ask students to repeat the words, but change the first sound of each word, to produce the correct word pair. Of course, students may be able to do this without recognising either word, but it is likely that they will search their store of vocabulary to retrieve familiar items.

Cheating vocabulary test
This is a vocabulary test with a difference. Four or five student ‘testers’ stand at the front of the class with a list of three or four words. Their job is to ask other students the meaning of these words. Students form queues in front of each tester, and the first in line is asked to give a meaning of a word from the list. If he gets it right he goes to one of the other queues, if not, he goes to the back of the same queue and tries again. The tester alternates between the different words on his list, so the same word is not asked to two students consecutively. When a student has visited all testers, he has finished. The cheating element comes in when students are queuing. They are allowed to ask students in adjacent queues about which words they are likely to be asked and their meanings, thus making it cooperative rather than competitive.


We can, perhaps, best help our students learn vocabulary, that is help them remember new words, by giving them revision activities that are motivating. We can assist students to play with words, as individuals, groups and classes to increase interest. While no one would claim that after these activities students would have a complete knowledge of the words, they can form a valuable stage between first meeting and full knowledge of a vocabulary item, and a way of linking the form of a new word with its meaning.


Hatch E and C. Brown Vocabulary, semantics and language education. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 1995

Schmitt N. Vocabulary in language teaching Cambridge, Cambridge University Press 2000
Ur P. A course in language teaching. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. 1991