Research-Backed Ways to Teach ESL Vocabulary Words

Posted by Elizaveta Shkurina on Jun 7, 2018 3:26:37 PM

Vocabulary forms the basis of language-learning instruction, for native-speakers and ESL students alike. However, concerningly, in spring of 2018, Oxford University Press commissioned a report pointing to a rapidly growing vocabulary deficiency among all students in primary and secondary schools. The study revealed that the problem caused low self-esteem and negative behavior among students. This lead to later issues in the workplace and life-long problems with communication. 

The issue deepens when it comes to ESL students, who may not have the opportunity to grasp additional vocabulary due to the lack of “high exposure” of the target language. These students stand at a disadvantage compared to their peers in many ways. A study on native English speakers in high school found that by the end of school, the typical student learns 3,000 new vocabulary words per year. An ESL student would have to surpass that number to reach the average proficiency level of a native speaker.

How do we, teachers, help our ESL students in vocabulary retention, as they face these challenges?

Vocabulary alone will not create progress without effective strategies and the knowledge of how to use them. Here at Your Agora, we investigated various research studies to find how to help students increase their learning power for new ESL vocabulary words.

Girl standing in front of a bookshelf. There are research-proven ways to increase esl vocabulary words retention.

 Learning Factors in ESL Vocabulary Retention

First, we wanted to find the strategies that have been proven to work for the retention of new words. Various TESOL studies isolated two interconnected factors that improve retention of vocabulary for ESL students:

  • Elaboration incorporates visual and auditory supplements in the teaching of a new word. This strategy operates on two levels, from the physical senses down to a deeper meaning. For example, elaboration at the sensory level would occur when special instruction is given to the vowels and consonants of the word. Semantic elaboration would occur from a question to the student regarding the deeper meaning of the word, along with its connotations.
  • Association connects new vocabulary, definition and the student’s experience. Any exercise that ties new information with established knowledge will increase retention. For example, association would increase when the new word and synonyms are presented in a familiar context. Asking the student a question that would require the use of the word reinforces this practice.

While words related to the student’s experience should be remembered longer than words learned through arbitrary acoustic and visual associations, the two aspects of retention may be effective in different settings. Elaboration has been found to be applicable in group presentations. This is important in the context of the physical classroom, where most of the learning occurs in a group setting. Association, on the other hand, has been found to be useful in individual presentation, rather than groups.


All-Perspective Learning

The English teacher already plays a predominant function in helping students to acquire sufficient vocabulary. This official TESL study places an even more active role on the ESL teacher in regard to word engagement. The study emphasizes the importance of learner interaction and negotiation. The instruction model provided supports teacher-directed interaction and negotiation based on the following principles of learning that capture every perspective of vocabulary retention:

  • see the word (visual or spelling representation),
  • hear the word (teacher modeled pronunciation),
  • understand the word (definitional meaning and part of speech, negotiation, explanation, and elaboration of meaning in context and relation with other words),
  • say the word (repetition), and
  • use the word in context (writing)


Writing in Context

Writing in context, with attention to vocabulary use, is a tool for general second language improvement. Various research has shown that lack of vocabulary contributes to writing difficulty for foreign language learners and that vocabulary is one of the most important features that determine writing quality.

According to this study by Elsevier, students' productive use of vocabulary in writing increased by 50% after full-perspective target vocabulary instruction. The same study revealed that words learned through multiple fill‐in‐the‐blank exercises were retained much better than the usage of the word in a student‐written sentence.


Linking ESL Research and Practice

How do we put various research findings into practice and apply them to the classroom?

While the two concepts of elaborative and associative learning are isolated in academic studies, when combined with all-perspective learning, both can and should be utilized in the context of the classroom.

Elaborative Learning

As covered in previous research, elaboration comes from building the technical aspects of the word down to the meaning. This includes elaboration through grammar, visual aids, and ESL vocabulary games. Consider these practices when introducing new concepts through elaboration:

  • Deconstructing the Word

When it comes to teaching vocabulary, a little knowledge of root words, prefixes, and suffixes goes a long way. When introducing new vocabulary, spend some time on the construction of the word. After understanding the basics, students are more likely to grasp the meaning of a word in a particular context and increase their vocabulary arsenal.

Try using Vocabulary Workshop as a tool in your class - the website offers comprehensive lists of English prefixes, suffixes, and roots. Each of these word parts includes a definition, an example of a word with its definition, and the demonstration of how the word is built with this particular prefix, suffix, or root.

  • Visualization

A fun method of remembering vocabulary is with mnemonics. Make use of elaborative encoding, retrieval cues, and imagery as specific tools to encode any given information in a way that allows for efficient storage and retrieval. A fun activity with images is to order the images and make up a story that links the images. This is very useful at the time of recalling and retrieving words to use them in context.

Check out this list of vocabulary pictures to get started!

  • Games and challenges

As you already know, ESL vocabulary games provide the perfect opportunity for in-depth engagement. Vocabulary Games and Vocabulary provide a variety of activities to engage students in playing with words and word meanings. Games include crossword puzzles, picture-word matches, word scrambles, and 8 Letters in Search of a Word (a game that can draw you in unexpectedly as you race to create as many words as possible from eight letters within the time limit). The games are supplemented with themed word lists, test preparation items, and activities on prefixes and suffixes. These sites can be bookmarked for students' independent practice and can provide a basis for whole-group instruction. 

Learning Through Association

Practicing vocabulary using association focuses on involving the student’s experience in the learning process. We have found a few ways to apply the strategy to your classroom.

  • Relate Words to Existing Knowledge

Research shows that learners use what they already know to construct new understandings. Effective teaching involves gauging what students already know about a subject and finding ways to build on that knowledge. Start with focusing on what interests a student in a particular activity or topic. Due to the familiarity of the topic, the student will encounter these words much more frequently. This helps with recall as the time between each usage will be smaller and you are much more likely to need these words in real life contexts.

Consider opinion-based topics like hobbies, music, food, sports, movies, or even first dates to relate a topic familiar to your student to new vocabulary. Check out this list of useful phrases for expressing opinions. Remember, it’s about using association as a tool to sneak in new concepts!

  • Word Grouping and Mapping

According to a study on reading comprehension, developing breadth and depth of vocabulary depends on building connections between words and developing webs of meaning. Graphic organizers and visual displays can serve as tools for highlighting relationships between words.

An important component here is relating words to familiar synonyms, antonyms or similar expressions. Wordle is a free word-mapping tool that supports visual representation by creating word clouds based on frequent words in a text. It stimulates students’ thinking about the meaning, importance, and relationship of words as they analyze, create, and publish Wordles. To create a word cloud, paste text into the applet and manipulate the visual display by selecting the color scheme, layout, and font. Word clouds can be used to highlight keywords and themes to prepare students for reading, as well as prompt discussion after reading.

  • Writing with Meaning

Consider meaningful writing as a method for retention. After instruction on the new vocabulary, suggest a few writing topics that the student will find interesting and meaningful. According to Association of American Colleges, impactful writing practice, which builds the path to vocabulary retention, consists of the following concepts that: ƒ

  • ƒtap into the power of personal connection;
  • ƒimmerse themselves in what they are thinking, writing, and researching;
  • ƒexperience what they are writing as applicable and relevant to the real world; and
  • ƒimagine their future selves.

In writing, depending on the level of the student, encourage the use of short phrases. According to research, learning a short phrase is much easier to remember that random words because these phrases have more meaning. If you want the student to recall the phrasal verb hold up it is much easier to remember hold up the meeting than the phrasal verb alone, as it has more meaning. The same happens with look up to my sister as you can relate it to people or specific situations.



Learning English Vocabulary Has Powerful Benefits

According to Cambridge vocabulary acquisition linguist researcher Paul Nation, “vocabulary learning is not a goal in itself; it is done to help learners listen, speak, read, or write more effectively.” Therefore, the essence of learning a language depends on learning its vocabulary. Why not teach vocabulary in the research-backed way? 

Combining research and teaching experience, we at Your Agora seek not only to better our student’s learning but to help teachers gain access to effective tools that make their lives a little less hectic. Have you read our post on the tools for your Business English course? 

Why not try out our free platform for ESL teachers? On Your Agora, you can create:

  1. Create courses using collaborative material

  2. Modify all aspects of the course to meet your needs

  3. Assign and grade material

  4. See the results

Reach out to fellow teachers for esl vocabulary lists by topic, an esl vocabulary list with definitions, or esl vocabulary lists for beginners, intermediate, and advanced students.

We are here to help you make your online ESL teaching experience more organized, effective for your students, and creative!

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