Tasks for Building Vocabulary

Word ToolboxHands up who has stayed up all hours of the night, pacing the room, cramming for an exam the following morning to regurgitate all that had been ‘learned’ the night before!  Long-winded quotes, citations, names and dates, formulas that you didn’t know what to do with, but had a clear visual of what it should look like? We’ve all been there!


I’d like to say we have all moved on from ‘learn the list of regular verbs on page 54 and you’ll be tested tomorrow’ and as teachers, I think we have, but how do we know how our students learn when they are left to their own devices?

Do they repeat x 5 times a list of ‘get’ phrasal verbs they found on Google, in the hope the ‘put’ list from last week has cemented itself to their long-term memories and needs never to be touched again? And how short are our short-term memories anyway?

In 1885, a German Psychologist, Hermann Ebbinghaus studied his own retention rate of random syllables which he had committed to short-term memory; ‘The Forgetting Curve’ below was his result of the clear decline in his ability to recall memorized information over a period of one month.  Ebbinghaus believed that we don’t just forget facts but we do so at a predicable rate, halving our memories of newly learned knowledge in just days/weeks unless reviewed at regular intervals.



Ebbinghaus discovered an accelerated learning technique which he called ‘Spaced Repetition’ whereby a learner’s exposure to material repeatedly at increased intervals would commit the material to long-term memory.  Ebbinghaus believed the space between each exposure should also increase in order to hardwire the material into the brain.


No, it’s not rocket science, but it does make sense!


So how can we as teachers encourage our students to practice ‘spaced repetition’ and increase their learner autonomy when it comes to reviewing their vocabulary from previous lessons?

This will take up some class time and YOU will need to become invested in this process for it to work and to start seeing results.

Discuss ‘learning vocabulary’ with your students.  Ask them how they revise their vocabulary, what they revise and when they revise it.  Explain to them how this technique works and how they can benefit from it. Here’s a practical example if you want to read more here on Spaced Repetition

braincape headIn class, set aside some time in your lesson plan to ask students to download the FREE app ‘Brainscape’ where they can create multimedia flashcards, share them with classmates and collaboratively develop content.  Students can then rate how well they have remembered a word by rating it on a scale of 1-5 and this indicates how frequent the item will reappear for the student’s revision.

(Of course, you don’t have to go down the techie route for this, but the good thing about these apps is that they have been developed with an algorithm to present students with their most challenging content more regularly, based on their response each time a word appears).


Ok, so it’s not as simple as that. 
The downside of apps like this (and using traditional paper and pen flashcards) is that students are meeting vocabulary out of context and although may remember the vocabulary from yesterday’s lesson, they may not have the ability to accurately use it.


This is where you come in.  Here are some ideas for providing context in class and building vocabulary.


  1. Use newspaper reports on the same event over time so that students are meeting content time and time again.  Improving conditions whereby your students can meet the same vocabulary increases their acquisition.
  2. Plan a classroom task using an excerpt from a graded reader, get them to upload difficult vocabulary to Brainscape and then encourage students to continue reading in their own time.  Nation and Wang (1999) found that if a learner systematically read several graded readers, most words would be frequently met.  They suggested learners should read one graded reader per week to ensure new words are met again within a short period of time. (and more importantly in context)
  3. In pairs, get students to share 3 words from Brainscape (or from their vocabulary record) from last week’s classroom vocabulary which they are struggling to remember and then get feedback from the class.  Chances are students will have some shared difficulties so you could try some of these tasks:A) Get students to put their words on the classroom noticeboard and refer to them at intervals throughout the week, eliciting sample sentences, drilling pronunciation and ensuring correct context usage.

    B) Create a Dictogloss including some of these lessons for a follow-up lesson.

    C) Use a vocabulary box (one of our teachers in ATC is doing this with her A1s…you know who you are….) and encourage students to put their ‘difficult words’ into the box as they are met.  These can then be used for quizzes at the end of the week OR how about building a crossword using these words?  Here’s a link to one option….

    D) When presenting new grammar on the board, use (where relevant) some of the vocabulary from a previous lesson/ week and elicit the meaning.

Once students get into the habit of working like this and see a pattern in how you revise vocabulary, they are more inclined to get on board.  They will soon realise that at any stage, they may be asked to recall the meaning of vocabulary met previously and so their learner autonomy and self-motivation should kick in…

Let us know in the comments box below if you have used an App such as this one with your students in building and revising vocabulary?  What other tasks do you do with your classes to help them commit new words to long-term memory?


One Response

  1. I use ABC notes http://alsedi.com/portfolio/abc-notes/ for writing down example sentences in Italian on separate notes. Then mix them, choose the note I like and try to make up a similar sentence. Different colours and notes help to memorize the words better. I recommend my students to do the same when they revise the vocabulary we study at our lessons.

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