How to teach English vocabulary effectively in class: tips for teachers

What every teacher needs to know to teach vocabulary effectively

What every teacher needs to know to teach vocabulary effectively


  • Speaking
  • Vocabulary
  • Teaching qualifications
  • Tips & Strategies

A vocabulary is a set of familiar words within a person's language. It is a useful and essential tool for communication and knowledge acquisition that typically develops with age. Developing a wide range of vocabulary is one of the hardest parts of learning a second or a foreign language.

We constantly learn new words and expand our vocabulary as we go through life. Even if some language is picked up implicitly through communicating regularly, it's crucial to explicitly teach our students more complex and advanced language. What do we as teachers need to know to teach it effectively?

Types of vocabulary

Based on spoken and written vocabulary, the four types of vocabulary can be distinguished, and different vocabularies serve various purposes. The growth of one encourages the growth of others.

For example, children will develop their vocabulary by speaking and listening before they write or read. The four types of vocabulary we should teach them for effective communication are:

  • listening vocabulary
  • speaking vocabulary
  • reading vocabulary 
  • writing vocabulary (Judy K. Montgomery’s book: The Bridge of Vocabulary: Evidence Based Activities for Academic Success (NCS Pearson Inc, 2007))

Now, let's define each type of vocabulary.

These are the words and phrases we hear and comprehend. The meaning of an unfamiliar word can be inferred from cues like the speaker's tone and body language, the subject under discussion, and the social setting of the conversation.

This is the type of vocabulary that represents the words you have to retain while writing. The words we can spell have a significant impact on the vocabulary we use when writing.

These are the words we use when we speak. This type of vocabulary is a bit limited. Most adults use a mere 5,000 to 10,000 words for all their conversations and instructions.

The words and letters in this type of vocabulary are those that we can recognise while reading texts. Even though you don't use certain terms when speaking, you can often recognise them when reading.

Active and passive vocabulary

It's crucial to keep in mind that learners need to have both active and passive vocabulary knowledge when considering how to teach vocabulary.

Words we comprehend and regularly use when speaking, reading, or writing constitute an active vocabulary. The words in a passive vocabulary are those that you may be familiar with but do not frequently use.

In other words, students' vocabulary should be made up of English words that they will be expected to use on their own in original sentences as well as those they just need to recognise when they are said or written by others.

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Teaching passive vocabulary is crucial for comprehension. The challenge of understanding another speaker requires the listener to have a passive vocabulary, that is, enough familiarity with words used by others to comprehend their meaning. This is sometimes referred to as receptive language knowledge.

Advanced students' ability to express themselves creatively depends on their ability to learn active vocabulary. This is due to the fact that they need active vocabulary in order to construct their own sentences.

The words in an active vocabulary are those that learners can understand and manipulate for use in their own creative expression. This is referred to be productive knowledge of the language.

Three tiers of vocabulary

Contact with languages like Anglo-Saxon English, Spanish, French, Greek, and Latin, to name a few, has helped to shape English. The English Language has a very large vocabulary, estimated to be between 450,000 and 750,000 words.

How therefore can we determine which words need to be taught?

For teaching and assessing vocabulary knowledge, we take into account three different word categories or three tiers of vocabulary.  Which tier a word belongs to depends on its usage frequency, degree of complexity, and meaning. Those with mature vocabularies and age-appropriate literacy skills understand and use words from all three tiers.

Basic vocabulary

This group includes all the basic and well-known concepts. These are the English words that your children typically use in everyday speaking. Young children are introduced to the foundational words and become comfortable with them. There are about 8,000 word families in English included in tier one. For example, at this level, learners encounter sight words, nouns, verbs, adjectives, and vocabulary from early reading.

High-frequency vocabulary

High-frequency vocabulary consists of words and phrases that are not naturally learned and are not utilized in daily discussions. These words can be found in books and other written materials. They are frequently used in literature and adult conversations and have several meanings.  There are about 7,000 word families in English in tier two. 

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Low-frequency or context-specific vocabulary

The words in the low-frequency vocabulary are those that are only relevant to a certain field, such as science, math, geography, social science, technology, etc. We usually learn these words when a specific need arises. The remaining 400,000 words in English fall in this tier. 

What does it mean 'to know a word'?

Teaching a word involves more than just translating it or even utilising it in a sample sentence. Knowing a word entails understanding not just its definition but also the contexts in which it is used, words that are related to it, and appropriate usage situations. To effectively foster vocabulary learning, we need to consider what it really means to know a word.


It goes without saying that learning a new word in English assumes knowing what it actually means.  Of course, there are many ways in which you can convey the meaning of the word:  provide the word's definition from a monolingual dictionary, ask one student to explain it to another, translate the word into L1, or ask students to try to deduce the meaning of an unknown word from the context, etc.

Many English words have several meanings, so be careful to get the correct meaning whenever you look up a word in a dictionary to define it.


When we teach the word, we usually have to teach students its spoken form, i.e. how to pronounce the word. Pronunciation also involves knowledge of stress patterns and how changes in the form of the word may affect this. 

Make sure you also teach its written form, i.e. how to spell it. 

One more thing to remember is the parts of the word (prefix, base, suffix). They help students comprehend the word, and by inflecting the familiar words learners can significantly expand their vocabulary. 

Knowing a part of speech of the target word will help learners use it grammatically correctly in a sentence. It is also helpful when the target word has the same spelling and pronunciation in more than one part of speech.


Knowing how to use the word in fixed and semi-fixed lexical chunks is important for understanding multiword verbs (e.g., run in run out of), collocations (e.g., heavy in heavy rain), idioms (e.g., to get cold feet), binomials (e.g., trial and error), and other figurative language.

Synonyms (words with related meanings) also help in expanding learners' vocabulary. If they already know some of the synonyms for the target word, they can better understand the meaning of the word you are trying to teach them. Additionally, synonyms enable learners to switch between words with similar meanings or apply those meanings in various contexts. And teaching synonyms is undoubtedly useful for academic writing.

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It's also important to teach students about the level of formality of the target words. This is particularly important when it comes to writing or formal presentations. While some words can be used both in formal and informal contexts, others are most likely to be used in formal registers. For example

Informal: a kid, to try, to end, a way

Formal: a child, to endeavour, to terminate, an approach

These and other things, as well as what level the students are at may also affect the way we choose to teach the vocabulary. How can the vocabulary be taught in a way that encourages retention? These issues are covered in our online teaching credential "Essentials of effective English language teaching".

Article authors & editors
  • Yulia Chorna

    Yulia Chorna


    DELTA Module 1, CELTA certified teacher of General & Business English



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