Revisiting Vocabulary Teaching/Learning: My Reflections

Maheshwor Rijal

Kathmandu University 


“Without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed” (Wilkins as cited in Thornbury, 2006, p. 13). Undoubtedly, vocabulary has immense value in teaching and learning as it is one aspect or element that links all the four skills: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. In this article, I reflect up on the strategies I used while learning vocabulary in schools and colleges and my current research interest. I hope my story relates with many of you and will help us in uncovering the hidden realities and revisiting our pedagogical practices.

I was born in a remote area and got my schooling from a rural public school. I still remember the bitter pain I used to have in English classes.  The class was totally controlled by the teacher. Most of the teaching approaches that teacher used were traditional and boring and there was a little chance of flourishing creativity from my side. “Look and remember” with the help of bilingual dictionary, as I see now, seemed to be not very effective for the learners of English language like me. I was unable to show my creativity in spite of being eager in learning procedure.  My ELT class was totally authoritative and was only focused on examination, not on practical and real life situations.  Every set of words was taught according to bilingual translation and every student was compelled to follow the same method and I was also the part of same tradition. It was, of course, my compulsion that I had to follow the same tradition and had to apply what my teachers said. The teacher made us buy a dictionary and assigned all students to recite and memorize the words from the respective chapters. The classroom strategies were threatening, full of stress and pressure. My teacher used to come to the class with stick and beat students when they were unable to produce or say the meaning of the vocabulary items. I have had many ideas to express but due lack of exposure of English language I couldn’t express. It was due to lack of vocabularies when I needed. I used to go to school with a fear and challenge. So, when teacher came near to me I used to be scared. One of the recent articles “Beat the Teacher” by Khila Sharma in IATEFL journal nicely sums up my feelings: “vocabulary building is one of the biggest challenges English teacher in rural communities face. Even students who have studied English for ten years cannot give a simple narrative or express their thoughts and feelings. They have hard time when writing essays and resort to rote-memorization from their teacher’s note or commercial guide-books” (p.5). This is the reality of our schooling, even now.

After completing   my School Leaving Certificate (SLC) seven years back, I came to Kathmandu with a hope to pursue higher education. In my intermediate and Bachelor’s degree, despite my weak English background, I worked very hard on English and got the reward. I was also fortunate enough to have very encouraging teachers. Now, as a third semester student at Kathmandu University, I am on the verge of completing my master’s degree and busy in conducting academic research. So, my proposed academic research is finding out perceptions and practices regarding vocabulary teaching/learning in the EFL context of Nepal. Carrying out research on such area, as in other areas, is challenging as many terms and conditions specified by the concerned faculty and the supervisor need to be fulfilled.  Although I understand how to carry out research, I was never taught how to write a good research paper in my school life. I don’t have the expertise of producing a research article even after my undergraduate and graduate level of studies. Many of my fellow learners, I am sure,   may have the same catastrophic realization as they embark into the sophisticated arena of education research.

The educational standards of Kathmandu University (KU) have broadened my horizons of thinking. I have become aware of more useful strategies of learning vocabulary such as self defining context, pictures, synonyms, gestures, realia, audio visual aids, games etc. Reflecting on my own experience, most of the students are themselves in search of a new way of learning vocabulary. Now as a teacher (and a student), I have a real platform to develop new horizons for developing academic proficiency in my students using the strategies I just mentioned.

In the context of EFL setting, vocabulary should be taught interestingly, and to do so we can apply   different ways proposed by new teaching methods such as by Communicative Language Teaching. Despite the similar bitter experiences and the awareness of new methods and approaches, most of the techniques used by many of us in teaching vocabulary are still traditional. During my ongoing education in Kathmandu University, I have come to realize that teachers have a huge role in increasing students’ vocabulary as there is not much exposure from elsewhere. For better learning and better communication in English, one should assist the students in selecting the words appropriately as related to their goals, situation, and context.  Since vocabulary teaching/learning is a milestone to be reached in language teaching and learning, I think that it is our duty and responsibility to minimize such unpleasant experiences for the new generation of learners.


Harmer, J. (1991). The practice of English language teaching. London: Longman.

Thornbury, S. (2006). How to teach vocabulary. Pearson Education Limited.

Sharma, S.P. (2012). Beat the teacher. IATEFL Journal September-October Issue -228.





  • Dipak Raj Khanal

    It reflects on real misconception of our teaching and learning process as will as solutions.

  • Mandira Adhikari

    Good article because this is the trend we have in our conext but can be improved if the teachers are aware of it.

  • I liked your article.I agree that a good teacher always inspires and encourages.Keep it up,Maheshworji.

  • Maheshwor,
    I found your post quite interesting, not only because you share your personal experiences about learning vocabulary from your current perspective as a research student in education but also because this kind of reflection is what best suits professional conversations in the genre of blogs. Your entry also approaches “scholarship” in a bottom-up process by valuing what we do as learners and teachers in our local context as a legitimate subject of professional conversation (and new knowledge).
    Let me also add one or two other thoughts about how you could make entries like this–assuming that you will contribute more in the future–even better.
    First, your “thesis statement” in the first paragraph could be clearer and stronger (or more thought through). You say that you “reflect on the strategies” you used for learning vocabulary in school and that by relating to your experience, readers might be interested in “uncovering the hidden realities [towards] revising our pedagogical practices.” As a reader, I didn’t find anything new or significant in this statement: we all know that traditional rote-learning of vocabulary, usually out of context, is problematic and that we need much better teaching strategies. In fact, Nepalese ELT scholars (who are most of the readers of this blog) have been discussing and practically addressing this problem for many years. Second, you describe your personal experience with some detail and conclude that “this is the reality of our schooling, even now.” This may be “largely” true or more true in certain types of contexts than others; I am not sure that all teachers across Nepal are still there.
    But, second, even if this is largely the situation across the country, your entry does not go on to focus on the problem, for instance by proposing how to address that problem. Yes, you state that (perhaps as a result of your adverse experience in vocabulary learning in school) you are now interested in “finding out perceptions and practices regarding vocabulary teaching/learning in the EFL context of Nepal.” But then you go on to a completely different problem, the problem of not having been taught research skills in school. This point is not only tangential to what the blog entry at first seemed to be about but also an unreasonable criticism of school level English education: I don’t know if teaching students “research” skills can be made a priority of English language education (not to mention how that is related to the problem of poor vocabulary teaching).
    Third, you go on to appreciate the opportunities that you have in your university; this praise is based on your learning of new ideas and skills about vocabulary teaching but this paragraph could confuse the readers about its function in relation to your earlier critique of vocabulary teaching in school. Are you suggesting that you “wish” that university education on ELT better shaped or influenced ELT in our schools? Many teachers who continue to teach vocabulary (as well as language in general) in outdated ways in spite of getting the theoretical education during their university degrees. Or perhaps you could argue that even when our teachers have theoretical knowledge from their university education they are unable to understand the problems on the ground because they lack the skills for doing research/study about how their students best learn vocabulary. The argument doesn’t flow from one section to another.
    And finally, your conclusion paragraph could be more focused and following more directly from the points/arguments of the previous paragraphs. When you say that we need “new” teaching methods (like CLT), I was less than impressed because CLT is not really new anymore. I was expecting a stronger, clearer point that came out of your experience in school, your current research in the university, or both. The concluding paragraph also contains a variety of points that seem to loosely follow from previous paragraphs but do not have a focus of their own. There are some interesting points in it–for instance that teachers are an almost exclusive source for learning new words in our schools or that learning new words and ideas should be more pleasant than it was for us–but these points are almost lost in the medley of different ideas in the paragraph.
    So, you have done a great job of discussing an important issue in relation to your personal experiences. You could make the entry more effective by focusing on one clear and strong argument that flows point by point from one section (paragraph or paragraphs) to another.
    Please share any thought in response to my comments so other readers and writers may find this discussion useful.

    • Maheshwor Rijal

      Respected Shyam Sir,
      First of all, thanks for your comments and suggestions; I appreciate, and am happy as you have articulated in vocabulary teaching, following route learning, is out of context. I particularly talked about government school from rural area, where I was part of that. As far as my learning experience (as student and teacher) is concerned, Vocabulary teaching is most people’s least favorite thing. However, it has an immense value to develop communicative competence. Rodger (2008) says that once the vocabulary repertoire is fully developed, learners start communicating in the target language. Yes, I think everyone believes the value of vocabulary has immense because of being essential element for developing communicative competence. I am not blaming the teachers here, it was the tradition and it is still same largely on rural public schools now in this globalized world of ELT. I think, of course, I will not be wrong that majority of L2 learners have traditionally been taught by different methods paying insufficient attention to vocabulary, this might lead on to an unfavorable scenario whereby vocabulary acquisition continues to be neglected, since language teachers themselves have been mostly instructed toward grammar-oriented language learning. In response to the second queries, Research skills in schooling level, I mean to say, assigning project work ( creative task) that stimulate learners to be critical and inquisitive, and this helps learners to learn English creatively, rather than adopting the trends of route learning. Finally, I realized through my experiences, and reflective daily journals that using a variety of activities (group work, role play, simulation, etc.) and strategies (vocabulary teaching strategies) in the classroom encouraged students for developing communication. Now I want to relate with my research interest in university entitled perceptions of practices of EFL teacher while teaching vocabulary in the Nepalese EFL context so that it will bring real problems, challenges faced by EFL teachers and students. Vocabulary is main crux of language without which language learning is impossible. More importantly better communication will be established only when there is right selection of words in terms of right situations. English is learned as the second language in the context of Nepal. In the EFL setting, the effectiveness of EFL classroom depends upon the use of vocabulary items.

      Thank you..

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