“Teacher, how do I improve my vocabulary?”

— Laxman Gnawali

“How many English words do you know?” I ask participants of a short-term English teacher training programme. There are smiles, squeezed foreheads, I-have-no-idea expressions. I ask a further question, “Do you know at least two thousand words?” Again there is no clear response. “I think I do,” one of the participants says. Then, I announce a test to decide whether they know at least two thousand words. Everyone seems excited but not without some sense of self suspicion. I have brought a list of “Most Frequently Used First Two Thousand Words in English” which I found on the Internet with the help of Google search. These are words which are most frequently used in written English and the list was developed after an exhaustive survey with the help of a computer software. I announce that the participants will have to go through the list and underline if they come across a word which they do not know. Heads start rising after ten minutes and I go to those who have finished and try to find out what words they have underlined. When all have finished, I ask individuals to share which words they found new or difficult. Actually, they did not have many. Only a few words such as forbade, molten, cast, sawn have challenged them. I ask, “Do you know two thousand English words?” Everyone goes loud, “YES!” This experience has boosted their morale that they know at least two thousand words. I promise to bring “Most Frequently Used First Three/Four/Five Thousand Words in English” when I come next. They are excited.

As an English teacher, we are often approached by students with a usual expression, “I am not good at words. How do I improve my vocabulary?” Definitely, they are in need of proper guidance. As teachers, we try to give them meanings thinking that that is what helps. We do that with good intentions. But, if we do not use proper scaffolding, our efforts go in vain. So, in this article, I try to share with you how we can help students to learn new vocabulary as well as retain them for use as and when required.

There are three important things we need to be doing in teaching vocabulary: raising awareness, presenting new vocabulary and consolidating the vocabulary students have learnt once. Let me explain them briefly.

a. Raising awareness

Learners need to be aware of possible ways of learning new vocabulary on their own. This is what is called study skills: how can I learn new vocabulary? What is my style of learning vocabulary? What resources are available for me? In raising awareness, we can train students to use of dictionaries, provide information about local libraries, radio programmes, cassettes and CD’s, and if possible connect students with students of the same level in English speaking countries. Once they follow any of these, students will realize that they can improve their vocabulary on their own and start undertaking their own initiatives. This will ease our burden as teachers. In the experience I mention in the beginning of this article, I have tried to raise awareness about a few things: helping teachers to know how much they know, we need to learn the most useful words and the Internet can provide a lot of information. For the teachers and learners who have no access, I would do something else.

b. Presenting new vocabulary

This is actually what we do most in the classrooms. If we can present the words in a proper way, students can learn them and add them to their repertoire. Usually, we focus on the meaning and leave out the aspects like their usage and etymology. We may not know etymology of all words we are teaching, but if we present the etymology of those we know, it is easier for learners to remember. The word boycott means to stay away from. In the 18th century, there was a Navy Admiral, Mr. Boycott, who was very unsociable and unfriendly. No one wanted to be with him, and as a result, he was never invited to social gatherings. The word boycott was used with the meaning we know after his name. Together with the meaning, if we can tell this etymology, students will easily remember this word. For this, we need to have a dictionary that gives etymology of words. In presenting the meaning, we need to use a variety of techniques not just explanations such as these: draw pictures, miming, giving synonyms and antonyms, demonstrating, using a model, bringing the real thing into the classroom, giving a context and letting students guess, and if nothing else works, translate into the local language. We need to decide wisely what works with which words.

c. Consolidating

It is not always possible to remember all words we have learnt once. We need to use them again and again, play with them and hear them in context. Then, only they go in to the repertoire. Creating situations in which the words learnt once have to come in use, we can help students to be better familiar with the words. In the classroom setting, we can get students to form sentences with the words, to find antonyms and synonyms by themselves, to unscramble the words, or to write a composition in which these are practically required. Spelling contest are very useful for learners to remember the shapes of the words. The other way particularly for the school level is to use language games. There are a variety of games we can choose from: Bingo, Hangman, Tell-me-the-meaning, etc. When we use games we need to make sure that they not only become fun but also help us in moving on with the syllabus and the textbook.

I would like to share with you an activity which I have been using in my English language classes with success. I have chosen this activity as it serves all three purposes discussed above.

Realia in the bag

I have used this vocabulary activity several times with students of different ages. Every time I use it, I see that all types of students have similar fun in learning new words when the learning involves some suspense. Adults are usually surprised that they do not know the names of the objects they always use or see.


Find a cloth bag. It should be as big as a school bag and made from normal cloth, not hardened. Collect at least 20 different objects. They can be anything that you can find around you: chalk, duster, stapler, box of staples, match box, ruler, keys, small bottle, shoe brush, tooth brush, paperweight, magnet, board marker, potato, onion, spoon, fork, lime, paper clips, perfume bottle, kettle lid, wooden block, bottle opener, can opener, corkscrew, tin opener, ladle, etc. You can choose items that you want to teach about. Put all of them in the bag and button it up.


Tell your students that they are going to find out what objects there are in the bag without looking. They will feel the items from outside and name them. When they feel and decide what the item is, they have to say:
It’s thin and long, so it must be a ruler.
It’s heavy; it’s round, so it must be a paperweight.
Whenever we do an activity, we need try to integrate different aspects so the learning is rich. Here, if we can get students to use a particular structure in naming the objects, they not only learn vocabulary but also consolidate the structures.
It’s thin and long, so it is a ruler.
It’s heavy; it’s round, so it is a paperweight.
I have found a ruler.
I have found a paperweight.

If you are using this article with lower classes, you can ask them simply to name the item they think there is. The difficulty level of the structures of the sentences can be raised depending upon the level of the students.

Get one student to name three to five items only so that many students get a chance. As they name the objects, list the names on the board. When most items have been named, display all items one by one and get the class to name them aloud and spell the words. If the students have named any items wrongly, correct the list on the board.
Depending upon the level of students, you can either ask them to make sentences using the words, to copy them in their exercise books or to draw some items.

Useful books for teaching and learning vocabulary
Carter, R. & McCarty, M. (1988). Vocabulary and language teaching. Harlow: Longman.
Flower, J. & Berman, M. (1989). Build your vocabulary. Hove: Language Teaching Publications.
Gairns, R. & Redman, S. (1986). Working with words. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
McCarthy,  M. (1996). Vocabulary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Morgan, J. & Rivolucri, M. (1986). Vocabulary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Taylor, L. (1992). Vocabulary in action. Hemel Hempstead: Prentice Hall.
Wallace, M. (1987). Teaching vocabulary. 3rd ed. London: Heinemann.
Watcyn-Jones, P. (1993). Vocabulary games and activities for teachers. London: Penguin.
Willis, D. (1990). The lexical syllabus. London: Collins.

[First published in the Shikshak Magazine, April-May 2010]

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