6 tips to help students expand their second language vocabulary

Dictionary for French language

Learning new words is one of the main obstacles that stand between students and achieving a satisfactory level of fluency. However, there are strategies for increasing your vocabulary, and no, they are not all based on constant repetition of vocabulary. This guide has collected the six best techniques to help your language class students learn new vocabulary.


Building new vocabulary, brick after brick

British writer Evelyn Waughn used to say that one’s vocabulary “needs constant fertilizer or it will die”.

Anyone embarking on the study of a foreign language knows that this continuous work of enriching their vocabulary will be the only way to guarantee their full mastery of the language being studied. After all, what is the point of knowing grammatical structures if you do not have words with which to put them into practice?

However, many language learners feel discouraged by the idea of having to learn a large number of words (it is estimated that a person needs to know between 1.000 and 3.000 words to be conversational in a second language).

The difficulties underlying vocabulary development stem from a wide variety of factors, such as the difference between the written and spoken word or a lack of understanding of how to use a word in an appropriate context

In addition, classroom methods often tend to be based on the memorisation of a large number of individual words, disconnected from any context (collocation, phrasal verbs, idioms, etc.).

In short, if your students in the language class struggle to develop a substantial vocabulary, it is not because they are lazy or have a bad memory. 


Six successful teaching tips for vocabulary building

In the following paragraphs, we will examine 6 effective ways in which language teachers can help learners to learn, understand and retain new words.

1. Understand how individual students learn

This is actually a general principle, which should be taken into account at every stage of language teaching. But it is equally important when it comes to vocabulary building. Do not assume that there is only one path for vocabulary building. For some learners, listening to a song and translating the lyrics, for example, may be more effective than studying cards that associate pictures and words.

2. Provide context for new vocabulary

Words do not exist in a vacuum. Assigning students lists of words to learn by heart will certainly test their patience, but it will not help them to learn those words easily. In order to learn new vocabulary, it is necessary to understand it and see it at work in everyday language. Would you still like to assign a list of vocabulary to learn? Fine, but make sure that students can first find those words within a written text or dialogue, within a complex structure (such as idioms, or slang). 

3. Experiment with a gamification approach

In a previous post, we looked at the benefits of turning the language learning process into a fun game. Designing a gamified approach to vocabulary building can prove effective to motivate students in undertaking an otherwise boring task. Invite students to use language learning apps or online language learning games of their choice. Have you ever considered the number of words students can learn through game commands or by chatting with other participants online? A gaming experience has already proved to be effective in increasing students’ motivation when it comes to vocabulary building.

4. Encourage students to read extensively…

Is there a better way to have words flow easily and naturally than reading? In this case, the choice of material to be used is vast and ranges from blog posts to more traditional novels. In fact, as we have seen before, there is a whole teaching approach that uses stories as a tool for language learning. Whatever the type of text, reading is an easy and fun way to discover new words, visualize them as they are written black on white, and eventually understand how they work in a given context. 

5. …And to write frequently

There is a rather close link between writing and memory, as psychological research repeatedly demonstrated that the memory retention process is strengthened when we write things down. This in itself is a good reason to encourage language learners to write regularly in the target language. As in the case of reading, it is beneficial to encourage students to find a piece of content they would enjoy writing, be it a journal, a blog entry, or video captions. But assimilating new vocabulary through the writing process is also an effective way to consolidate the ever sought-after speaking skills. As a 2015 research suggested, the relationship between writing skills and speaking abilities is such that “learners who have skills to produce academic language in writing, they can easily transfer the argumentative skills to speaking skills”.

6. Alternate between different language teaching approaches and teaching content

Success often comes from variation. Therefore, combining different language teaching strategies is necessary to avoid demotivating students. The best way to help students enrich their vocabulary is ultimately to expose them to the target language through engaging situations and entertaining language learning materials. Alternating task-based or storytelling-based lessons, listening to songs, and then switching to videos and novels will be the best way for your students to develop a solid vocabulary without feeling the burden of the rote memorisation process.


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