5 Ways to Support Vocabulary Learning

“Learning words is easy. The difficult part is retention.” —Eli Hinkel

At the TESOL convention in Toronto last month, I attended a packed session about vocabulary acquisition by Eli Hinkel. Effective and Efficient Vocabulary Teaching for Academic Writing was such a popular topic that the fire marshals came in to inform us that the room was over capacity.

Fortunately, I had a front-row seat (on the floor with some other sardines) as this was a talk that I did not want to miss! The ESL Library publishing team is working diligently on a new Writing in English section. We’re also planning a new course focused on Academic English Vocabulary.

Here are 5 Ways to Support Vocabulary Learning based on Eli Hinkel’s tips.

1. Demand high

When it comes to learning vocabulary, Eli Hinkel says she expects more from her students than most teachers: “You have to be pushy!” She admits that her students don’t always like her at the beginning of a term, but says they often come back and thank her when they realize how many words they’ve learned.

Eli Hinkel suggests the following:

  • 800 words per term
  • 16 words per day
  • 10 words per lesson
  • 10-12 exposures of each word

View and download our printable Vocabulary Bank PDF

While doing further research about academic vocabulary recently, I stumbled upon this fantastic post by Chuck Sandy on how he reluctantly challenged his students to learn 500 words from the Academic Word List, and how his students became “Vocabulary Masters.”

2. Increase the number of exposures

According to Eli Hinkel, students need 10–12 exposures before a word enters their “productive” vocabulary. Hinkel says teachers can support students by “chasing” these exposures. Do whatever you can to expose students to the vocabulary repeatedly, including using flashcards.

3. Use shame motivation

I cringed when Eli Hinkel used the term “shame motivation,” but it turns out this is just her cheeky way of describing a peer marking system that works well.

Hinkel assigns daily quizzes or short writing assignments based on the vocabulary lists her students are working with. Instead of marking the papers, she has students hand their quizzes to each other. Eli insists that peer evaluation motivates student learning (not to mention saving marking time) because students don’t want to look inferior in front of their peers. Hinkel also does a random check once in a while and asks students to hand in their quizzes.

Eli Hinkel suggests the following:

  • 5-minute vocabulary quizzes every other day (for new words, she prefers “write the definitions” rather than “write an example sentence”)
  • 5-minute writing assignments every other day (one paragraph on a specific topic, not “free writing”)
  • peer review (not marked by a teacher)
  • random spot checks (hand in to teacher for a mark)

4. Teach them how to use the dictionary efficiently

According to Eli Hinkel, “Teaching vocabulary is a waste of time. Learning vocabulary is the essence.” While it’s the teacher’s job to demand that students learn a certain amount of vocabulary, the students ultimately have to take the responsibility of doing it.

Hinkel asks teachers to teach students how to “mine the dictionary.” She says that too many students get intimated by long dictionary entries. Teachers should expect students to learn the first entry or the main use (usually in its noun or verb form), but not all of the additional entries.

Personally, I recommend ninja words, A really fast dictionary…fast like a ninja to my students. There is a lot of blank space on the entry page, which makes it less intimidating. For very simple definitions, I like the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary.

5. Use an escalated learning system

Eli Hinkel suggests that you gradually increase your expectations when it comes to vocabulary learning. First, require that students just spell the word: “People have to spell, because, if they don’t, it looks like mud on their face.” Then they have to know the meaning. Next, they need to be able to write a sentence with the word that at least has a verb in it. After that, the sentence has to have a verb and a subject. Finally, the sentence has to be written in proper English with the vocabulary used in the proper context.

If you ever get the chance to hear Eli Hinkel speak, be sure to grab a front-row seat! She’s witty, wise, and full of teaching tips.

Did you Know?

Most of the reading-based lessons on ESL Library now have a vocabulary list for teachers to preview and review. The vocabulary lists, which appear on the information page when you click on an individual lesson (you’ll also find lesson description, level, estimated time required, # of pages, lesson tasks, level, grammar points), can also be used to make your own 5-minute quizzes and writing assignments.

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  1. Modeline Almonor says:

    Apr 22, 2015 at 7:53 pm

    Your lessons are good.
    My problem is thé prononciation
    Thank You.

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