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Training the brain: teaching vocabulary to

Ushapa Fortescue

When teachers talk about children learning languages we often hear phrases such as “they are like
sponges, just soaking everything up”. Sadly, we don’t hear this often in relation to adults. As adults
we have to “train” our brains a little more to retain information.

However, it’s not all bad news, because unlike children, adults have the ability to analyse language,
make connections and be more systematic in language learning. These skills can be used when
teaching adults vocabulary. Adult learners will often ask teachers what words they should be
learning, or they set themselves unrealistic targets.

The Oxford 3000™ word list supports both teachers and students to know which words to focus on.
The suggestion is that at B2 level learners should know all of the words in the Oxford 3000. This can
give a clear target and focused learning. So once students know which words to focus on, how can
teachers help adult learners to learn, retain and reuse these new words?

“The little and often approach” is always good with vocabulary. It should be a core element of all
lessons, introducing new words and revising at regular intervals in lessons.

Teachers are not the only source of reviewing and revising because adults are autonomous they can
also take responsibility for their own learning. Adult learners may be aware of what has worked for
them in the past and utilise those techniques for remembering vocabulary. However, you may find it
useful to remind learners of the quote “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get
what you’ve always got.” Here are some ideas for you to try with your class.

Recording and revising vocabulary

As a class, collate different ways of recording and revising vocabulary and encourage learners to
experiment with a new technique. Although many will seem obvious to teachers, learners might be
introduced to ideas they have never thought of before. Here are some suggestions, if they aren’t
given by the class.

 Read words out loud

 Make flashcards; use them with a partner or say the answers out loud
 Study in a group; ask each other questions
 Read into a tape recorder, and then listen to yourself
 Create songs or poems with the words
 Draw charts, diagrams, pictures, graphs, and maps
 Hang pictures, charts, graphs and posters around your study area
 Write/type and rewrite the words
 Put words on cards that can be carried around with you
 Create lexical sets and word families

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Semantic Maps

In this activity, the teacher chooses a word and displays it for the class.

Learners read the word and then think of words that come to mind when they see that word (this is
activating schemata and prior learning).These words are collected in a list and then those words are
categorised. This can be done as a whole class or in small groups. Learners then create a “map” using
a graphic organizer and discuss it. Additional or substitute categories can be suggested. This helps
learners to not just see words individually but rather how they work together in collocations,
synonyms and antonyms, idioms and phrases. Giving learners a much richer experience than just
learning words in isolation.

The “map” can be added to throughout the course.

Expanding sentences

This activity is designed to stimulate additional vocabulary. Learners are given a picture and asked to
produce a sentence which is written down by each group. For example “The man is standing in the
street”. Each group must then add another word to the sentence for example “The handsome man is
standing in the street”. The sentences are passed around the classroom, each time a new word
needs to be added. The activity ends when one group is unable to add another word. This game
forces learners to use more unusual vocabulary as the common words are normally added at the
beginning of the game.


Most teachers have a dedicated part of the board for vocabulary and at the end of the lesson do
some kind of review or revision using it, asking for definitions or example sentences. Another way of
allowing adults to use their analytical and critical thinking skills, is in pairs or small groups, ask them
to make connections between the words on the board. The first two words might be “thankfully”
and “ironic”, draw an arrow connecting them and ask for a possible sentence containing both. A
variation of this is to give learners pairs of words. They have to evaluate if the words are the same,
opposite, if they go together, or are unrelated. This is training the brain to make connections and
see differences between the words therefore not just acquiring lists every lesson.

The activities we use in the classroom should help learners to not just rely on the same common
known words, but rather to access the wealth of vocabulary they often have but are not confident to
use. This helps learners to activate vocab instead of just collating lists of unrelated words.

Find the Oxford 3000 and other word lists for you to incorporate into your vocabulary teaching here.

Ushapa Fortescue has taught for over 14 years both in the UK and abroad in a variety of contexts,
including primary and secondary schools, post 16 adult education, private language schools, Further
Education colleges, and Universities. She trains teachers and presents worldwide. Chloe is a qualified
meditation facilitator who has lived and worked in meditation centres around the world for the last
13 years. She loves to show teachers how to stay relaxed, engaged, and light-hearted in the

© Oxford University Press 2019

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