Teaching Vocabulary: Using Research Findings to Inform Teaching

In this post, I’d like to report on some fascinating research I had the pleasure of seeing presented at the recent MEXTESOL conference in Puebla, Mexico.  What particularly interested me was the connection to the topic of meaningful learning that I have been talking about on this blog as well as the direct application of the research to the teaching of vocabulary both for classroom teachers, teacher trainers and materials writers.  I don’t know about you, but I love research that we can use in the classroom.

The first piece of research (Barcroft, 1998) compares the amount of times the learner is exposed to a new word (the ‘repetitions’ of a picture with the word written on it) with the amount of time s/he is exposed to it each time.  The learners were then tested by being exposed to the picture only and the learner had to write the target word.  The researchers discovered that what was more important for learning the words was the amount of times the learner encountered the word rather than the length of time s/he was exposed to it.  What’s the lesson for us as teachers? Expose learners to target words as many times as possible, because being exposed to words several times (in relatively short succession – Barcroft found the best results with eight repetitions of the word for three seconds each) helps memory.  In terms of classroom activity, this makes me think of vocabulary learning games involving pictures and words.  Interestingly, too, research (eg Barcroft and Sommers, 2005) has shown that learners retain vocabulary better when the voices that present the vocabulary are varied as well – a great recommendation for getting different learners in the class to say the words and to manipulate the pictures.

In another piece of research discussed by Barcroft, learners were presented first with words and pictures, but the second time they saw half of the pictures without the words and were given time to try to retrieve the word themselves before they saw the word.  When tested later it was found that the learners remembered better the words that they had had the chance to attempt to retrieve themselves (as opposed to the words that had been presented at the same time as the pictures).

So, what does this research mean for us as language teachers?

Firstly, the idea of recycling of vocabulary – once is not enough for learners to see vocabulary, the more they see it the better.  Secondly, giving learners time to retrieve previously presented items rather than telling them the answer immediately.  In teaching terms, eliciting or perhaps asking learners to write down the answers or even asking learners to put up their hand when they know the word, so that all learners need to think and try to retrieve it rather than just allowing the same learner to call out the answer all the time.

I hope you find this as interesting as I did – why don’t we use more research-based findings to make decisions about how we teach?

Happy Halloween! 🙂


Barcroft, J (1998)

Barcroft, J and Sommers (2005)  Positive effects of tallker and speaking-style variability on L2 Spanish vocabulary learning

Barcroft, J (2007)

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Carol Lethaby

Carol Lethaby is a teacher, teacher educator and materials writer based in San Francisco, California, who has been in the field of language teaching since 1986. She is part-time Assistant Professor on the New School, New York online MA TESOL as well as being an honoured instructor at UC Berkeley Extension where she teaches on the TESL/TEFL Certificate program. She has also worked on several textbook series for learners of English, including Awesome, Next Step, The Big Picture and English ID, all published by Richmond ELT. Carol is a frequent presenter at international conferences.

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