Why vocabulary is key and how to learn it

Why vocabulary is key and how to learn it


Vocabulary is a fundamental tool in adult language teaching and learning. It’s even more important and central than grammar if we take the lexical approach as reference. Adult students have an urgent need to express themselves and communicate things.  They cannot wait until they learn the complete grammar of the target language to say what they need to say. It’s the same sense of urgency that makes them feel a bit frustrated at times, feeling they cannot incorporate the newly learnt structures. Truth is that each one of us has a different biological time to internalize those structures and until that doesn’t take place, the “correct” reproduction or production of the target structures becomes a difficult task to achieve, and even more so if  we feel frustrated and stressed.

This is why it is necessary to complement grammar teaching with the teaching of blocks of language, phrases or groups of words that can be memorized and used when needed. And here’s when the above mentioned lexical approach comes into play. It’s absolutely important to focus, above all, on the most frequently used words, phrases and expressions and those that the student needs or will need at some point in the future, be it at work, on business trips or any type of activity that the student performs in the target language.

In addition, it is necessary to organize vocabulary in groups, around a main topic, and associating expressions in any possible way: synonyms, antonyms, a verb that is used with different nouns, a noun and different adjectives, etc. All combinations are possible and the more there are, the better. Our memory works by associations after all. We now know that lists aren’t effective enough. Following this model, the new vocabulary could be organized following a circular shape, with a centre where the umbrella term is located, something such as “sports” or “speaking on the phone”, which summarizes the main subject, and a periphery with different branches, arrows, etc that show connected vocabulary items. This summary is called “mind map” and as the name indicates,it’s a map of what the student wants to remember. You are encouraged to use colours, different lettertypes, shapes and drawings; creativity is present throughout the process, from the beginning to the end. It’s completely subjective and the ideal thing would be that every student could train him or herself  in the making of those maps, something that is adquired through practice and the necesary motivation.

Fortunately, we currently have very useful technological tools for the study of vocabulary such as Memrise, Anki, Quizlet and others. The student can study vocabulary sets that he/she creates or other students’ sets. The use of these programmes is highly effective because you can group vocabulary and study it with diverse activities, by listening to the work, using flashcards, writing or playing. And if that’s not enough, the application repeats the expressions that we got wrong and displays our progress. 

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