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Only Words?: The Unexpected Challenges of Teaching Vocabulary

This blog post was written by Isabelle Jones.

“Without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed”. (Wilkins, 1972)


About the author of the post:

Isabelle Jones has been teaching languages in secondary schools in England for over 30 years. She was Head of Modern Languages in 2 different schools for 18 years, taught both French and Spanish from KS2 to A Level as well as some German and EAL. She is currently an Associate Assistant Headteacher in charge of ITT, educational visits, EAL and external CPD. She is a Fellow of the Chartered College of Teaching, a proud  member of ALL National Council, a qualified translator and interpreter, an author and reviewer for a range of online platforms and publishers, a Spanish A Level marker and a regular speaker at educational events. She spoke at the researchEd National event in London in September 2023, and she is the organiser for researchEd Cheshire 2023 and 2024. She also enjoys sharing good language practice and educational research on X @icpjones 


Even before OFSTED published its Research Review for Languages in June 2021, all languages teachers were already very familiar with the 3 pillars of progression in the curriculum: phonics, vocabulary and grammar.

Although I felt some things were missing from the review such as the impact of cultural awareness and verbal communication, one of the points highlighted that caught my attention was the differences between intentional and incidental learning and the golden thread that “teachers should not leave learning to chance”.

Why focus on vocabulary instruction?

Although teaching vocabulary is obviously not a new thing, formal vocabulary instruction is historically a neglected aspect of foreign language teaching.

It is also in many respects the foundation of grammar acquisition, as using good examples of structures with already embedded vocabulary will support the internationalisation of the grammatical structures.

How do we learn words?

Research suggests intentional learning is more efficient and leads to better recall. It is most useful in the earlier stages of learning a language and it results in better short- and long-term retention.

Intentional learning can include practising words out of context, synonym and antonym work and selecting the correct meaning from a set of options.

Explicit teaching of vocabulary should also create some opportunities for implicit learning with words being worked out from comprehensible input in the later stages. 


What kind of words?

Although looking at the different tiers of vocabulary seems straightforward, it can mean something substantially different for native and non-native speakers of English:

Tier 1: high-frequency words learnt through speech e.g. good, eat, talk, look

Tier 2: more academic words which need to be explicitly taught e.g. contradict

Tier 3: subject-specific terminology e.g. photosynthesis, metamorphosis

For example, Tier 1 vocabulary will need to be explicitly taught to non-native speakers as they may have missed the stage when it can be learnt through common day-to-day occurrences and interactions.

Tier 2 vocabulary can be inferred quite easily and become cognates / near cognates for  non-natives if their first language is Latin-based and developed enough to understand what these words mean, with the same principle applying to the understanding of Tier 3 vocabulary.

So… What does it mean to know a word?

It certainly means more than what most people think! According to Paul Nation (2013), there are three dimensions of knowing a word. However, as we can see from the list below, these are with many other considerations:


•       Spelling

•       Pronunciation

•       Morphological knowledge (e.g. knowledge of specific prefixes, suffixes)


•       Word-meaning

•       The role of context in defining meaning

•       Synonyms and antonyms


•       Understanding correct usage

•       Collocations (knowledge of how words combine in natural usage)

•       When to use and not use a word


The vocabulary curriculum

As a Languages team, it is important to agree on the criteria for selecting words to be taught as part of our curriculum, especially at KS3 as there is a need to ensure that students build solid foundation for broader linguistic development as well as prepare for the future demands of GCSE.

Equally important is the need to share techniques for introducing and consolidating vocabulary,  ways to help students memorise and practise using new words as well as

help them collect and recycle vocabulary.

Last but not least, remember to teach “word stories” through etymology and “word-building” through morphology. This will encourage students to learn vocabulary as part of word families and develop their understanding of how words can be constructed and de-constructed to express themselves and make sense of more complex texts and utterances.



•       Boers, F. (2021). Evaluating second language vocabulary and grammar instruction-A synthesis of the research on teaching words, phrases and patterns. Routledge

•       Breadmore, H.L., Vardy, E.J., Cunningham, A.J., Kwok, R.K.W., & Carroll, J.M. (2019). Literacy Development: Evidence Review. London: Education Endowment Foundation.

•       Conti, G., Smith, S. (2021). Memory: What every language teacher should know

•       Horst, M., 2013, Mainstreaming Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition, The Canadian Journal of Applied Linguistics, 16,1: 171-188

•       Schmitt, N. (2014). Size and depth of vocabulary knowledge: What the research shows. Language Learning, 64(4), 913-951.

•       Webb, S. (2007). The Effects of Repetition on Vocabulary Knowledge. Applied Linguistics, 28/1, 46–65.



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