My Word Lists

Words are not instincts.  They must be learned.

Daniel Everett, Language: The Cultural Tool

Shortly after first arriving in Malaysia I found myself at Suria KLCC, the shopping centre at the base of the Petronas Towers, in search of some lunch.  I now know that it is the last place anybody with functioning tastebuds should look for food – the street fare just outside is infinitely better – but in my ignorance, and in the time-honoured tradition of TEFL skinflints (I wanted something cheap), I made my way to the food court on the top floor.

What ensued was a textbook bout of culture shock, as I staggered in complete bewilderment between the different stalls.  I had no idea what each one sold because I couldn’t understand any of the signs, and looking at the food itself wasn’t much use either – rice seemed to feature heavily, but I’m ashamed to say that at the time it all just looked rather similar.  I actually relish ‘foreign moments’ like that because they are rare in today’s globalised world (I was, after all, within spitting distance of Marks & Spencer, even 6,500 miles from home), but in my helpless state the only relish on my mind was the edible variety.

In the end, I found my way out and eventually sat down in what proved to be the most disappointing restaurant I’ve visited since I arrived here.  And while seated, reeling with shame and frustration from my food court experience and unfortunate meal selection, I took out my guidebook and learned 20 items of food vocabulary.

Memorising those 20 words had an astronishing effect.  They allowed me to go back to the food court after my dreadful restaurant meal and see exactly what I had missed out on.  Suddenly the whole place was transformed; I could read the signs, recognise the food and even understand what a few people were ordering.  And all as a result of only ten minutes with the food page of my guidebook.

Now, granted, this little episode hardly makes me the next Emil Krebs, but how do we normally conceive of vocabulary learning?  We’re taught to establish a context, check meaning and form, drill pronunciation, and throw gap-fills at people.  And twenty words in a lesson… well, that’s just silly.  The students might explode.  Better stick to a dozen, say the coursebooks (Thornbury, 2002).  Little wonder, then, that “deliberately teaching vocabulary is one of the least efficient ways of developing learners’ vocabulary knowledge” (Nation, here).

The value of vocabulary learning is criminally underrated by learners and teachers alike, probably because of the influence of grammar-driven coursebooks, but as Swan and Walter point out, it is the “largest and most important task facing the language learner” (1984, p. viii).  So when students need 3,000 words to be able to decode a typical L2 text (Liu & Nation, 1985), and the average rate for vocabulary acquisition from classroom teaching is a measly four words an hour (Milton, 2009), other measures are called for, like my emergency memorisation session over lunch.

I’m referring of course to word lists, which should be used by every learner and every teacher under the sun.  They may seem rather old-fashioned to some, or at odds with a communicative approach, but there is plenty of research evidence to back their effectiveness (Nation & Waring, 1997).  Teachers should:

  • Keep their own wordlists of vocabulary that arises in class, and revisit it often with learners.
  • Provide learners with lists to learn in preparation for future classes.
  • Encourage learners to revise their lists frequently.
  • Encourage learners to collaborate in building lists on Quizlet or Memrise.
  • Access those lists on mobile devices (Quizlet has an app for Apple devices, and a search for flashcards on the Android store will yield a number of Quizlet-compatible apps).
  • Have a look at Philip Kerr’s splendid ideas here.

Of course, word lists aren’t the be-all and end-all of vocabulary learning, they should form part of a balanced diet that includes plenty of authentic, contextualised language, too.  But they provide a foundation for everything that will happen in a student’s L2 life, now and in the future, in the classroom and out of it.  What they offer – their real value, as I discovered – is a foothold in the language, without which students simply have nothing to go on.  Man shall not live by grammar alone.  But if man doesn’t know the word for bread, he won’t be living on that either.



Liu, N., & Nation, I. S. P. (1985). Factors affecting guessing vocabulary in context. RELC Journal 16(1), 33-42.

Milton, J. (2009). Measuring Second Language Vocabulary Acquisition. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Nation, P., & Waring, R. (1997).  Vocabulary size, text coverage and word lists. In N. Schmitt & M. McCarthy (Eds.), Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy (pp. 6-19). Cambridge: CUP

Swan, M. & Walter, C. (1984). The Cambridge English Course, 1, (Teacher’s Book). Cambridge: CUP.

Thornbury, S.  (2002). How to Teach Vocabulary.  Harlow: Pearson.

4 thoughts on “My Word Lists

  1. I’m currently trying to re-start learning Thai after my original enthusiasm fizzled out – will definitely have a go at making my own word lists, thanks for sharing!

  2. Hi Matthew,

    I have found this post very timely, reassuring and also leaving me with questions. Some more information down in my comment list, in no particular order.

    1) I really liked the phrasing – emergency memorisation session (also I believe you must have outstanding memory). I wonder if there’s any space or sense in including such session in classes and what form these could take.

    2) I’m unsurprisingly not keen on word lists, but I think more because of the way it sounds and the memories it brings, rather than the concept itself. I think 85% of my teaching is around vocabulary building, in this or that way. This figure, I understand, is very unhealthy, but I just notice it works better for me. I wonder if actual lists can become our class partners. Thanks for this idea to mull over.

    3) To my Japanese experience: this is exactly the problem! I think it’s time for lists for me. It is a terribly slow process, plus I haven’t found Quizlet working for me at all. Another point of wonder would include this: what do I build my Japanese word lists around here? Well food is a good start of course + it’s quite clear already from the menus. But then with no real need to actually produce a message.. I’ll surely be blogging about this.

    Thanks for this post. I”m inspired for an emergency memorisation session of Japanese food words.

    1. Hi Ann,

      1) First of all, I really don’t have an outstanding memory! More on that in future posts. You make an interesting point though – I wonder how many words students could learn in 5 or 10 minutes of allocated class time? I’m talking about initial recognition of course, not true familiarity with the words, but it might be an interesting experiment, perhaps in preparation for the next day’s class?

      2) Lists can definitely become your class partners! But I think they have more potential these days as mobile partners, on a phone or tablet. How do you spend all that 85% teaching time without using lists or cards? I’d be interested to hear.

      3) As I mentioned above, I am preparing a post about how best to use your memory to make using lists a little less tedious. In the meantime, why don’t you start with a list on Memrise? It’s a good tool because it responds to how well you remember words, and it has more of an audiovisual aspect than Quizlet. Food is a good topic to start with too, because you come across it every day. Looking forward to reading how it goes!

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