I Propose a Vocabulary Bank – Another Challenge!

How do YOU teach / learn new words?


Emma Herrod has one of my favorite blogs to follow. She’s very objective, filled with great ideas for activities and insightful reflections on teaching.  A couple of weeks ago Emma proposed a challenge, a Vocabulary Blogging Challenge to be more exact. In short, she asked us to share some ways we approach vocabulary teaching in class, intending to compile a list of great ideas that everyone could use to spice up their vocabulary teaching. those who have read other posts on my blog – or know me on twitter – should remember my difficulty in declining a good challenge. So here I am!


Well, there are so many ways I teach vocabulary to my students! I don’t think I can even remember all of them. But two activities were a bit more successful recently and they’re the ones I’ll share for this challenge. The first one is something I do with all my High Intermediate groups and it had a curious and unexpected development this semester. It’s the Vocabulary Bank.


 The idea is that I give the group 30 words throughout the semester, 1 per class (there are 36 classes in a semester in my school), add to the poster and leave them there. The students have to use at least 10 different words from the list – their choice of which word, how to use it and when – before the semester is over. My intention is that students are forced to use new words authentically, that they develop the skills of knowing when to use vocabulary they are exposed to appropriately. I think we all agree that just presenting new vocabulary to students does very little for the actual acquisition of that vocabulary. The student needs to see the words in context, being used and they have to use it themselves, to really learn it.



They can use the words they choose in either speaking or writing. I ask them to underline or highlight the word when they do it in writing, to make sure their use of the word doesn’t go unnoticed by me when I correct the writing – and therefore don’t record it in the vocab bank use log. When they use it while speaking, if I miss it, either their classmates or themselves call my attention to it. Although I have to admit I can’t remember not noticing the use in class. And it’s always a big hit among them. At the High Intermediate track the students are quite fluent, with a considerable vocabulary already. So I choose less common words most times, from books or articles I read, from vocabulary lists made for those who are studying for language tests (such as TOEFL, IELTS, etc). Sometimes a student proposes a word he has come across and believe it fit for the bank. There’s no rule for the choice of the words that go into the bank, really. Sometimes it’s just because I saw it being used beautifully 🙂


How do I present these words? To tell you the truth, after I explain the “project” in the first day of class, and do it for a couple of classes after that, the students are the ones who ask for the new word as soon as they come into the classroom. (Who says students aren’t eager to learn??). But in those first classes – or when they don’t ask – I try to vary the way I present the words. Sometimes I am traditional and just add the word to the list, other I use it in a sentence I ask them – knowing only too well at least one of them will raise their hand and say “Teacher what does THAT mean?”, it varies. Then after they see the new word, I ask if any of them has ever heard it or know what it means. If they do, they give a definition for it and then I ask if anybody can use it in a sentence. If they’ve never heard it I try to elicit from them what function the word has (Is it a verb? An adjective? An adverb? Why do you think so?), if they think the word has a positive or negative connotation and why they think that way.

This semester's Vocabulary Bank Poster



The best thing about this ongoing project is to see the students using the words, adding them to their vocabulary, having fun while doing it, motivating each other to use, cheering each other when a friend uses one of the words. Or when a student comes to class and says he/she saw the word being used in a film, book or in the internet. And we even created a game with the vocab bank this semester – which was a fun class, with students fired up and using language (and the words!) to negotiate.



The second idea I’m sharing here can be used with many levels and groups. I play a little game as a warmer with my groups sometimes, to help students establish relationships between words that have the same root and to expand their vocabulary with words the students themselves have in their repertoire. The students sit in a circle and I start by writing one or more words on the center of the board. Then I hand the marker to one of the students and he/she has to go to the board and add a word that has the same root of one of the words, making a word web. For example, if the initial word is photo, students can come up with photographer, photograph, photographic, photogenic, etc). The first students hands the marker to the next one and it goes on until nobody can add another word to the webs on the board. It a simple, easy activity, and the teacher can choose the initial words according to what is being / has been taught in class.


On a final note, I’d just like to mention a vocabulary game that I keep at hand. I have a Boggle in my cabinet, in the classroom. And I use it in many ways:  as a filler for those final minutes of class when you have done everything you set out to; as a fun activity to unwind after a more boring class; when students ask for it (some of them become quite hooked on it, as you can see on the picture below :-)) or as a warmer, in the beginning of class. I usually have them sit in a circle around the boggle and when the time is up, the students take turns saying the words they came up with. They have to know the meaning of all the words they say, and sometimes I ask them to say what it means. Most times we do it as a competition, with students earning points for every word they come up with – only words with 3 or more letters (for the points we have a system that awards 1 point for a 3-letter word, 2 points for a 4-letter word, 3 for a 5-letter word and so on). It’s a great game to have at hand!

Me and my High Intermediate 4 students with their favorite word game!



As usual, I’d love to hear your ideas. How you teach vocabulary. And I can bet Emma would happily include any other ideas to her challenge! 🙂



18 comments on “I Propose a Vocabulary Bank – Another Challenge!

  1. Hi Ceci,

    You always come up with excellent ideas! Congratulations! I really liked both of your ideas. I usually use a Vocabulary Tree, which I am explaining how it works on http://kalinago.blogspot.com/2010/12/luciana-podschuns-vocabulary-tree.html from Karenne Sylvester this week. It works pretty well for all levels specially for beginners.

    I also like to list on the board the words my students learned from the previous lesson, then I ask them to build up a story using all of them. Each student uses a different word continuing the story. Sometimes we have so much because of the funny end it has.:-)

    Luciana Podschun

    • Hi Lu!!!

      I loved you vocabulary tree as well – thanks for sharing that link. You should really consider having your own blog, you always have great things to share. And the idea of making up a story with vocabulary from the previous class is the kind I like: simple and effective (besides being fun!).

      I always like having fun, especially when reviewing the vocabulary. I think if we do it right it makes learning more natural – and effective!



  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sarah Feather. Sarah Feather said: RT @m_yam: @cecilialcoelho My pleasure. I love your vocabulary bank http://bit.ly/eGLMc0 !! […]

  3. seburnt says:

    Hi Cecilia,
    Your ideas on how you teach vocabulary is an interesting read. One sentence in your post stuck out at me: “The student needs to see the words in context, being used and they have to use it themselves, to really learn it.”

    Some of my colleagues have an ongoing debate over the purpose of the vocabulary we teach: Is the goal of teaching vocabulary always to produce it accurately? Is that the proof that they’ve really learned it?

    Usually for skills and systems, the obvious answer would be yes. But depending on its context (university-level texts) and frequency (Oxford 3000 vs AWL vs context-specific), we have this debate.

    I think I’ll write more on my own blog.

    • Hi Tyson,

      You raise some very interesting points… For me (and maybe it has something to do with my context, mostly late teens who are fairly fluent in English, who come twice a week for 1h15m each time) the goal of teaching vocabulary IS to have them use it effectively. I am not sure I’d use accurately. What does using some vocabulary accurately mean? I prefer effectively, or appropriately, because what I aim at is to have students use the vocabulary we go over in class so that it serves its purpose. Am I making any sense? They have to know when, how to use the words, to use them in the sense they want, to accurately say what they want. That is evidence they have learned. At least it’s the evidence I need 🙂

      Maybe in a university context (or a business one) it is more important for the students to learn context-specific lexis.

      I really enjoyed reading your post (http://coursetree.ca/blog/?p=584). I love the part where you talk about showing the students their knowledge gaps, forcing them to think out of the box, to see the other possibilities.

      I am not sure I would use the memorization technique with my students, but it seems like a very effective way to teach your Chinese students – it’s probably something closer to techniques/strategies they use when learning their own language.

      I love it when a post makes us reflect to a point we feel about writing a post to better develop the ideas. Am flattered and happy this post (and other from Emma’s vocabulary challenge) did that for you 🙂

  4. DaveDodgson says:

    Hi Cecilia,

    I think the most important thing with having some system of introducing vocabulary is applying it consistently and stickinmg with it, which you’ve clearly done with your vocab bank. All too often I’ve seen teachers try such ideas and abandon/forget about them within a few weeks. It’s great that your class took to it so well that they started to ask what the new word would be.

    Do you ever find that they try too hard to use one of the words and end up making an unnatural sentence? You know, something like “Sorry teacher but my impeccable, meticulously prepared homework was rashly left at home. I was oblivious to the fact that it was lying innate on my table and not in my bag. Please let your empathy prevail and be lenient on my misdemeanour.” :p

    Sorry for being a nuisance. 😉

    • Hi Dave,

      You were certainly not a nuisance!!! You are right on target when you say some students push a bit to far, stretch the meaning/function/register of the words. You’d have a good laugh if I showed you some of the things I’ve collected. But I always stress the importance of doing it in a natural way, and that I do not consider if it’s a stretch.

      You would get an extra point for that sentence though – VERY impressive! LOL! Thanks for dropping your 2 cents. 🙂

  5. […] I Propose a Vocabulary Bank – Another Challenge! « Box of Chocolates […]

  6. […] Week Vocabulary Blogging Challenge“.  It and a couple of responses by Cecilia Coelho (“I Propose a Vocabulary Bank“) and Vicky Loras (“Word of the Week“) inspired some contemplation on teaching […]

  7. As a teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing, I have “volumes” to say about vocabulary acquisition! But the most exciting method is one I learned recently and has had an INCREDIBLY positive impact on acquisition of vocabulary in my classroom this year! And the beauty of it is that it is versatile and can be adapted to the needs of different learners and classroom settings! The program is called YALP and we use its ” 10 minute sessions”.

    Here’s the link to the original program. I’ve adapted it to suit my classroom. So simple to use and the best part is that students can teach other students, even the really weak ones!


    • Hi Naomi,

      Thanks for sharing that link – the 10MS seems very interesting. It sure seems to be working for your students, so that’s great! I’d de interested to learn how your strategies for teaching vocabulary to your students, considering the particular context they’re in. 🙂

      • Looking over my previous post I must apologize if I came across as “a pain” – it’s just that working on vocabulary and on “the flip side” of the coin, how to use the dictionary (when vocabulary is forgotten!) has been my daily “bread and butter” for the past 25 years.
        I’ve explained how we use the 10 minute system on my blog
        (2 recent posts)
        Also, under Visualising Pictures I have picture exercises for high-school pupils to practice the vocabulary of certain question types they must know.

        Happy Holiday!

      • Hi Naomi!

        You didn’t come out as a “pain”! You sounded as a very excited teacher, who’s found a wonderful way to help her teach vocebulary, and eager to share it with other teachers! And thanks for sharing the link to your blog. I read both posts and it sounds like a great method – especially because it’s ALL student centered. I love when we find activities like this!

        Happy holidays to you too!!! 🙂

  8. Thank you for your encouragement! it means a lot to me, especially as you are a teacher of English as a foreign language too!

  9. […] give special attention to building their vocabulary (I posted about some of these ideas before, the vocabulary bank and reviewing vocabulary); I work with sentence/paragraph structure; I do process writing; I give […]

  10. Lu Bodeman says:

    I loved the idea of a ‘Vocabulary Bank’ poster in the room, Ceci. Where I am currently working, I am hoping the poster will be allowed to ‘stay’, since we do not have our own work space and rooms are shared. I will certainly give it a try next semester. 🙂

    All too often students ask for a word when in discourse, but forget it by the time they have pronounced the end of the sentence. Let’s face it: how many “how do you say…?” do they really care to know? This is quite a challenge for me still: getting them to fully acquire and expand on newly presented vocab.

    Dictionary work, as suggested by Naomi, is also a great idea, to get them used to ’embracing’ this tool as a means towards development. I need to do more of that.

    Boggle is such good fun, isn’t it? Teens of all ages enjoy it! 🙂 Nice one!

    Thanks for sharing.

  11. Katarina says:

    Oi, Cecilia!

    For the last 6 months, I’ve watched this same list you’ve shown on the attached picture, get longer and longer without understanding why. My TEP’s class was given in the same room you taught your High Intermediate 4 classes so every Tuesday and Thursday night I noticed the diference on the list. I had some idea that it had to do with vocabulary enrichment, but couldn’t figure out the how each word was been used in the classroom. Now, after reading this wonderful blog, I became aware. What a nice idea! I am glad I had the chance to learn about your blog and read a little bit about you and your writings. No wonder this blog is so amazing. You are really (trully) a Box of Chocolates! Parabens!


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