vocabulary lists

Linguist David Wilkins wrote in 1972: “Without grammar little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed”.

Memorizing vocabulary is paramount to language competence and keeping vocabulary lists is a good way to consolidate it and provide spaced encounters and repetition. In this post, I will try to give you a few tips on how to keep vocabulary lists that you may want to share with your students.

I am going to use a reading passage as a source for vocabulary (click on the image for the full article on the New York Times Magazine).


Let’s take a look at the first paragrapah. There is plenty of learning material for Upper-Intermediate learners already (a large piece of dough, standing on the stool, scattered about, concentrating intently.)

picture that I keepNot so good

This is what most students would typically do…


…which is obviously better than doing nothing about the newly acquired vocabulary. However, it isn’t helpful towards actually using the words. Would a teacher say “listen to me intently”? Not a very likely use of the word in that situation.

Much better

Here is a much better way of keeping these two words in a vocabulary list:


Students can use a dictionary (I used Wordreference on the Internet) and take at least an exemplified use in a sentence from it. They can leave a gap for the key word and then write it on the right. As they revise vocabulary, they can cover the key words on the right with their hands or a piece of paper and try to retrieve them from the gapped examples. Not only will they be able to recall the word (whether it triggers a conscious or subconscious translation into their mother tongue in the process or not) but there will also be the added benefit of encountering the word with common collocates (to make [your own] dough, to concentrate intently), which will be highly beneficial when encountered in spoken language as these strings of words will be instantly recognised and decoded more easily. Students may also add a third column with a translation of their key words into their L1 as well.

The works!

And here is my proposal to revolutionize the way students collect and revise vocabulary. It requires some tech-knowledge but not much. It also requires investing a little bit of time to look for examples on the Internet but this is time well spent as it will help students to effectively study those words in the process and definitely the rewards when revising them are amazing.

First they need to create a table on a word processing programme, like Microsoft Word. If they are familiar with Google Docs, this platform will be much better as the document will be available from an Internet connecting device anywhere. This table will contain four columns and as many rows as they wish. They can create a table with four columns and ten rows, for instance and then copy and paste this blank table onto many different pages.

In the first column they will be typing examples of the words in sentences. They can grab an example from an online dictionary and copy and paste it and replace the key word with a dotted line.

The second column features the key words. First they can type the word (“dough”). They can access an online dictionary, like Wordreference, look up the word and then copy the link generated in the browser textbox at the top of the screen (for “dough” on Wordreference this will be http://www.wordreference.com/definition/dough) and then hyperlink the word “dough” with the copied link. The 37-second video at the end of this blog post will show you how to do this very clearly.

Next column is for real examples of the key words on Twitter. The students can go on Twitter and look for “dough” or expected combinations, such as “cookie dough” or “made my own dough”. It is essential to use inverted commas if we want to look for tweets showing those exact phrases. The process of hyperlinking is the same as in the previous step. The beauty of these hyperlinks to Twitter is that everytime we click on the link we will be presented with the newly generated tweets displayed at the top of the screen. Brand new examples of authentic language transactions illustrating common collocations and offering plenty of scope for looking at co-text (view Leo Selivan’s article In Context or with Co-Text for information on co-text).

Finally, the last column can contain translations of the key words into the students’ L1.  The table will look like the featured image at the top rather than the table below (for some reason, it won’t display properly here). However, if you click on the hyperlinked words (the ones in blue), you will be taken to the entries on Wordreference and the tweets on Twitter.

 We made our own … for apple pie.  dough  – dough

cookie dough

made my own dough

 David concentrated … as he tried to solve the problem.  intently  – intently

gazing intently

how intently he was…


The students will undoubtedly benefit from accessing the vocabulary in different ways. They can just look at the last column and then try to recall the word in English or look at the first column and try to guess the missing word and then check out the word in the dictionary (Wordrefence also includes an audio recording with the pronunciation). They can also read real examples on Twitter (and also benefit from microreading). In addition, they can add new entries with different uses of the words and hyperlink them to tweets.

The icing on the cake is to do this on a spreadsheet, like Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets. Then one can arrange the words alphabetically, by difficulty level, by weeks, etc.

And this is the 37-second video that shows you how to hyperlink.


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