Peculiarities of teaching english vocabulary to secondary school students

Vocabulary has a special significance for children learning a new language. It is an element that links the four skills of language like listening, speaking, reading and writing altogether. Vocabulary is one of the most important aspects of the foreign language teaching and learning. The word is a recognizable linguistic unit for children in their first language and so they will notice words in the new language. Often children are taught words in the new language by showing them objects that they can see and touch, and that have single word labels in the first language. From their earliest lessons, children who are “young learners” are encouraged to think of the new language as a set of words.

First, it is necessary to give the definition to the notion “young learners”. The term covers a wide age range. This can be anybody from the age of three to the age of eighteen. There is a big difference between what a three-year-old child can do and what a child of fifteen can do. We should consider their development too. Some children develop faster, others need more time. Teaching young learners requires the knowledge of all the differences in their development. Understanding these differences can help a teacher to develop methods and a system of work to be used in the process of teaching. Of course, it is not possible to say that every child of nine will know this and that. But it is possible to pick out some characteristics which a teacher should know and should be aware of.

Teaching a foreign language to children is different from teaching adults. Some differences are obvious: children are often more enthusiastic and lively as learners. They want to please the teacher rather than their peer group. They will have a go at an activity even when they don’t quite understand why or how. However, they also lose interest more quickly and are less able to keep themselves motivated on tasks they find difficult. Children often seem less embarrassed than adults at talking in a new language, and their lack of inhibition seems to help them get a more native-like accent [1, 34].

Young learners are grateful when someone invests time in them. The results are seen quite easily and of course teachers demand this kind of satisfaction. These children still want to learn something new. When they know it, they are happy to present it and they feel more important. It is necessary to point out some characteristics of this age group:

  • They are already very good at interpreting meaning without necessarily understanding the individual words.
  • They already have great skills in using limited language creatively.
  • They frequently learn indirectly rather than directly.
  • They take great pleasure in finding and creating fun in which they do.
  • They have a ready imagination and use it a lot.
  • They are happy when they can play.
  • They love to share their experiences.
  • They love when people pay attention to them and their talking.
  • They are able to talk about what they are doing.
  • They can think, argue, discuss and they are able to interact with both children and adults.
  • They are able to concentrate for some period of time.

-They understand situations and through situations – they use several senses.

-They are able to use language skills not even realizing them.

-They do not realize what is fact and what is fiction sometimes.

  • They want to learn and are happy when they learn something, then they have to share it with somebody and they are proud that they learnt something, they can show off a little bit.
  • Often they “teach” each other.
  • They love to be praised for what they have done and learnt, this is very important fact to keep their motivation.
  • Very often they pretend they understand everything and they know everything.

George Stocker gives the following tips for teaching English to children:

  1. Involve children in hands-on activities. Children's minds are incredibly open and they learn by absorbing ideas and concepts directly. Children need to be actively involved. Get students up and out of their chairs and moving around. Sing songs, and play games.
  2. Avoid talking for long periods as the energy level of the classroom drops lower and lower. Explain an activity quickly and then go to it. Keep the energy moving! If the planned activity is a flop, move on. Keep a few extra activities handy for this purpose. Children need lot so f stimulation all the time.
  3. Children learn by interacting with each other and with the teacher. Try to talk to each child individually each class. Whenever possible, have children working in groups and in pairs.
  4. Review. New information is absorbed and has meaning when it is related to information students have already learned. Quickly review new concepts at the beginning of each class.
  5. Encourage students to correct themselves and other students. Self correction or self-regulation is an important part of learning. Students should be encouraged to ask, "How am I doing?" and "Am I doing this right?" in an open and non-judgmental environment. Children raised in authoritative cultures may need additional re-enforcement.
  6. Use what is learned in different contexts. The more contexts used the better, and the more concrete and “real life” the contexts the better. Make it real for students by talking about them and their lives.
  7. Praise. Encourage and build students up in a natural way. Learning occurs when students are motivated and feel good about themselves [2, 36].

It is very important to choose the right way of teaching English for children. In case of children as language learners, successful lessons and activities are those that are tuned to the learning needs of pupils, rather than to the demands of the text-book unit, or to the interests of the teacher. The teacher definitely has to be very sensitive to the children’s needs and has to prepare the lessons well. The teacher should avoid a stereotype; the lessons have to be creative and lively. Otherwise, this could have bad consequences for the learners’ further improvement in the language.

Teaching secondary school students is different from teaching adults. Young learners tend to change their mood every other minute, and they find it extremely difficult to sit still. On the other hand, they show a greater motivation than adults do to do things that appeal to them. Since it is almost impossible to cater to the interests of a number of young individuals, the teacher has to be inventive in selecting interesting activities, and must provide a great variety of them.

Research on vocabulary instruction indicated that children learn most of their vocabulary indirectly by engaging daily in oral language, listening to adults read to them, and reading extensively. Moreover, vocabulary could be taught directly; this can be done by introducing specific words before reading, providing opportunities for active engagement with new words, and repeating exposure to the vocabulary in many contexts.

Vocabulary development involves children’s coming to understand unfamiliar words and being able to use them appropriately. It also involves teachers’ helping them to model how to use a variety of strategies. Besides this, the role of the teacher is to support and to mediate.

In case of teaching vocabulary to secondary school students, teacher supports learning process and mediates what next it is the child can learn; this has applications in both lesson planning and in how teachers talk to pupils minute by minute.

Good support is tuned to the needs of the child and adjusted as the child became more competent. Wood (1998) suggests that teachers can scaffold children’s learning in various ways:

  • Teachers can help secondary school students to attend to what is relevant by suggesting, praising the significant, and providing focusing activities.
  • Teachers can help secondary school students to adopt useful strategies by encouraging rehearsal and by being explicit about organization.
  • Teachers can help secondary school students to remember the whole task and goals by reminding, modeling, and by providing part-whole activities.

The notion of helping secondary school students attend to what is important will recur in various topics. In directing attention and in remembering the whole tasks and goals on behalf of the learner, the teacher is doing what children are not able to do for themselves. When they focus on some parts of a task or the language, they want to use, secondary school students may not be able to keep in mind the larger task or communicative aim because of limits to their antinational capacity. Between them, teacher and students manage the whole task, but the way in which the parts and aspects are divided up varies with age and experience. The teacher does most of the managing of joint engagement on a task.

The central characteristics of secondary school students’ foreign language learning lie in the amount and type of exposure to the language: there will be very little experience of the language outside the classroom, and encounters with the language will be through several hours of teaching in a school week. In the case of a global language like English, however, even very young children will encounter the language in use on video, TV, computers and film. What they might not be exposed to is “street” use, i.e. people using the language for everyday life purposes all around them. In foreign language teaching, there is a responsibility on the teacher to provide exposure to the language and to provide opportunities for learning through classroom activities [3, 11-12].

Children are generally less able to give selective and prolonged attention to features of learning tasks than adults, and are more easily diverted and distracted by other pupils. When faced with talk in new language, they try to understand it in terms of the grammar and salient cues of their first language and pay particular attention to items of the vocabulary the second language that they are familiar with. These findings will not surprise experienced primary teachers, but they give further empirical support to the idea that teachers can help learners by focusing their attention on useful sources of information in the new language. So, directing attention is a key principle with many applications in the secondary school students’ classroom [4, 13].

The significant point in teaching vocabulary is the selection of words teachers want to teach. It is quite easy to teach concrete words at lower level and then become more abstract. Thus, teachers need to consider the frequency too. There is a choice which words to teach on the basis of frequency, how often the words are used by the speaker of the language. Especially with Pre-Intermediate secondary school students words that they are familiar with and they can stick to them should be taught. Very often words are taught according to themes and topics.

Nowadays all the course books are organized into themes and they provide vocabulary according to it. If there is e.g. a theme “Animals”, then words like naming animals, also where they live, what they eat etc. are expected. Words that have quite specific meaning should be avoided with preintermediate secondary school students.

Ur states that young learners need to be taught the form of the word, then grammar, collocations, meaning and word formation. In the form pronunciation and spelling should be mentioned. “The learner has to know what a word sounds like (its pronunciation) and what it looks like (its spelling)” [4, 60].

One of the popular and effective ways in which to teach a new vocabulary is the Presentation, Practice, and Production teaching method [5, 44].

Firstly, the teacher presents the new word, an event that involves the presentation of pronunciation and spelling, all in context.

Next the teacher allows the students to practice the new word in a controlled setting, making sure the learners have understood it properly.

The third is the production stage, where there is less-controlled practice and an informal assessment of learning whereby the students get chance to use the new word in an original way, to relate it to their knowledge and experiences.

These three stages help the learners to consolidate the new word in their mental vocabulary bank.

This method of presentation, practice and production is an approach that follows a definite sequence:

  1. The teacher presents the new vocabulary and explains the form of the language in a meaningful context.
  2. The students practice this new vocabulary through controlled activities such as worksheets or question and answer activities.
  3. The students use or produce what they have learned in a communicative activity such as a role-play, communication game, or question and answer session.

Each stage of the Presentation, Practice and Production lesson must be planned well to be effective. Firstly, the teacher should consider how many words should be presented during the lesson. This is closely connected with several factors:

  • the level of the pupils – beginners, intermediate, etc.
  • their familiarity with the words – have they come across these words or are they completely new?
  • words difficulty – are the words abstract, are they easily pronounced, can similar words be found in the learner’s native language, etc.?
  • can the words be easily demonstrated?
  • shall the teacher use regalia or anything that the pupils can become familiar with?
  • can pictures be used to elicit vocabulary?

After the teacher chooses what items to teach, he or she should follow certain guidelines. However, the Presentation, Practice, and Production method is a highly flexible approach to teaching and there are many different activities a teacher can employ for each stage.

Presentation can include mime, drawing, audio. In fact, it is a good idea to try to engage with different sense of the students to get across the meaning of the new word. It is also important to make sure that students have understood the new word before getting them to move on to practice it. It is often fun and highly effective for students to play games to practice their new vocabulary and to produce it.

A number of techniques can be adapted to present new vocabulary items. Some techniques are more popular and more often used than others are. Also it is up to the teacher which techniques he or she decides to use but always the effectiveness of teaching should be considered. Moreover, of course there are techniques that teachers try to avoid.

There are techniques that are particularly appropriate types of words – for example, actions can be explained through pantomime. Another factor that is worth considering is the age of the learners. Younger ones react quite well when teachers show them concrete illustrations, the older ones can manage pretty well abstract explanations or even definitions.

The presentation of new vocabulary can be classified for example according to verbal and visual techniques.

Among visual techniques, teachers can find pictures flashcards, photographs and magazine pictures, wall charts, posters, blackboard drawings, word pictures, several realia that teachers can hold up or point to.

Mime, action and gestures can be used especially for explaining actions and times. Learners can label pictures or objects or perform an action.

Verbal techniques consist of using illustrative situations, descriptions, synonyms and antonyms, collocations, scales, and using various forms of definition: for example, definition by demonstration (visual definition), definition by abstraction, contextual definitions, and definition by translation. Explanation can become extremely difficult especially with beginner levels [5, 55].

Another way that can be used is translation. This technique is not used much recently, even though it is quick and easy but can be very discouraging for learners. They cannot interact with the words. Words can be organized into sets, subclasses and subcategories often aided by visual presentation. Translation is one of the traditional ways of explaining the meaning of words. It could be done by the teacher or with using a dictionary. It has its advantages but also disadvantages. Using this technique, learners can learn how to use dictionaries. Most of the young learners have never used a dictionary before so it is a need to teach them to use dictionaries first. They have to be told there are two parts – EnglishRussian (Kazakh) and Russian (Kazakh)English. Then they have to be told about the alphabetical order and about other things they can find there. It is considered good with young learners to use both picture dictionaries and classical dictionaries where students find the meaning. Teachers can prepare quite interesting lesson where the learners learn how to use dictionaries [6, 64].

Practice is a vital part of learning new elements of a language. In order to help students to get practice using their new vocabulary, teachers need to come up with ideas for activities during which students get opportunity to use their new words alongside their existing knowledge. These activities could include devising written and spoken roleplays, writing letters, taking part in question and answer session with a partner, group questions, and playing games.

Learning can be absorbed really well. Quite often the learners do not realize they are learning. Fun and games should have an important role in the children’s education. Teachers need to have enjoyable games ready to help students practice their newly acquired language. Learning through playing games can help to consolidate a student’s knowledge. The memory is stimulated in a fun way and the words become embedded in the student mind much more easily than if words are listed and simply repeated by drilling. It is evident that young learners learn through play much easier and they enjoy it more. This is quite a natural way for them to learn. They play and love to play. In playing together teachers can see elements of interaction and during interaction the learners develop their language skills.

The production stage of the lesson allows for the proper assessment of student development, where the teacher can discover just how much the students have learned. There are some ideas for activities for the production stage of a lesson:

  • dialogues, dramas and role plays;
  • giving map directions;
  • question and answer (in groups/pairs);
  • surveys and questionnaires;
  • continue the story;
  • summarizing a story;
  • correct mistakes in the text;
  • crosswords;
  • gap fill exercises;
  • matching the beginnings and the ends of words together;
  • matching pictures to words;
  • using antonyms, and other activities.

It is up to the teacher mostly to choose the right activity. This is not easy and teachers should spend really quality time to think about this. It needs to be considered well. Some language activities can stir a class. Thinking about the positive way of the word “stir”, it means these activities will wake up the class, warm them up. Of course, there are activities that have the opposite effect. They may seem to settle the pupils. Before the lesson is planned, there should be considered what kind of activities should be chosen knowing the effect of them.

Nowadays, teachers can come across many language teaching ideas and techniques. There are many of them in circulation that it is quite easy to get carried away. Teachers draw pictures, cut paper into small pieces, draw flashcards, make crosswords etc. They want to be flexible, creative, sensible, They want to praise the children as much as possible but on the other hand they want to be realistic and, very honestly, their expectations are sometimes very high. However, sometimes something goes wrong. Language classrooms are noisy; there are at least fifteen pupils – usually even more.

The classes with high number of students put exceptional demands on teacher’s preparation for the lesson and there is obviously a requirement of larger classrooms too. Quite often the children are not “angels”. Teachers encourage them to interact, be active, creative, and independent. This of course leads to the fact the children will become silly and they will really enjoy it. There are teachers who would never do such activities again. Moreover, their lessons then turn to be boring. “We need to be realistic in our expectations of ourselves and the learners. ... It does not mean, for example, we should reject the idea of pairwork because our classes are big, not very able, or poorly motivated. On the contrary, being realistic should mean taking realities into account in such a way that good things can still happen” [7, 47].

After every lesson, teachers should ask themselves whether the lesson was productive or unproductive and they should go back to their objectives and aims. Teachers should evaluate the lesson themselves. They should not forget context developing activities. “If we are to help the learners acquire independent second language lexicons, we need to highlight the importance of the context in which the language naturally occurs. Once the idea of context playing a decisive role in the choice of language is firmly established, we can begin to introduce varieties of the language used in different contexts. Many course-books provide learners with plenty of opportunities to develop their own context for the language presented, for example activities like “odd one out, filling-in exercises, dialogues” etc” [8, 14].

Another factor that teachers should bear in their minds is to keep the lessons simple. They often try to make our lessons varied. This is good but can lead to misunderstanding. The lesson can be varied by doing many activities on different topics. However, this can mean teachers may produce a lesson, which is a disaster, too many activities, and changing the activities all the time can destroy the lesson well. The children’s minds have to jump from one topic to another with not much time to let things sink in effectively. The important things that teachers should realize are the following:

  • The teacher will not help the children to develop their capacity to concentrate if he or she jumps inconsequentially from one topic to the next.
  • There are ways of varying the oral work so that it is making different demands on the children and therefore feels different even when the topic remains the same.

Variation does not only mean changing the topics and materials but also the change of work teachers do. Variation comes in the forms of activity. Using different methods and ways of teaching should become a regular part of the lessons. Teachers can re-use materials all the time, they can come up with new things but always the activities should be simple in principle. Then they can transfer to different topics and situations. “Because you use them regularly you will quickly get to know the best way to set them up with your classes. Because the classes know them, they will take to them easily when they appear.... They can become truly the core of your language teaching” [9, 38].

When teaching young learners, the teacher has to be strong at the knowledge but also needs to connect with the children. They need to feel the teacher likes them and wants to teach them something new. In case of teaching young learners, the results are seen easily and the learners at this age are very grateful when someone invests time in them. The teacher has to know his or her pupils. It is important to understand their needs, their expectations with which each child comes to the lessons, also ways how to motivate them and last but not least their learning style. All this the teacher is learning while working with the learners. The teachers get to know their families, their hobbies and interests and just basic information about the learners. Also, especially nowadays, teachers have to consider the learning disabilities too. There are more and more children with these problems and teachers need to help them to enjoy the lessons and help them to learn too. The teacher needs to understand their differences, their cultural and family background etc. Understanding the personality of a young learner plays an important role in effective teaching.



  1. Colin Campbell, Hanna Kryszewska. Learner-Based Teaching // Resource Books for Teachers. Oxford UniversityPress. 2008, 126 p.
  2. Jill Hadfield, Charles Hadfield. Presenting New Language // Oxford Basics. Oxford University Press. 2003, 70 p.
  3. Cameron, Lynn. Teaching Languages to Young Learners. Cambridge University Press. 2002,
  4. Ur, Penny, Marion Williams, and Tony Wright. A Course in Language Teaching: Practice and Theory. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  5. Judie Haynes. Vocabulary Instruction for English Language Learners. Essential teacher, 2008.
  6. Kari Miller. EFL Vocabulary Teaching Tips. Direct Teaching Activities for Second Language Learners, 2007.
  7. Cohen, A. D. Strategies in learning and using a second language. London: Longman, 1998.
  8. Ellis, N. C. Vocabulary acquisition: Word structure, collocation, word-class, and meaning. Vocabulary: Description, acquisition and pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  9. Haines S. Projects for the EFL Classroom: Resource materials for teachers. – Waltonon-Thames: Nelson, 1991.
Year: 2012
City: Oskemen
Category: Philology