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Concourse 2

Teaching and remembering lexis


You'd be wise to work through the guides to meaning and the guide to lexical relationships before you follow this guide.


Other languages

Much is made of things like false friends and the fact that your learners' first languages may interfere with their ability to acquire lexis in English.  To an extent, that is true.  For learners with an Indo-European language spoken in Europe or ex-European colonies in other continents (i.e., excluding the Indo-Iranian branch), however, there are many more true friends than false.

Cognate words

cognate words

Words which have a common origin and, therefore, look, sound and mean alike are called cognates (from the Latin cognatus (blood relation)).
True and false friends are often cognate words.  For example, the English word night has cognates in French (nuit), German (Nacht), Dutch (nacht), Swedish (nat), Polish (noc), Spanish (noche) and so on and these are all true friends because meaning is unchanged.


True friends

Briefly, the list of languages with many true friends will include:

  1. The Italic languages: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian etc.
    There are many words, especially those of Latin, Greek or Norman-French origin which will be recognisable in English to speakers of these languages.  These particularly occur in technical and 'intellectual' areas but also include large numbers of very common words.
    Speakers of these languages sometimes show a tendency to select familiar, cognate words rather than the more stylistically appropriate English words so we get
        I entered the house and extinguished the fire
    instead of
        I went in and put the fire out
    which is also neatly avoiding the phrasal verb, of course.
  2. Germanic languages fall into two categories with similar vocabularies (and much else).  North Germanic or Scandinavian languages and West Germanic languages which include English, Dutch and German as well as a host of small dialects and languages.
    There are many thousands of cognate words across these languages.  Many of these words refer to some of the most basic concepts such as land, day, hand, old, young, many, good, glass, gold etc.  The languages also share scientific and 'scholarly' terms.
  3. Slavic languages exhibit far fewer recognisable cognate words (although there are, in fact, very many hidden by orthographic and phonological changes over the centuries).  Recognisable words in English for speakers of these languages will mainly be scientific and scholarly terms of the sort shared by other European languages.  These languages are also rich in borrowings from English.

Other languages (i.e., most of them) will not exhibit any significant overlap in lexemes.  The implication is clear: learners from most language backgrounds will encounter significantly more difficulty acquiring English words than their more fortunate European colleagues.  They will need more time, more recycling and more patience.

sense and sensibility

False friends

This is not the place to list false friends for all the languages in the world.  There are numerous websites that will do that for specific languages.  Another good source is The Cambridge International Dictionary of English.

It is, however, worth noting that false friends come in a range of falseness.  Many are only false friends in certain circumstances.  This includes words which are restricted to some contexts in certain languages, e.g., angst in English is borrowed from the German word meaning anxiety but only used in psychological senses.
It is often noted, for example, that the English word sensitive is problematic for speakers of many European languages because of confusion with a word similar to sensible in those languages.  However, sensibility is used in English in the same way and refers to sensitivity of feeling.  That's how Jane Austen used it, incidentally.
The English sensibility is rendered in German as Sensibilität but the English word sensitive may be translated as sensibel.  For example, the two words sensitive and sensibility are translated in French as sensible and sensibilité, in Spanish as sensible and sensibilidad and in Italian as sensibile and sensibilità.
There is a separate guide to cognates and false friends on this site, linked at the end of this guide.
There are also some exercises on this site concerning false friends in the section for learners.  Click here to go there.


Storing and remembering words

You are going to see three sets of pictures.  For each, write down a one-word description.
Click when you are ready.


Aids to memory

Now you are going to look at some words and try to remember them.  Here's what to do:

  1. Show the words by clicking on the open eye symbol: eyeopen
  2. Look at the words for no more than 10 seconds
  3. Click on the closed eye symbol eye closed and try to write as many as you can remember.

OK?  Here's Set 1

Click when ready: eyeopen

Click eye closed after 10 seconds and write the words.

Set 2

eye closed

Set 3

eye closed

Set 4

eye closed

In theory, this task should have been getting easier as you went along.  Why should that be?
Set 1 contained nonsense words and they are harder to remember because you have no meaning to attach to them.
Moral: we all need meaning to help us recall words.  This is what your students have to do if you don't make meaning clear.
Set 2 contained real words but with no meaning connections between them.
Moral: disconnected words are difficult to remember.
Set 3 contained a set of hyponyms for hat.
Moral: words connected to each other because they fall in the same set are easier to recall.
Set 4 was a short narrative with lexis embedded in it.
Moral: words which appear in some kind of narrative are easy to recall because of the context.


What does it mean to know a word?

That sounds an easy question but, apart from the simple denotational meaning of a word, what else do we need to know about it to be sure that we can deploy it accurately?
You have probably already thought of any connotation the word may have in certain cultures and for certain people.  What else?  When you have made some notes, click to compare your list with this one.


Choosing what lexis to teach

When you are deciding what to teach in terms of lexis, what factors do you take into account?
Make a list and click here.


Some ideas for teaching lexis

There's nothing earth-shattering here but this may remind you of some techniques and material types to use when the focus is on lexis.


Focus on collocation

Odd-one out:

Adjective – Noun Tall – person, mountain, tree, wall?
Torrential – rain, water, river, downpour, snow?
Rain – gentle, heavy, strong, hard, tough?
Problem – large, strong, difficult, big, heavy?
Verb – Noun Make / Do – homework, money, a mistake, an effort?
Catch – cold, meaning, idea, bus, lift?
Path – wind, turn, twist, coil, spiral, twirl?
Wage – pay, earn, settle, gain, give, achieve?

Word grids.  Students work with dictionaries and/or a text to put a X in the right boxes:

  frozen food your heart out relationships into tears sugar ice chocolate
thaw X              

Matchers.  Students draw the lines and end up with something like this:


Gap fills.  Students work together to see what can naturally go in the gaps:

We …………… the …………… path up the mountain until we …………… the summit.
The view was quite …………… and we …………… for over an hour just …………… it.

Selections.  Students choose the right collocations:

The tasteless / foul / bright hotel was in a dirty / unclean / polluted alley.
The receptionist was so abusive / cruel / spiteful that we felt undesirable / unwelcome / objectionable from the outset.


Focus on inferring (not guessing) the meaning from context

In these examples, the assumed unknown word is in red.

There’s a really noisy bash going on next door.  The music is far too loud.

Students work together to decide:

  1. What kind of word is it? (a noun)
  2. What describes it? (noisy)
  3. Where do you find it? (in houses)

So it must be a kind of gathering.

He has an unpleasantly raucous voice.  It's like a drill.
  1. What kind of word is it? (adjective)
  2. Is it positive or negative? (negative [unpleasant])
  3. What else could it describe? (machine noises, animal calls, a party etc.)

So it must mean unpleasant to listen to.

There's a really noisy party taking place next door.
  1. What kind of word is it? (verb)
  2. What does it? (a party)
  3. What else could do it? (any kind of event)

So it must mean happen.

The disco was so deafeningly loud it made my head ache.
  1. What kind of words are they? (adverb + adjective)
  2. Is it a positive or negative thing? (negative [it made my head ache])
  3. What else could they describe? (machines, all noises, discos etc.)

So it must mean extremely loud.


Focus on lexical field

Add to the list
nurse, doctor, medicine, hospital, ambulance, ward, emergency, ...
Spot the odd one(s) out
wet, soaked, humid, drenched, flooded, damp, rainy
Match the verb to the noun
builder, nurse, teacher, detective
treat, construct, arrest, prepare
Divide the list into 2 / 3 / 4 etc.
sweets, sugar, hammers, chocolates, nails, eggs, saws, newspapers, bacon, screwdrivers, glue, paint

Focus on dealing with lexis in texts

Chasing down lexical chains
Find all the words in the text that describe people
Find all the words connected to medicine
Find three words which tell you he was happy
Provide the definition and get the learners to find the words
Find a word which means very unhappy
Find a word which means a type of house

Some lighter activities

In the manner of
Prepare cards with instructions such as Open the box extremely carefully, Open the parcel frantically
Students mime to each other and try to guess the adverb.
One student goes in the hot seat and tries to guess the category from the example.  E.g., "Things that are hot".  Students in the team call out examples of such things: the sun, a cooker, a cigarette, a car's engine, someone with a fever etc.  Other examples: "Things that are sold in cans", "Things that are yellow", "Things that break easily".
One student starts a drawing on the board and the team members guess the word as soon as they can.  There are endless variations on this.

If you have recently taught a successful lesson in this area or have other ideas to share, why not send the materials to ELT ConcourseClick here to see how.

Related guides
lexis the obvious first place to start with considerations of meaning
noticing for a guide to how this key learning strategy works and how it may be encouraged
cognates and false friends for the guide to some key ideas concerning lexis across languages
word formation for the guide to understanding affixation
inferencing for more on how learners may draw inferences
tense and aspect for a link to four guides to analysing tense and aspect beginning with a consideration of meaning

Campbell, GL, 1995, Concise Compendium of the World's Languages, London: Routledge
Proctor, P (Ed.), 1995, Cambridge International Dictionary of English, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Schmitt, N, 2000, Vocabulary in Language Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Swan, M and Smith, B (Eds), 2001, Learner English, 2nd Edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Other references for lexis and vocabulary:
French Allen, V, 1983, Techniques in Teaching Vocabulary, Oxford University Press
Gairns, R & Redman, S, 1986, Working with Words: A Guide to Teaching and Learning Vocabulary, Cambridge University Press
Hoey, M, 2006, Lexical Priming: A New Theory of Words and Language, London: Routledge
Lewis, M, 1997, Implementing the Lexical Approach, Brighton, UK: Language Teaching Publications
Lewis, M, 2002, The Lexical Approach, Thomson ELT
Lindstromberg, S & Boers, F, 2008, Teaching Chunks of Language: From Noticing to Remembering, Helbling Languages
McCarthy, M, 1990, Vocabulary, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Morgan, J & Rinvolucri, M, 1986, Vocabulary, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Schmitt, N & McCarthy, M, 1997, Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Thornbury, S, 2002, How to Teach Vocabulary, Harlow: Longman