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Vol. 19 [1] May 2011

Between the Keys logo

The Official Newsletter of the Materials Writers, a JALT Special Interest Group

How to Control Vocabulary Input to Aid Student Fluency and Vocabulary Acquisition

honishjp at


Part one of this paper looked at the vocabulary level ability necessary for learner comprehension of an extended reading text, and how to lexically profile a text. Part two offers ideas on how to implement vocabulary components into a course, with suggestions on how to present texts in a template and build sub-skills that help deal with vocabulary and meaning within a text. It also offers basic ideas for assessment and grading. What should be remembered is that these ideas are not part of a vocabulary course but are in fact meant to aid learners’ vocabulary development within their academic speaking class. You can get Figures 1, 3, 5 and 6 as a download as either a pdf or doc file.

Goal 1: Making a Template for Materials

It is necessary to present the target vocabulary from any adjusted text in an appropriate way so as to make tasks more comprehensible and to aid students in learning. Figure 1 shows how words from Nation’s (2008) 1,500-2,000 word range and Coxhead’s (2000) Academic Word List (AWL) have been targeted using an underlining and bolding system, thus making them salient within the text and suitable targets for activities. Figure 1 is an example template used in a first-year academic discussion course. The author decided that a suitable goal for learners would be to use adjusted texts to focus on the 1,500 – 2,000 word range. This would help to fill in some of the gaps in the learners’ vocabulary in this vital range, a gap that was identified during in-house vocabulary assessment. The template also to focuses on the AWL since being acquainted with the vocabulary items in both Nation’s word range and Coxhead’s AWL is crucial in understanding any extended texts (Hu and Nation, 2000). The author also felt that having such a focus would have a positive wash-back effect in other areas such as TOEFL gains. It can also be argued by any experienced language educator that such vocabulary is necessary for learners to enter into the academic professional discourse community as it is a strong foundation for the basic language they need, which will not only help their receptive skills but hopefully also enhance their productive output.

Text marking strategies are also worth implementing into course materials to encourage learners to engage more with texts. As shown in the example in Figure 1, in the left-hand column, learners are asked to write Facts, Opinions or Questions (F.O.Q.) about what they read. In the right-hand column, they are asked to note any other non-highlighted words that they felt required their attention. Later activities (not shown) also required learners to engage the text, form opinions, and to use other sub-skills such as attribution or paraphrasing. Another important consideration in the material development process is to lexically profile question prompts and instructions to make sure they are accessible to learners. Through experience, the author has found that question prompts that are loaded with several questions, or are generally unclear, undo all the hard work of lexically profiling the text.

Goal 2: Activities and Assessment Ideas

Vocabulary Cards

In order to help learners engage the vocabulary it was found to be beneficial for learners to make vocabulary cards that help them record, study, and review new English words from the homework reading texts. Following a trialing period, it was found that the cards should be small and portable, and hopefully implemented horizontally across the curriculum so as to recycle what learners are studying in other classes. Learners should be encouraged to add new words to their cards each week, to have them at hand, and to test themselves and each other often. The homework reading articles have bold and underlined words that are the focus of later assessments. The author has found that this helps ensure that some, although admittedly not all, of the basic 3,000 words necessary for 95% comprehension of extended reading texts are being addressed, and that a solid foundation is being built for later study. Thus, learners should be made aware of the relevance and importance of these words to their development as language learners and users.

It was also found to be beneficial to learners to be shown how to make ‘suitable’ vocabulary cards and what different kinds of recording strategies to use to help remember new words. Training in recording parts of speech, collocations, colligations, and example sentences using the target vocabulary or elements of pronunciation is both useful and worthwhile so that the task of making cards is a meaningful exercise. Figure 2 shows the basic layout and size for a vocabulary card. It was found to be worthwhile emphasizing the value in using 4 or 5 well-chosen vocabulary-recording strategies, which helped students notice and engage vocabulary in a variety of ways.

Figure 2: Example vocabulary card layout

front side
Word (word form): criticizing (adj.), criticizer (n.),
Word family: criticized (v-past.) criticizes (3rd per)
criticized (v-past.) criticizes (3rd per)
back side
Definition: to express dissatisfaction with somebody or something
Example sentence: He openly criticized them because they did not follow the plan.

Choosing Vocabulary

Before learners were able to make suitable vocabulary cards, it was also necessary for them to be trained on how to judge whether or not they need to make a vocabulary card for a word in the first place. Assuming that the learners already knew that they needed to focus specifically on the underlined and bolded words first, Figure 3 shows the type of instructions and methods that learners can use for doing this.

Vocabulary Grading

Making vocabulary a graded component is a necessity as it adds face validity to the task. Graded tasks signal to learners that the work should be taken seriously and that it will be checked (Nation, 2008). The author also found through trial and error that if such tasks are presented to learners as non-graded homework that will not be checked, then learners are less likely to take the task seriously or attempt it at all. Furthermore, it was found that grading acts not only as a reward mechanism for good work, but also a checking mechanism for both instructor and learner to monitor effort and progress, thus offering a positive washback effect on vocabulary development techniques and acquisition for both teachers and students.

Experience has also shown that examples of good and bad vocabulary cards should be provided so that a class or course standard is set. Without clear models, learners may not understand what expectation the teacher has of them or what different techniques are available to them for dealing with different vocabulary items. However, initially it was found to be difficult to objectively grade learners’ vocabulary cards as they are personal items and if written out diligently may be perfectly suited to the learner, even if the style is not to the instructors liking. Therefore, at best instructors can apply a holistic grade to these, but checking them and having a grade attached, makes the cards meaningful and the learners accountable. Figure 4 shows a possible point system for doing this, based on quantity and a basic quality check.

figure. 4. Grading criteria

There is a point system for the number of words you record and study. The more words you record, the higher your grade will be! But the vocabulary card must be carefully done and be useful.
Midterm Evaluation (Weeks 5-6)
not at all poor okay good excellent outstanding
0-7 words 8- 15 words 16-24 words 25-33 words 34-42 words 43+ words
Final Evaluation (Weeks 10-11)
0-15 words 16- 24 words 25-35 words 36-46 words 47-57 words 58+ words

Vocabulary Activities

It has also been found to be useful to integrate vocabulary activities into classroom activities. By allowing learners the chance to use and test each other in class, new vocabulary can be reactivated prior to any discussion tasks or assessments. This also allows learners to see where their vocabulary gaps are and to address them as necessary. Through trial and error, it was found that the best results for in-class vocabulary activities were obtained from the simplest approaches. These usually involved the learners using either their vocabulary cards or the marked texts to quiz each other. Two suggested methods are:

a) Learners challenge their partners by using the homework reading prints and vocabulary activity prompt print (figure. 5). Learners should, in principle, be able to answer any of the words because if they did not know the word, then they should have made a vocabulary card for it and studied the word (figure. 3). If they do not have a vocabulary card, then this suggests they have either chosen their vocabulary cards badly, or have been inattentive to the task. This awareness raiser is useful since it shows them their weaknesses and that they will also be missing potential points from vocabulary card grades. Furthermore it will also affect the students’ performance on the vocabulary quizzes.

b) Using the prompt print in figure. 5, students test partners by exchanging vocabulary cards and then asking any 2 questions from the prompt print. If a student is unable to answer any of the questions, then this indicates that they have not completed sufficient vocabulary study.

Vocabulary Quizzes

The final component that can be added is a checking mechanism in the form of vocabulary quizzes. The quizzes should only be made from the bolded and underlined words from the homework reading texts adding to the content validity of the quizzes. It was found that having graded quizzes in a course announced to the learners the need to study and develop their vocabulary seriously and that assessment acted as both a carrot and a stick, as learners were expected to find it challenging to receive a good grade, or lose valuable course points for not doing their vocabulary work diligently.

Figure 6 shows part of a simple testing method in which 20 highlighted vocabulary items from homework texts are used to challenge the learners in a vocabulary quiz. In this example, the instructor chooses 10 of the words from the 20 and then asks learners to write two responses per word. They can use various response techniques; for example, definition, example sentence, illustration, part of speech, collocation, etc. If there is more than one class taking the test, then the instructor can mix or chose different words for different classes.

It was found that one of the benefits of implementing vocabulary quizzes into the activities is that it acts as a deterrent to those learners who do not want to make vocabulary cards because of claims of knowing the words already. The quiz scores reflect the learner’s knowledge of the target vocabulary and the progress they are making. Thus, learners who have made few vocabulary cards, claiming to already know the vocabulary, but who also score poorly on the vocabulary quizzes, should be strongly encouraged to reconsider their approach based on quiz scores.


This paper has suggested that lexically profiling texts and glossing over complex language or low frequency vocabulary is one way of helping learners to understand and discuss texts more meaningfully and allow deeper engagement of the topic. Another suggestion has been to encourage learners to deliberately engage with key vocabulary necessary for understanding texts. The example materials show that the author, drawing from research, chose a specific vocabulary goal for the learners, namely the acquisition of the 1,500 – 2000 most common words and the AWL, to allow learners to move toward better (95%) comprehension of extended reading texts (Hu & Nation, 2000; Nation, 2008). While this is far from an ideal level of acquired vocabulary for full fluency, it is, in the author’s opinion, a suitable starting point, offering a strong and coordinated foundation for lower-level learners to build from in their first year in university.


The author would like to thank the other staff members of the Kwansei Gakuin School of Policy Studies ELP for sharing ideas so openly, which helped with the development of some of the materials presented in this paper.


All information regarding the Lex Tutor site is true at the time of writing. This may change as the site develops; however, historically the same steps for profiling documents has always remained the same on the site.


Coxhead, A. (2000). A new academic wordlist. TESOL Quarterly 34, 2: 213 – 238.

Hu, M and Nation, I.S.P. (2000). Vocabulary density in reading comprehension. Reading in a Foreign

Language 13, 1: 403 – 430.

Nation, I.S.P. (2008). Teaching Vocabulary: Strategies and Techniques. Heinle. Cengage Learning.

You can read part one on google docs.

Revised Jan 14th 2011 – JHG