Some Suggestions on How to Teach English Vocabulary Effectively

FILE: This photo taken on June 27, 2018 shows a Cambodian teacher talking to students in a classroom of primary school in Kampong Chhnang province. (Photo: AFP)
  • Kimkong Heng
  • September 17, 2020 9:44 AM

This short article attempts to provide some suggestions on how to teach English vocabulary effectively. The ideas presented in this article are based on the author’s experience in teaching general and academic English in the context of Cambodian schools and universities, the author’s master’s thesis, and relevant online and academic sources.

Based on the author’s unpublished master’s thesis (Heng, 2011), there are a number of vocabulary teaching strategies that the research participants (who were English teachers) used to teach vocabulary to their students. All the teaching strategies that were mentioned by five Cambodian English teachers during in-depth semi-structured interviews are shown in Table 1 below.

Table 1. English vocabulary teaching strategies (adapted from Heng [2011, pp. 18-20])

As Table 1 shows, there are many strategies Cambodian English teachers who participated in the study used to teach vocabulary to their students. When asked about the strategies that they believed to be effective, they mentioned several strategies, including word matching, word supply (i.e. word hunting), word jumble/unscrambled, giving examples, and using pictures.

No doubt, the strategies included in the above table are by no means exhaustive as there are many other strategies the teacher participants did not mention during the interviews. Readers are therefore encouraged to explore other strategies by consulting different sources, including books, academic journal articles, and online resources. For example, they may consult Teaching Vocabulary: Strategies and Techniques (Nation, 2008) and Teaching Vocabulary (Lessard-Clouston, 2013).

In the context of Industry 4.0 and the rise of social media, it is imperative that English teachers, including Cambodian English teachers, adopt and embrace information and communication technology (ICT) to innovatively teach vocabulary to their students. They can engage their students using social media, especially Facebook. They can also teach through videos by posting video lessons in Facebook groups, Telegram groups, YouTube channels, or other platforms.

Moreover, language teachers can encourage their students to download some free applications that allow them to learn and practice English vocabulary. Alternatively, they can guide their students to visit and explore different websites that provide free learning resources as well as free English vocabulary quizzes. Websites such as,,, and have been around for years. Thus, teachers should from time to time encourage their students to visit those websites and take advantage of those free online resources.

English language teachers may also direct students’ attention to explore and learn vocabulary from the General Service List created by Michael West (1953), a New General Service List developed by Browne and co-researchers (2013), or Longman Communication 3000 prepared by the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. All of these word lists are ideal for beginner students as the lists contain the most frequent words in both spoken and written English. For more advanced students, teachers can refer them to Coxhead’s (2000) Academic Word List and Gardner and Davies’ (2013) New Academic Vocabulary List. There are also websites that offer vocabulary exercises on these academic words.

Finally, teachers may consider some of the pedagogical strategies for teaching vocabulary suggested by Teng (2014, pp. 44-51) as follows:

1.Choose high-frequency words to teach: More frequent words are more useful than less frequent words.

2.Supplement explicit vocabulary learning to incidental learning: Incidental vocabulary learning is not enough, and teachers should supplement deliberate vocabulary teaching into classes to facilitate learners to develop the depth and the breadth of vocabulary knowledge.

3.Know how useful each strategy is: Teachers need to model and practice vocabulary teaching in classes so that students are aware of the strategies they can use to learn vocabulary.

4.Focus more on productive vocabulary: The more students engage with the productive use of a word (say or write it, and create grammatical and collocational comparisons), the more likely that they are to master it.

5.Foster learners’ morphological awareness: A word family consists of three morphological structures: the root (promote), the inflections (promotes, promoted, promoting), and the derivatives (promotion, promotive, promoter). Students can be trained to use contextual clues to guess the meaning of new or unknown words that they come across. Teachers can ask them to break down the words into prefixes, roots, and suffixes; then they can brainstorm the potential meanings of the unknown words.

6.Train students’ lexical inferencing ability: Lexical inference is described as a cognitive top-down process of resorting to different resources to identify the meaning of a word. As guessing from context is one of the most frequent and favoured strategies for learners when meeting new words in reading, teachers should spend some class time to develop students’ lexical inferencing ability (i.e. ability to guess the meaning of words from context).

7.Choose appropriate textbooks: It is necessary for teachers to support students by choosing appropriate textbooks, contriving new reading materials, or looking for supplementary sources of suitable reading input.

8.Vocabulary learning is incremental: Learning the form, meaning, and use of vocabulary occur over time. Teachers should help students understand that learning vocabulary is a long-term process. Thus, rather than trying to memorize all the words at a time, it is better for students to spend some time reviewing their lists of unknown words each day or week. Teachers should support this learning process.

In short, the main aim of language teachers is to help students to increase their vocabulary size and to develop their general English proficiency. To this end, teachers should spend the bulk of their classroom time “to raise students’ awareness of strategies in learning vocabulary, the kind of strategies in which they can actually know how to learn vocabulary independently, meaningfully, and efficiently” (Teng, 2014, p. 52).

Kimkong Heng is a PhD candidate in the School of Education at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is a recipient of the Australia Awards Scholarship and a Visiting Senior Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace. He is also a co-founder and co-editor of Cambodian Education Forum.

This article was originally published by Cambodian Education Forum on August 24, 2020.


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