Get Involved with Vocabulary: Why? What? How?

Get Involved with Vocabulary: Why? What? How?

Which of these (philosophically wise, value-revealing, instructional) quotations, graphic organizers, or cartoons about the importance of vocabulary in language or content education really “grab” you? Or “pull your chain”? Or attract your attention and hold your interest? Or engage, motivate, excite, and appeal to you? Or make good sense by revealing, restating, or reaffirming what you trust is true (or accurate or authentic or real)? Or . . . 


Let’s suppose (assume, expect, pretend, imagine, or speculate) that by now you get the point: Vocabulary is everything!  It’s all-inclusive, all-knowing, all-impressive + expressive, all-accomplishing, all-important, and all-powerful! It can be used for good—to improve, advance, and accomplish things at work and in life. Or it can work to the detriment of the planet. It can strengthen or damage relationships; help, benefit, support, and encourage—or embarrass, offend, disregard, and hurt people. It can advance or harm education; promote success or failure; move the world forward or backward; and the like, and so on and on, and much more, etcetera.

For another overstated answer to the question “Vocabulary—Why?” see Change Your Words, Change Your Life by author/motivational speaker Tony Robbins.

So it all “begs the question.”

Vocabulary? Why?

As expressed in Four Reasons Learning Lots of Vocabulary Is the Key to Fluency:

“. . . when we break down both written and spoken language, we’re left with two basic things —vocabulary and grammar. Vocabulary represents the meaning-bearing units of language and grammar provides the rules and structures for assembling these units. . . . While grammar is undoubtedly important, it’s not a vital part of language. In most situations, you can ignore grammar rules and still get your message across. For example, even though the sentence ‘please coffee want one me’ is just a collection of words with no specific grammar, you can probably understand that this person wants . . . . coffee.”

As British linguist David Wilkins stated, “without grammar, very little can be conveyed; without vocabulary, nothing can be conveyed.” That’s why Steve Krashen noted, “When students travel, they don’t carry grammar books. They carry dictionaries.” So here’s a summary of reasons why to teach or learn vocabulary: 

  • Vocabulary is at the core of every language skill: listening and reading comprehension as well as speaking and writing fluency. It’s vital to “communicative competency”—the ability to interact with others in meaningful contexts by understanding what they mean and expressing what you want to convey.
  • Lack of vocabulary—and mistakes in word usage—can lead to embarrassment and insecurity, the destruction of relationships, and even life–or world-changing disaster. That’s why it’s a good idea to “Get It Right the First Time—or Fix It.”
  • Talent in vocabulary is correlated with work and life success: it increases self-confidence, persuasiveness, attractiveness, and impressiveness. It transforms you into a faster thinking, more dynamic, and more interesting person. It even makes you more fun to be with because you can participate more capably in social conversation, games, joke-telling, and other enjoyable activities.
  • Facility with words creates an upward spiral: it boosts language development and learning abilities. It not only enhances your use of vocabulary; it also builds your capacity to learn and teach others how to do so. It’s vital to effective communication and functioning in work and life and the world.

Vocabulary? What?

What does it mean to “teach/learn vocabulary?” What are the aspects of words and phrases that need attention or focus?  How do these relate to correctness, appropriateness, fluency, form, and layers of meaning and usage? There are partial answers to these questions in the article  "Vocabulary and Its Importance in Language Learning.”

And here are a few graphics to grab your attention, engage you in the topic, give you information quickly and concisely, get you thinking about answers that work best for you, and provide other benefits:

For a summary of the aspects of vocabulary words and phrases worth focusing on in depth, look back at the two articles, "Get It Right the First Time—or Fix It:"

In other words, the aspects of vocabulary most important in teaching and learning language and content are:

  • Their pronunciation
  • Their spelling
  • Matching of their meaning & usage to their context
  • Their applicable parts of speech with the grammatical rules these follow  
  • Distinctions among easily confused items (compounds, homophones, homographs, near-misses)
  • Items with similar & opposite meanings or connotations
  • Their word parts (roots, prefixes & suffixes)

To get vocabulary learners doing what works right away, just click on links in the two articles “Get It Right the First Time—or Fix It.” These excerpts from whole texts include pedagogy, exercises (+ answers), interactive activities, and lots of suggestions for “Learning Beyond the Book.”   

Vocabulary? How?

So now that you know what to teach and/or learn in regard to vocabulary, how might you accomplish it?

Do you believe the famous quote “When the why is clear, the how is easy” (by Jim Rohn & others)? If so, how do the following visuals relate to that claim? Or don’t they?


To organize these thoughts, here’s what educational research and experience challenges—or at least encourages—you to do: 

  1. Choose Content with Purpose—and Give Purpose to Chosen Content. The all-encompassing goal of education is to empower people to get what they need or want in their work and lives—and to serve society or the world. Specifically, the language and content of targeted material has to be useful, meaningful, and relevant. Ideally, students will “own” the purpose of instruction while it is happening.  To this end, they should to be invited to express their needs, goals, and preferences whenever relevant—preferably within the context of chosen lessons, activities, and tasks. The format, methods, and techniques of presentation, practice, and monitoring progress should not only reflect real purpose but also mirror real life. 

For example, no matter which of 52 Generic Ideas A-Z + Aa-Zz from the all– inclusive How-to Resources Doing Without the Photocopier & Still Doing Without the Photocopier—or comparable sources—that you work with, you or your students get to choose the subject matter—and therefore, the vocabulary—of each lesson, activity, or process. Likewise, all adaptations, deletions, additions, and variations are up to you and them.  

  1. Involve Learners in All Steps of Chosen Activities. If visual, audio, and/or printed input is needed, deliver it in ways that require “Active Viewing,” “Active Listening,” and/or “Active Reading” (all of which are helpful topics to look up). Make sure that every step of any process not only encourages but actually necessitates engaged participation in order to complete it. If preparation is needed—like gathering materials, cutting & pasting, downloading, posting, displaying, organizing, and the like, involve participants. Then during interactive stages, fashion tasks so that everyone  will naturally “play all roles” by engaging in all activities: listening, asking, answering, speaking, reacting, leading, following, revealing, showing, giving, receiving, helping, succeeding, and whatever else comes up.                                         
  2. Appeal to Various “Learning Modalities”—Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic, Tactile. Promote Seeing & Reading, Hearing & Understanding, Speaking Clearly, Moving & Touching, & Manipulating. You can look up typical characteristics and needs of people with disparate learning styles at sites like Learning Styles: the Four Modalities; many articles suggest methods for engaging diverse students in “traditional, teacher-centered” classrooms. It’s even easier to reach learners in environments that put them first. Most of the time, the key elements are clear purpose, consistent involvement in what’s going on, task-based sequencing, and customized adaptation.                                                                              
  3. Consider Other Aspects of Instructional Lessons, Processes, Activities & Games, & Assessments. Relevant approaches might include “Direct vs. Indirect Instruction,” “Levels of Challenge,” “Word-Learning Consciousness & Strategies,” Teaching/Learning Techniques,” the “Motivation of Variety, Surprise, & Competition,” and whatever else you discover.                                                                          
  4. Use What You Have to Do What You Can Where You Are. Sure, detailed preparation helps, but so often, we’re called upon to improvise or  to “make do” on the spur of the moment. Vocabulary-related excerpts from the "Go-Giving Teacher-Resource Workshop: Use Watcha Have" may clarify the concept. Based on only three kinds of materials—”Cluttered Pictures,” “Individual Items,” “Visuals of the Same Kind,” it offers of multitude of ideas on how to apply these six directives to real-life teaching, learning, and living.                                                                                                                                                          
  5. Play (Cooperate & Compete for Fun), Include Humor, & Enjoy Yourselves. Much has been researched, “proven,” and written about why fun in learning works better than overly serious, tedious routine for adult new readers and language learners. The principle is so important that it’s the subject of the next article: Get Serious About Teaching & Learning Vocabulary: To Make It Effective, Make It Fun.

To varying degrees, nearly all Ideas from (Still) Doing without the Photocopier offer the six necessities—Purpose, Involvement, Appeal, Elements of Instruction, Using What You Have, and Play. Each is a generic concept that starts with introductory rationale (why the idea was developed). As a typical example, it utilizes a specific topic to start with. It lists materials to gather or create, if any. Next come step-by-step Instructions for what a (self-)teacher might do for or with participants.  There are Level Adaptations. Each Idea ends with “Other Areas of Application.” Get these, try them out, and go on to . . .

Idea B. Phonics Charts are useful for practicing classification or other organization of words, an important element in cognitive development. The targeted vocabulary skills are pronunciation and spelling. But because the idea is generic, the concept works for vocabulary that can be depicted or listed in any area of purposeful meaning.
Idea C. Dyad Spelling “empowers” vocabulary learners “to the max.” Using cues selected by phonics experts, participants insert their own items, communicate these to others, and then compare what they think they have expressed to what their listeners have received. All four language skills are involved.  And in case they help, here are pre-prepared Phonics & Spelling Dyad “Information Gap” Activities for Adults to download and print out for this all-inclusive vocabulary activity.
Idea I. Realia Roleplay begins with selection of printed material and other real or virtual things that learners come into contact with in their work and daily lives. These become stimuli for vocabulary use and acquisition. In addition to getting essential words and phrasing from the items themselves, participants collect what they need to express themselves and relate to others in simulated and/or real-life situations.  
Idea R. Vocabulary Picture Chain integrates teachers’ and/or students’ vocabulary interests—either printed visuals or real objects—with what they need to learn or say about them. At whatever level they’re functioning or aspire to, participants practice listening, understanding, remembering, asking and answering, and other communication skills that are enhanced by optimal vocabulary choices. It’s an old-fashioned “Game of Telephone” with multiple advantages.
Idea Hh. Dictionary Dealings makes good use of a major vocabulary-learning and checking tool, the dictionary—and/or any of its (online) ramifications designed to help people use vocabulary appropriately. Although its suggestions can include “simpler” aspects of words (like pronunciation, spelling, grammar restrictions), its focus is on word definitions and uses in context. 

Idea Ii. Put It in Context addresses a major strategy of vocabulary acquisition for adults—matching word meanings and uses to the environments in which they appear. Here’s a review of its rationale and pedagogy—with suggested steps for producing reusable materials to present, practice, embed, and go beyond the concept. 

And again, here are visuals of six typical vocabulary-teaching/learning concepts that have purpose, engage, appeal, consider, adapt, and are fun. For many more generic concepts that meet the same criteria and others, click on the product links that follow.





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