In so many words: on the importance and shape of vocabulary lists

Today we’re delighted to feature a guest post by Bruno Leys. Bruno works at VIVES University College in Bruges, Belgium. He’s published several coursebook series such as Breakaway, Takeaway and High Five and he regularly gives talks and workshops for teachers. Below, Bruno shares his thoughts on vocabulary lists . . .

Last spring, when I was touring Belgium to promote two new coursebook titles I had fathered, I was rather dispirited by the relentlessly recurring question “What about vocabulary lists? Aren’t there any vocabulary lists in the book?”

I usually started my reply with a reference to Earl Stevick, an American linguist, who memorably said: “If you want to forget something, put it in a list” (cited in Lewis, 1993, p. 118). In the context of this article, we could change that to “If you want to forget a word, put it in a list”. I hope to clarify that this quote is more than just a witticism.

Let us first try to find out why teachers (and, according to them, learners) are so fond of vocabulary lists. Is it mainly because teachers and learners recognise and value the importance of lexis in the process of language learning? I have my doubts.

Based on what teachers and learners have told me, I can only conclude that vocabulary lists are so much in demand mainly because of their learnability. Learners know what they have to study for the test and what to expect; viz. gap fill, translations or similar non-contextual test types – easy for most learners to memorise, and very practical for teachers to correct, so everyone’s as happy as can be. Meara stated back in 1995 that: “presenting vocabulary in list form is an efficient study method in which students can learn large numbers of words in a short time” (Meara, 1995). Others (e.g. Schmitt and Schmitt, 1995) have suggested that learners should write new words on index cards, so that they are more engaged in their learning process and use the list more effectively for their own purposes. They can file away words they remember and focus on ones they’ve yet to master. However, it seems more than likely that after a short time, in both cases, learners will forget these words, stripped as they are of all context-based meaning.

The main difficulty with these lists remains the absence of context. In an attempt to remedy this, present-day vocabulary lists are often tied to a reading passage that provides context. The result is a format which is still easy to memorize, and is then believe to give exposure to meaning in context, resulting in longer retention of the words learned in this way.

Still learners are always confronted with that same sentence (or longer stretch of text). By no means is any kind of real transfer to new contexts guaranteed by these supposedly “contextual” vocabulary lists.

In order to find alternative and more successful ways to expand the learner’s vocabulary, we should look at what else we know about learning and more specifically, vocabulary learning. The most influential publication on lexis in the past decade was, without doubt, Michael Hoey’s Lexical Priming (2005). Priming, which was not originally a linguistic but a psychological concept, is a factor that influences the accessibility of information in memory. Hoey’s Lexical Priming theory suggests that our prior experience of words leads us to expect words to recur in the company of other words (collocations), in certain grammatical situations (grammatical colligations) and in certain positions (textual colligations).

If we try to transfer this to vocabulary learning, the question is: what can help us retrieve learned words from our memory and thus what can help us to effectively store new words in our memory?

More is more.

The more learners are confronted with a word in changing contexts, the more lexical primings learners will store – or at least have the chance to store – in their minds. Let words frequently reappear in texts (readings, listenings, videos) so that collocations and colligations collect in the learners’ minds.

If we take the learners’ and teachers’ adjuration for vocabulary lists seriously, which I think we should, the above also has its consequences for those lists. Let me conclude with a few principles for more useful vocabulary lists.

  • Don’t list isolated words (no meaning is linked to them).
  • Don’t list words with translations only (no context).
  • Don’t list words with a single context (no transfer, limited collocations and colligations)
  • Do add several contexts, which stimulate transfer, collocation and colligation.
  • Mark useful collocations and colligations in the sentences.
  • Add a translation and / or definition of the word, so that any possible ambiguity is eliminated.
  • Add antonyms and closely related synonyms. They work as lexical primings.
  • Provide ample opportunity for wide contextual learner practice that primes retrieval of words from the list.

A vocabulary list entry for the word ‘decency’ could then look like this:

Decency (n)


behaviour that is good, moral, and acceptable in society (+ translation)


correctness, propriety, good manners, virtue, etiquette


indecency, bad manners, impoliteness, rudeness


  • She didn’t even have the decency to tell me she was going.
  • It’s a shame you haven’t got the decency to do the same.
  • People out there just don’t have any common decency any more.
  • Unconsciously, we expect our church membership, correct doctrine or moral decency to pull us through.
  • It is all about keeping up standards of decency, having respect for women and setting a good example to children.
  • What can politics do when a growing number of families fail to teach their children a set of common decencies?
  • She was wearing a loose dress, rather too low-cut for decency.

This vocabulary list entry is naturally only part of the story. It is only a means to gather vocabulary that learners are expected to go on and master. As mentioned above, it is especially learners’ frequent encounters (in and outside the classroom) with words that will store memories in them. The above vocabulary list entry can only help to link the words to all possible primings that will help retrieval when really needed.


Critchley, M. (1998) Reading to Learn: Pedagogical Implications of Vocabulary Research. Retrieved from:

Hoey, Michael. (2005) Lexical Priming. A new theory of words and language. London: Routledge.

Lewis, M. (1993). The Lexical Approach: The State of ELT and a way forward. London: Heinemann.

Meara, P. (1995). The importance of an early emphasis on L2 vocabulary. The Language Teacher, 19 (2), 8-10.

Schmitt, N. & Schmitt, D (1995). Vocabulary notebooks: theoretical underpinnings and practical suggestions. In ELT Journal 49 (2), pp 133-143

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12 Responses

  1. MuraNava says:

    another ‘more is more’ is could be presenting the vocab in more modalities such as sound and image

    i think that there is good research to back up multi-modal effects on vocabulary learning (e.g.

    and then regarding examples researchers have made the distinction between examples for comprehension/decoding and examples for production/encoding (

    so one would choose examples whose co-text helped infer meaning for comprehension purposes and examples with collocation and colligation for production purposes

    fyi trying to see if adding video examples will help with the PHaVE phrasal verb dictionary –


    • Lexicallab says:

      Hi Mura –
      Those links don’t seem to be working my end.
      Can you check them?

      In terms of presentation, almost certainly students are going to hear the words as the teacher says them and see them – possibly both in classroom material and then again in examples on the board.

      Personally, I think that what happens with the explanations and the examples, and what questions are asked to explore the networks of words around the words in question are far more important than whether or not the word is encountered on a video or in some other kind of format. Obviously, what else then becomes important, as Bruno suggests, is repeated exposure over time, at least some of which the teacher has to take responsibility for.

      Agree that the examples teachers give are best if they help consolidate meaning – I’d say consolidate rather than imply meanings, as I think the teacher basically needs to gloss meanings before the examples really appear – and if they contain typical co-text, yes.

      One final thought: a huge amount of language that needs to be covered simply isn’t amenable to visual representation. Whilst a word like OVEN can easily be illustrated, a sentence like “It’s a shame you haven’t got the decency to do the same” really can’t!

      This is perhaps one reason why many coursebooks tend to be crammed with nouns and to lack sufficient amounts of whole-sentence input.

      • Bruno Leys says:

        I fully agree to that. Single nouns, verbs and adjectives are abundantly presented in coursebooks, but they lack context and co-text. That is especially the case when these words are presented in a kind of learning summary.
        All too often the words are then stripped of meaningful context.

        • Lexicallab says:

          I think writers have to shoulder their share of the blame as well, to be honest. There’s pressure from teachers to include word lists, and the publishers often just pass this feedback on, but if you give in to it, you perpetuate the problem.

          At the same time, though, there’s the ongoing issue of teacher education and development that we’re all involved in, which will hopefully lead to more teachers rejecting materials that reduce language down in this way and that continues, for instance, to think matching single words to basic meanings is fine as the dominant way of tackling vocab across a series!

      • MuraNava says:

        edited post, links should be working now

        sorry i should have made it clear i was thinking about student self-directed vocabulary learning when talking about modalities

        regarding the issue of getting images for abstract sentences sure it is a problem, though things like TED and playphrase can help a little e.g.

        in class yes the teacher using their wits and preparation to gloss, probe with questions, mining coursebook resources such as transcripts can all help

        i am still taken with Hugh’s notion of ambient lexis though yet to fully exploit that


        • Lexicallab says:

          Hadn’t encountered that playphrase site before Mura. Thanks for that. Interesting stuff, though as with all sites drawing on raw corpora, it throws up at least as many issues as it seems to solves. For instance, I searched for just the item DECENCY and one example that came up involved the following:

          This parasite can think of no better way to end an evening’s hooliganism on the night of the University Boat Race! Can our seats of learning produce barbarians so lost to decency that their highest ambition is to steal a hard-working police constable’s helmet and make off with it?

          As I’ve banged on about before elsewhere, if you’re struggling with a word like decency, then the above is going to contain way too much extra linguistic and cultural information ion addition to the word you’re looking at.

          Hence thew need for teachers – and materials writers – to sift such sources and craft better-pitched examples.

  2. Bruno Leys says:

    Thank you for your comment, Mura.
    I agree with the points you raise. Ideally sound and (well-chosen) images will, no doubt, help store lexical elements in our minds. Sound, however, is not always possible in the “paper” environment of the classical course book, but with digital environments, nothing is impossible.
    The distinction between examples makes sense too. In a vocabulary list, I do think we present examples for production purposes.
    I checked out your video (searching “get back”). I believe it has potential.

    • Lexicallab says:

      Plus, as I said, the sound element comes from the teacher – and then the students – saying the items.

      I think an issue that’s bigger than whether or not an item is heard on a video or CD or whatever is whether it’s also heard – and maybe drilled – as part of connected speech with the items it’s often used with around it.

  3. Bruno Leys says:

    For those interested. I will be elaborating on the elements raised in this article in my IATEFL talk in the Forum on Vocabulary Learning.

    DAY: 13th April
    TIME: The forum will take place 11:30 – 12:35
    ROOM: Exchange 3
    TITLE: More than words…

    It could be an opportunity to discuss some ideas face to face.

  4. […] Today we’re delighted to feature a guest post by Bruno Leys. Bruno works at VIVES University College in Bruges, Belgium. He’s published several coursebook series…  […]

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