Beyond word lists: eight ways to get more from the OUTCOMES Vocabulary Builder

One of the more innovative add-ons that accompanies the OUTCOMES series of General English coursebooks we wrote for National Geographic Learning is the Vocabulary Builder – often just known as the VB. The main idea behind the Vocabulary Builder was to provide both teachers and students with a list of language covered on each double page of each unit of the books. We know that people like word lists and that they’re used both as something to revise, and as a source of test material. However, we also felt that there are real problems with traditional word lists, particularly the fact that words are generally listed without any context or without any other information to help students see what those words can be used to do at their level. In addition, there’s very rarely recycling of words across units. The idea is that if a word first comes up in, say, Unit 3, then it can’t appear again in Unit 7, even if it’s re-encountered in the main unit there in a slightly different context, or with different collocations. On top of all that, most word lists in coursebooks are given at the end of a unit, and other than serve as a record of what was covered across the whole unit, it’s hard to see what other functions these lists are supposed to serve.

We wanted to improve on this and do things slightly differently, so we went for a word list with a difference: words that may be new are presented double page by double page, meaning students (and teachers!) can look at them before, during or after any given lesson; we give the IPA script for each word, and there’s then a definition of the word in the context it’s encountered on the page; after this, we list a few common collocates, and give example sentences. Here’s what a typical entry looks like, for those of you who’ve not seen the resource:

competitive /kəmˈpetətɪv/ Adjective


If an activity is competitive, everyone doing it is trying hard to do better and be more successful than everyone else

Advertising is a highly competitive industry

a very competitive market

The mobile phone business is very competitive

Verb: compete | Noun: competition

Small companies find it hard to compete in the market

There’s a lot of competition for jobs

 The company faces competition from abroad.

In addition to all of this, there are extra boxes looking at different aspects of word building like adjectives ending in –y or making negative adjectives using in-. There are also test sections at the end of each unit, checking how much attention students paid to the examples and looking areas such as prepositions, collocations, phrasal verbs, word families and so on. And as if that wasn’t enough, there’s also an interactive vocabulary builder, where students can create their own wordlists and search through a corpora of examples of new words being used both within the level they‘re studying, and across other levels as well. So, for instance, an Intermediate student who wants to add competitive to their word list can see these examples from the level below:

  • He’s tried to get a job in TV, but it’s very competitive
  • Advertising is a highly competitive industry
  • It’s a very competitive market
  • The mobile phone business is very competitive

So having outlined the advantages of this feature, it’s turn to consider how it can be used. Below are eight things we’ve done with it over the years. You may well have other ideas. If so, we’d love to hear about them in the comments section.

1          The first and most obvious thing to do with the VB is to integrate it into every lesson. With weaker classes – or weaker students in otherwise stronger groups – tell them to read the pages for the next lesson, so they can study new items in advance. With all classes, at the end of each lesson, tell students to go home and revise the words from that day in the VB – and to do the extra exercises if you’re at the end of the unit.

2          After setting the relevant pages from the VB for homework, do a quick whole-class test at the start of the next lesson. Simply pick examples from the VB and say them with MMMs in place of the word you’re testing, so for instance: Advertising is a highly MMM-MMM-MMM-MMM industry. There’s a lot of competition MMM jobs.

3          Put students in pairs. Tell Student A in each pair to look at the relevant pages and to test their partner in the same way as above. After a few minutes, change the roles over. You may need to model the task quickly at the start just to make sure students get what you want them to do. As feedback, you may also want to expand further on the words looked at to ensure students don’t feel it was only going over what they already know, so you might end up writing something like this on the board:

He’s f……….. competitive and gets very upset if he loses at anything.

and then seeing if you can elicit fiercely from the group.

4          Write a short gap-fill test using examples from the VB. You might choose to gap the target words – like competitive above – or if you want to push your students and really see how much attention they’ve been paying to the language, you could gap other words instead. So for instance, the easy gap would be.

The company is facing strong ……………. from abroad.

In fact, you could make it even easier by writing it like this:

The company is facing strong c……………. from abroad.

A harder version would be one of these:

The company is ……….. strong competition from abroad.

The company is facing strong competition ………. abroad.

though again, you could give the first letters of the missing words to lower the level slightly.

5          Another easy-to-make revision exercise you could use is a collocation match-up. You basically just choose ten words from the VB that you want to focus on, and pull out collocations from the examples. Then mix them up and have a rubric that says something like Match the words in 1-10 with words they go with in a-j. On a very basic level, you’d end up with something like this:

1          strong                          a          industry

2          competitive                 b          competition

If you then wanted to expand upon this once you’ve checked the answers, you could ask students to work in pairs and give three real-world examples of collocations from the exercise. To help them understand what’s wanted, you could give a model. For instance:

One of my friends is a pilot for a budget airline and I know he’s always worried about his job because it’s such a competitive industry. There are often price wars and different airlines try to undercut each other. Sometimes airline companies go bankrupt too, and he’s worried that he might end up getting made redundant at some point soon.

6          Have a look through the VB before class and draw up two lists of 6-8 items that you think students should have revised at home. Type them in large bold characters, print them out and then cut them up. In class, put students in pairs and give them different lists. Tell them that they can’t say the words / collocations / phrases on their lists, but that they should take turns to try and explain the words they have and elicit them from their partner. Yopu may need to model this for them. For instance:

So if someone really hates losing, and they always play everything to win, they’re very what?

> Competitive.

Right. And another way of saying very very competitive is? If you want to say that they almost get angry or crazy when they’re competing, they’re MMM-MMM-MMM competitive?

> No idea. Sorry.

Fiercely competitive.

If you want to make this easier, spilt the class in two first. Give one half of the room one list, the other half of the room the other list, and tell the two groups to check together that they remember all the words on their lists, helping out where necessary. Then pair each student up with someone from the other group.

7          A few days after class, once students have had time to study the VB, record on your phone 10-15 chunks or collocations from the pages they should’ve studied. Say each one twice, but at normal speed, so they hear the way these words sound when said fairly quickly. Email the sound file round to the whole class. Tell students to listen and write what they hear. They can then either check their ideas by looking back at the VB or you can send the script of what you said. For instance, it might just be things like: (1) hard to compete (2) face strong competition. Students can then write example sentences of their own showing how they think they could use these collocations to talk about things they know about.

They can either send these sentences to you by email, and you can correct / comment on them, or else they could bring them in to class next lesson and compare their ideas in pairs. This then gives you the chance to monitor and pick up on a few problems areas during your feedback on the activity.

 8         After each class, either make a class set of Quizlet cards based on the key words that come up in the VB or – better – delegate the job to a different student each week. The best way to do the cards is to have on one side two or three whole-sentence examples with the target vocabulary taken out and on the other, the target word.

This would mean, for instance, that students first see something like this:

She wants to work in advertising, but it’s so ……………….. .

He’s fiercely ……………….. . He really hates losing.

The mobile phone business is very ……………….. .

They read these examples and – hopefully – say COMPETITIVE to themselves before flipping the card over and checking. This can be done on the move – while commuting to or from work, on the phone before class, etc. If you want some more ideas on ways of using Quizlet for revision purposes, by the way, do watch the short video I made about this a while back.

So there you have it: eight ways you can use the Vocabulary Builder when working with Outcomes. Do you have any other ideas of how it can best be exploited?

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