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When Should You Teach Vocabulary?

December 1, 2016

Back in January 2012, our team had a big discussion about where to place the main vocabulary task in a lesson. Some of our lesson sections had the reading before the vocabulary task, with the idea that vocabulary could be learned/confirmed after seeing it in context. However, our team and many of our subscribers felt that previewing the vocabulary before seeing it in the reading was easier on students.

We then changed most of our sections that include a reading (e.g., Discussion Starters, Famous People, etc.) to include a vocabulary preview task. Most of the textbooks I had used during my teaching years also presented the vocabulary first, so I was fully on board with this approach.

At the recent 2016 TESL Ontario conference in Toronto, head writer Tara Benwell had a discussion with a teacher whose students found it difficult to match up vocabulary words and definitions before they had seen them in the reading. The teacher pointed out that words used in the definitions can sometimes present more challenges than the actual key words.

This led to another team discussion about where and when to present a vocabulary task within a lesson. What is best for our students? Let’s take a look at the benefits to different approaches.

Approach #1

Vocabulary Before

ESL Library’s preference is to introduce vocabulary before presenting the reading or listening task. Some benefits to a vocabulary preview task are:

  • students can focus on vocabulary alone and then focus on reading
  • the reading is easier to understand
  • there is less of a need to stop and look up words (stopping makes it harder to get the gist of a reading)
  • students have a handy list for later review
  • there is more exposure to new words

Having a vocabulary preview task before the reading means that students will get the maximum exposure to the words. If a lesson has a preview task, the words highlighted in context, and a review task, then students are seeing and digesting new words at least three times. Repetition is key where vocabulary retention is concerned.

Approach #2

Vocabulary During

Benefits to learning vocabulary during a lesson could include:

  • students may be able to infer the meaning of new words from context
  • students learn a keyword as a specific part of speech in a sentence
  • students realize they don’t need to know every word to understand the gist of a eading
  • they can apply this to reading material outside of the classroom (where there won’t be a list of vocabulary words)

It’s up to the teacher to decide whether students can use their dictionaries or ask the teacher vocabulary questions during the reading, or just try to infer meaning from context. In my experience, students often feel pressured or frustrated when they have to rely on inferring meaning from context alone. Letting them use dictionaries in their own languages also discourages an English‑thinking mentality and may not be the best approach.

I’ve had some success with answering vocabulary questions during or just after the reading, but if there are too many, then those students that already know most of the words can feel like their time is being wasted. However, context learning is a valuable skill, and it’s good to try this approach at least once in a while. Remind students that in the real world, they won’t see a vocabulary list along with what they’re reading (nor will they always be able to consult their dictionaries).

Approach #3

Vocabulary After

Reviewing vocabulary after learning it before or during the reading is very beneficial. But what about saving all vocabulary discussion and tasks until after the reading? Some benefits to having the vocabulary task after the reading might include:

  • the vocabulary task might make more sense because students have seen it in context
  • students can see how well they inferred the meaning of new words from context by completing a task and getting a score
  • they will see which words they know well and which need more practice
  • they can go back and see the word in context to help them if they still can’t work out the meaning

Our Conclusion

Why not have the best of all three worlds? A vocabulary preview task, highlighted vocabulary in context, and a vocabulary review task allow students to reap the benefits of all three approaches. Most of our lessons follow this format.

At this point, we are sticking with our vocabulary preview matchup task, but we have changed the instructions from:

Match the words on the left to the correct meanings on the right.


Match up as many words and meanings as you can. Check this exercise again after seeing the words in context on page 2.

We hope that this will give students a chance to learn some new words without feeling the pressure to get a perfect score. Students may find the following reading task easier with some background vocabulary knowledge. Teachers can also use this task to assess how many words students already know.

We always encourage teachers to try different approaches to see what works best for their students. For example, try one lesson as is, but try the next doing the reading first and introducing the vocabulary after (i.e., do the warm‑up, but then do the page 2 reading before the page 1 vocabulary preview task). Or present the vocabulary preview in a more interactive way—for example, try cutting up the words and definitions and having groups of students match them up. Find more ideas in this post: 4 Ways to Teach New Vocabulary.

We will also continue to have a vocabulary review task or two after the reading part of our lessons. For other ideas on reviewing vocabulary, see 4 Activities for Reviewing Vocabulary.

How and when do you teach vocabulary in class? Do you prefer previewing vocabulary or having students see the words in context for the first time? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!

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Comments (2)

Elizabeth D.(Teacher)

Thank you Tanya, for sharing the approaches which are useful. Vocabulary plays such an important role in language acquisition - the larger the repertoire of words that are meaningful to the learner the better.

Reply to Comment

Tanya Trusler(Author)

I agree, Elizabeth. Thanks for your comment!

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