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Vocabulary Lesson Reflection Essay

Maheshwor Rijal

Kathmandu University 


“Without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed” (Wilkins as cited in Thornbury, 2006, p. 13). Undoubtedly, vocabulary has immense value in teaching and learning as it is one aspect or element that links all the four skills: speaking, listening, reading, and writing. In this article, I reflect up on the strategies I used while learning vocabulary in schools and colleges and my current research interest. I hope my story relates with many of you and will help us in uncovering the hidden realities and revisiting our pedagogical practices.

I was born in a remote area and got my schooling from a rural public school. I still remember the bitter pain I used to have in English classes.  The class was totally controlled by the teacher. Most of the teaching approaches that teacher used were traditional and boring and there was a little chance of flourishing creativity from my side. “Look and remember” with the help of bilingual dictionary, as I see now, seemed to be not very effective for the learners of English language like me. I was unable to show my creativity in spite of being eager in learning procedure.  My ELT class was totally authoritative and was only focused on examination, not on practical and real life situations.  Every set of words was taught according to bilingual translation and every student was compelled to follow the same method and I was also the part of same tradition. It was, of course, my compulsion that I had to follow the same tradition and had to apply what my teachers said. The teacher made us buy a dictionary and assigned all students to recite and memorize the words from the respective chapters. The classroom strategies were threatening, full of stress and pressure. My teacher used to come to the class with stick and beat students when they were unable to produce or say the meaning of the vocabulary items. I have had many ideas to express but due lack of exposure of English language I couldn’t express. It was due to lack of vocabularies when I needed. I used to go to school with a fear and challenge. So, when teacher came near to me I used to be scared. One of the recent articles “Beat the Teacher” by Khila Sharma in IATEFL journal nicely sums up my feelings: “vocabulary building is one of the biggest challenges English teacher in rural communities face. Even students who have studied English for ten years cannot give a simple narrative or express their thoughts and feelings. They have hard time when writing essays and resort to rote-memorization from their teacher’s note or commercial guide-books” (p.5). This is the reality of our schooling, even now.

After completing   my School Leaving Certificate (SLC) seven years back, I came to Kathmandu with a hope to pursue higher education. In my intermediate and Bachelor’s degree, despite my weak English background, I worked very hard on English and got the reward. I was also fortunate enough to have very encouraging teachers. Now, as a third semester student at Kathmandu University, I am on the verge of completing my master’s degree and busy in conducting academic research. So, my proposed academic research is finding out perceptions and practices regarding vocabulary teaching/learning in the EFL context of Nepal. Carrying out research on such area, as in other areas, is challenging as many terms and conditions specified by the concerned faculty and the supervisor need to be fulfilled.  Although I understand how to carry out research, I was never taught how to write a good research paper in my school life. I don’t have the expertise of producing a research article even after my undergraduate and graduate level of studies. Many of my fellow learners, I am sure,   may have the same catastrophic realization as they embark into the sophisticated arena of education research.

The educational standards of Kathmandu University (KU) have broadened my horizons of thinking. I have become aware of more useful strategies of learning vocabulary such as self defining context, pictures, synonyms, gestures, realia, audio visual aids, games etc. Reflecting on my own experience, most of the students are themselves in search of a new way of learning vocabulary. Now as a teacher (and a student), I have a real platform to develop new horizons for developing academic proficiency in my students using the strategies I just mentioned.

In the context of EFL setting, vocabulary should be taught interestingly, and to do so we can apply   different ways proposed by new teaching methods such as by Communicative Language Teaching. Despite the similar bitter experiences and the awareness of new methods and approaches, most of the techniques used by many of us in teaching vocabulary are still traditional. During my ongoing education in Kathmandu University, I have come to realize that teachers have a huge role in increasing students’ vocabulary as there is not much exposure from elsewhere. For better learning and better communication in English, one should assist the students in selecting the words appropriately as related to their goals, situation, and context.  Since vocabulary teaching/learning is a milestone to be reached in language teaching and learning, I think that it is our duty and responsibility to minimize such unpleasant experiences for the new generation of learners.


Harmer, J. (1991). The practice of English language teaching. London: Longman.

Thornbury, S. (2006). How to teach vocabulary. Pearson Education Limited.

Sharma, S.P. (2012). Beat the teacher. IATEFL Journal September-October Issue -228.




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This entry was posted on Saturday, December 1st, 2012 at 06:42 and is filed under Miscellaneous. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Much has been written about the value of knowledge retrieval practice in English literature – it is impossible to think critically about a text until you know it very well. However, I think it is now time to also consider how this knowledge might be connected and organised. In other words, what kinds of mental representations – or schema –should our students be building? What shape should these take for individual texts? What shape should these take for the subject  as a whole? And how do we ensure the smooth transfer of this knowledge to the extended essay format which is favoured by summative examinations?

Each text is represented by a number of interwoven knowledge frameworks. These include:

  • knowledge of plot, events, character, setting – and associated inferences;
  • knowledge of the text’s thematic breadth and its ‘big ideas’;
  • knowledge of the writer’s methods and devices;
  • knowledge of contextual factors.

These frameworks also sit nicely with the AQA English literature assessment objectives.

One of our most important jobs is to help students to connect this knowledge in useful and creative ways. If they do not, then their essays become unbalanced. Too much isolated historical context, for example, leads to what my colleague Tod Brennan calls ‘context dumping’ – lots of historical events and facts, but no understanding of how all this has influenced the writer’s viewpoint. Similarly, too much emphasis on the ‘big ideas’ leads to vague, poorly evidenced essays, and too much focus on quotations and textual evidence can stand in the way of a genuine understanding of the writer’s overall purpose. Balance is everything.

It is often more helpful to think of ‘analysis’ as ‘connection’. The more fine-grained our textual knowledge, the more subtle the connections we can make. The more we practise making connections, the more original and interesting our analysis becomes. (We do not just make connections within a text of course – we also make implicit links with the wealth of general knowledge we already have.)

Put simply, whenever analysis is written on the page, some kind of connection must have happened in the mind.

If we were to simplify most sequences of lessons, they would probably look like this:

  1. Knowledge acquisition – reading the text, knowing the plot, learning quotations, understanding the context and ‘big ideas’ etc.
  2. Knowledge strengthening – exploring the whole text and connecting the main ideas.
  3. Knowledge application – writing an essay or completing a mock exam.

Often, too little time is spent on 2 and, as a result, students struggle to organise their knowledge appropriately. Consequently, they do not develop the kind of broad and conceptual knowledge that helps them to understand that a text is a construct – the product of a living, breathing, thinking human being rather than a lifeless paper thing to look at in an English lesson. 

When studying any text, we must constantly juggle between the big picture and the small picture, the main ideas and the small details – the zooming-in and the zooming-out, as David Didau has put it. We would probably prefer that our students always use bottom-up reasoning to come to a conclusion: Priestley makes the audience side with Sheila; Sheila listens to the Inspector’s socialist message; Sheila is a young woman; therefore, Priestley wanted the audience to believe that young women, like Sheila, hold the key to a socialist future. However, if we are realistic our students probably use top-down reasoning more often: Sir tells me Dickens was concerned about the plight of the poor in Victorian times; therefore, we are probably supposed to feel sympathy for the impoverished Cratchit family.

In the early stages of literary study (I would include GCSE in this) and with less-proficient students, this second kind of inference – or connection – should probably be encouraged, even if it feels a bit less authentic.

So what can we do to help our classes make more and better connections? In no particular order:

Break ‘big ideas’  and themes into smaller propositions. This way, students can explore the finer subtleties. Romeo and Juliet is a play about love could become:

  • Shakespeare explores the spiritual nature of true love;
  • Shakespeare highlights the damaging effect of unrequited love;
  • Shakespeare warns us about the dangers of breaking romantic social conventions;
  • Shakespeare shows that love causes violence.

Get students to ‘connect backwards’ from main propositions. This week, my colleague Emma Rose shared these statements about J.B. Priestley’s purpose in an An Inspector Calls and then asked her class to find supporting evidence from the text:

  • Capitalism leads to selfishness.
  • We need to look after one another.
  • The reason the rich were so powerful was because they relied on the working class to make them richer.
  • Women deserve an equal place in society.

You can see how students can link these statements to their existing textual and contextual knowledge.

Get students to ‘connect forwards’ towards big ideas. Give students sets of textual facts and see what conclusions they come up with. For greater discrimination, add a potentially contradictory statement too. For instance:

What does Priestley believe about the role of women in society?

  • Priestley showed that Eva Smith was willing to take a huge risk in being the ‘ring leader’ of the strike.
  • Sheila is willing to side with the Inspector over her parents.
  • Sheila recognises the humanity of working women – “they’re not cheap labour – they’re people.”
  • Mrs Birling is emotionally ‘cold’ and does not understand her own children.

Consider the big ideas that connect across more than one text. Rich vs poor; powerful vs powerless; man vs nature; gender discrimination; appearance vs reality; the physical world and the psychological world; old and young, etc.

Multiple links. Consider how one piece of textual evidence can be utilised in multiple ways. Take one quotation, for instance, and link it to every theme of a text.

Plan, plan, plan! The act of structuring and organising ideas is essential to effective essay writing. You can plan four essays in the time it takes to write one. Model the planning process and its implicit steps very carefully, and remember that full essays and mock exams – as Daisy Christodoulou argues – are not always the most effective means of assessment. The act of planning without your notes also provides effective retrieval practice.

Self-explanation. Consider also the way students can explore their understanding verbally. I prefer structured pair tasks that allow student to ‘speak like an essay’; once again, they can be far more efficient than writing a full essay as it allows for lots of connection-making in a short time span.

Think non-linear. Consider how slideshows, resources, worksheets and notes in students’ exercise books can be designed in ways that make connections easier. Visual-spatial organisers like mind-maps are very helpful.


Useful links:

Chris Curtis on why you should cover the extract when planning an answer to AQA English Literature Paper 1.

Mark Roberts’ brilliant warts-and-all advice on how to prepare students for exam questions.

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