A multi-pronged approach to vocabulary

Jennifer Altman, University of Washington

Quick guide

  • Key words: Vocabulary, testing
  • Learner English level: All
  • Learner maturity: All
  • Preparation time: 60 minutes
  • Activity time: 60 minutes


This multi-pronged approach to vocabulary testing has students teach each other words and then use them in a paragraph, which increases students’ exposure to vocabulary and their ability to retain it.


Step 1: Prepare models of vocabulary entries and a quiz.

Step 2: Post two enlarged model vocabulary entries. I ask students to include the word, the sentence in the text where you found the word, a guess of what the word means (it is okay if the guesses are incorrect because the purpose is to practice the skill of guessing meaning from context), an appropriate dictionary definition, a sample sentence from the dictionary, their own sentence (encourage creativity; mistakes are okay), and note space (see the appendix for a sample).

Step 3: If you have Internet access in the classroom, go to an online English-English dictionary so you can show students how to choose a definition appropriate to the context and how to identify collocations. Emphasize that learning language in chunks improves accuracy.

Step 4: Have students copy your model entries onto notebook paper (or distribute copies).


Step 1: Set aside approximately 30 minutes to model vocabulary entries.

Choose one word from a current textbook unit and demonstrate how to create an entry. Have students choose a word from the unit and create entries (while referring to their textbook and dictionaries) in groups or pairs. Walk around and assist the students. Encourage students to include anything (pictures, word maps or trees, collocations, and translations) that will help them remember the words in the note space.

Once students understand, have them add 1 or 2 words to their papers every day (about 8 to 10 words per paper).

Step 2: After students successfully complete each paper, administer the quiz (50+ minutes).

Choose a discussion question from the textbook unit for students to write about using words from their vocabulary lists so students can use their vocabulary in a natural situation.

On quiz day, put students in groups of 3 or 4.

Model how to teach vocabulary words. (“Tell your classmates the word and read the sentence from the book. If they cannot guess what the word means, read the sample sentence from the dictionary. If they still cannot guess what it means, draw a picture or describe situations in which the word might be used. Finally, tell them the meaning.”) Let them in on the secret we teachers know: you learn by teaching! Have them teach each other one word for the first quiz and two for subsequent quizzes. Give them 5+ minutes for this step.

Step 3: Have students take out one piece of paper per group and write their names and words at the top. Have them read the discussion question and brainstorm an answer. Students then plan how to use as many of their vocabulary words as possible. Give them 5+ minutes for this step.

Step 4: Students begin writing. Give them a time limit to write (30+ minutes) and another to edit (10+ minutes). Students can write related sentences or paragraphs, per their language skills. (I usually mark the quizzes for answering the question appropriately, accuracy (meaning and usage), and teamwork.) If there is time, have students count how many times they used each word.


This multi-pronged interactive approach to vocabulary study and testing increases students’ exposure to the vocabulary in textbooks. When you hear your students use their vocabulary naturally in class, you know it works!


The appendices are available below