Teaching vocabulary and structures

What are vocabulary items and grammatical structures?

Vocabulary items are individual words. Learning new vocabulary is important and teachers provide lots of repetition to assist students to remember and use words that are new to them.

It is also important for students to learn that words have specific meanings in particular languages. For example in many Australian languages the word for your mother is also the word for all of your mother's sisters, and the word for your father is also the word for all of your father's brothers.

To introduce new words, teachers often use picture cards. It is important that the picture cards do not have English words written on them. It is better if the students connect the pictures and words orally (rather than through written translation). As well as picture cards, it's also effective to have real objects to point at. For verbs it's effective to act them out and get the students to act them out too, and guess each others' actions.

To help students remember new words, teachers have a number of well-known card games such as bingo, memory, go fish and snap; literacy activities such as crosswords and find-a-words; oral language games such as like airline aisles, captain ball and on the bus; and songs.

Teachers usually group together words of a similar theme or topic. This helps students to build up the words they need to communicate in a certain situation:
A teacher may select a topic such as cooking and eating. In this topic the students will learn to use languages for the purposes of identifying and naming, asking for food, asking about food, offering food and sharing it, telling someone what to do when preparing the food, responding to (spoken and/or written) instructions when preparing food.

They will learn nouns such as names of food, e.g. flour, oil, meat, vegetable food. Other nouns will include things needed to prepare and cook the food, e.g. knife, pot, fire, water. Adjectives will be helpful to describe the nouns, e.g. hot, cold, big, small, long, red, black, white. The students will use verbs needed for cooking and eating situations, e.g. cut, make, heat, mix. They could also use pronouns to explain who will be doing the actions, e.g. you (one person), you (two people), you (all of you), us two, all of us.

All of the vocabulary items (nouns, adjectives, verbs and pronouns) will fit into language structures, e.g. What's this? It's a ____ . What are these? They are ______ . Pass me the _____ . Pass me the big ______ . Wash this. Wash these. Wash the potatoes. What are you doing? I'm washing the potatoes. Cut the meat. What are you doing? I'm cutting the meat. Heat the water. What am I doing? I'm heating the water. Boil the vegetable food. Stir it. Fry the _____ . Turn it over now. What are you two doing? What is he/she doing? What do we two do next? What's that group doing? Is it hot? Is it cold? Is it tasty? Is it ready? I'll give you some. Eat up! Tastes good? Yes!
In this example, the teacher has moved from introducing single words to introducing language structures. Together, these enable the students to communicate with each other in the target language.

How can I introduce new vocabulary and structures to my students?

Students need to be exposed to and practise vocabulary and structures many times in order to be able to recall and use them. The 20-20 rule is a good guide keep in mind. Learners must hear/read a vocabulary item or grammatical structure 20 times and they must use it themselves in their own speaking/writing 20 times in various contexts before they are likely to have made it part of the language resources they have acquired.

One way to introduce new vocabulary and structures in language classrooms is through the present-practise-produce cycle.


The first step is to present the vocabulary and structures to the students. This can be as simple as the teacher modelling some words and phrases, asking a question or giving an instruction. Alternatively the students might hear an audio-recording of two people speaking to each other. The teacher might present a model such as:
What's your name?
I'm ____________ .

Where are you from?
I'm from _________ .

Where do you live?
I sit down / live in _________ .

What's your language?
I speak / learn _________ .
First, the students hear the three questions and answers, in the present step of the cycle. This model is then used by the students to practise. They do this by responding to the teacher asking students around the room one by one. At this stage the students mimic; the whole class might speak in unison, copying and repeating after the teacher. In the next activity the students are more independent - they produce what they've learned, by rehearsing with a partner and/or by walking around the room and talking with several classmates one by one. For this activity, the teacher might give them a short handout to complete:
Using the questions you have just learned, interview 6 classmates and ask them for their name, where they are from, where they live and which language they speak/learn.

Name From Lives Language






This page was first published on November 22, 2013 and was last updated on January 24, 2022. All material is copyright to the individual authors unless indicated otherwise.