August 2014
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Alice O. Savage & Colin S. Ward, Lone Star College - North Harris, Houston, Texas, USA

Alice Savage

Colin Ward

Words are powerful things. When we look at research-based word lists, such as the General Service List or the Oxford 3000, we come across many useful words that can inform our teaching of vocabulary in the classroom. We know these words are the most important for our students to learn. Yet, from the perspective of the student, the task of acquiring these lists of words can be daunting.

One challenge is length. How can students learn hundreds, or even thousands, of words when learning only a select few at a time? And once new words are introduced, how can they be internalized without a sufficient amount of recycling and repurposing?

Another and more interesting challenge is meaning. Meaning turns out to be a complicated notion when dealing with high-frequency words. For example, the Oxford 3000 includes three main categories. The first includes content words such as red, car, and fast, which are obvious and easy to teach. The meanings are sharp and clear, so they can easily be demonstrated with a white board, a photo, or pantomime.

The second category includes grammar words. The words so, is, the, and of, and their high frequency siblings, hold a prominent position on the list and yet resist attempts to be neatly defined as solitary words. These worker bee words have become so directly associated with specific functions that they have become grammar (Larsen-Freeman, 2013). Their place on a word list is obvious, and they get much treatment in grammar syllabi.

Then there is a third, more elusive, category, which we call “shadow words.” Words such as join, thing, important, and place are extremely useful but difficult to teach because they hide in the shadows of other words. Rather than being specific in meaning like the content words, shadow words tend to be abstract, vague, and flexible. They may not call attention to themselves, but they are important because a great number of other words like to partner with them in collocations (Schmitt, 2000).

As a result of their accommodating nature, shadow words can be very useful when taught in phrases. For example, become is quietly helpful. Phrases such as become an engineer, become friends, or become rich illustrate the supportive nature of become. When become is taught with other words, learners can better pick up the meaning of both. Become does not like being alone. It needs friends.

Shadow words can also have multiple personalities: They take on different meanings depending on their context. Have appears on high-frequency word lists because it collocates with so many other words—have fun, have a sister, have to leave, have an idea, have enough money—yet each pairing has its own personality.

So, in looking at all these different types of words that populate high frequency word lists, it becomes clear that vocabulary is not just one thing. While some words can meaningfully stand alone, many of the most common words prefer to be in groups. These words unleash their full power when paired with other words in collocations (word partners), lexical chunks (groups of commonly occurring words that include grammar), and prefabs (fixed expressions that allow students to frame ideas by slotting in different vocabulary; Hinkel, 2004).

Perhaps it is possible to conceive of teaching language a third way—not to present vocabulary lists, word form charts, and grammar items separately but together on the same continuum.

There are many benefits to this approach. If students are exposed to words in these groupings, they have more opportunities to gather and use words in their natural environments. Furthermore, these distinct environments can help classroom participants make decisions about which meaning or meanings to focus on (Hyland, 2004). For example,play means one thing when talking about children and toys, and another when used in an academic setting as in, “Teachers play a role in helping students choose vocabulary.

Teaching words in phrases also mitigates the difficulty of learning parts of speech because students see adjectives being used before nouns, and nouns as objects of verbs or the subjects of sentences. They can establish cognitive hooks for storing the words in the same manner in which they will be used (Schmitt, 2000).

Finally, words in phrases maximize vocabulary learning by providing whole unit chunks of meaning that clarify individual words at the same time. A list of 12 phrases includes more language than a list of 12 individual words. For example, the lexical chunk blew snow in our faces can be visually depicted in one go while teaching five different words, including content words, shadow words, and grammar words.

The following example activities demonstrate how vocabulary and grammar can support each other in providing useful language for specific writing tasks. While each activity has a specific aim, the basic structure can be adapted for different topics and purposes.

Activity Type: Categorizing

Aim: To prepare students to write a paragraph about a friend

Stage: Practice of new vocabulary for a writing task


1. Put students in pairs. Check that they understand the meaning of the phrases in the box below.

2. Have pairs discuss which chunks they might put in each column/category. There can be more than one possible answer.

3. Walk around the classroom and provide help as needed.

4. Elicit the students’ answers to put on the board and facilitate a class discussion. Invite students to add other words and phrases, or provide possibilities that might suit their needs.

5. Have students write a description of a person they know who fits one of the categories using the new language.

Directions: Write the correct phrases in the boxes.

asks polite questions

eats in restaurants

has many friends


likes sports

reads books

rides a bicycle

shares ideas





asks polite questions

Activity Type: Manipulating Chunks

Aim: To practice using gerunds with prepositional phrases in order to write about professional interests

Stage: Revising for sentence variety


1. Have students write a paragraph about their likes and dislikes in school and/or work.

2. Explain that gerunds are nouns that often represent activities, so they are useful after prepositional phrases such as interested in, look forward to, excited about, and good at.

3. Teach a set of chunks that include prepositional phrases with gerunds that are relevant to the task. (See more examples in the activity below.)

4. Have students do the first part of the task to focus on meaning.

5. Next, have students rewrite the sentences that are not true by replacing the gerund phrase with something that is true.


  • Elicit examples to write on the board.
  • Provide feedback on student understanding and additional possibilities as needed.

Put a check next to the sentences that are true about you. Rewrite the sentences that are not true for you. Change the words and phrases to make them true.

☐ 1. I like opportunities for practicing math skills.

Example rewrite: I like opportunities for learning about customer service.

☐ 2. I am interested in developing my math skills.

☐ 3. I look forward to working with customers.

☐ 4. I am excited about using technology in my future job.

☐ 5. I am not good at working with other people.

☐ 6. I like to talk about using math to solve engineering problems.

Activity Type: Flow Charts

Aim: To facilitate practice of grammatical sentences using new vocabulary

Stage: Practice after grammar/vocabulary lesson


1. Introduce the theme of careers. Facilitate a discussion with students about their future jobs.

2. Generate a list of chunks related to the theme.

3. Have students use the chart below to generate their own chunks.

4. As they work, monitor their progress providing feedback and additional language help as needed.

5. Have students prepare a short presentation, explain their career plan to a partner, or write a paragraph about their future jobs.


will (not)

explore career opportunities

study languages.

learn about business.

be patient.

be hardworking.

be good at solving problems.

My job

My life

My work

will (not) be






Hinkel, E. (2004). Innovative and efficient construction grammar. Innovative and efficient construction grammar. Selected papers from the 21st International Symposium on English Teaching, Republic of China (ETA-ROC), Taipei, 51–59.

Hyland, K. (2004). Genre and second language writing. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2013). Transfer of learning transformed. Language Learning
(Suppl. 1), 107–129.

Schmitt, N. (2000). Lexical chunks. ELT Journal, 54(4), 400-401.

Savage, A., & Ward, C. (in press). Trio writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Alice Savage and Colin Ward are professors of ESOL at Lone Star College—North Harris in Houston, Texas, USA. They are currently working on a low-level writing series for English learners for Oxford University Press. This article is adapted from their presentation “Beginning Writing Students and the Vocabulary-Grammar Continuum” at the 2014 TESOL International Convention in Portland, Oregon, USA.
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