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
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,
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
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
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
rides a bicycle
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
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.
Directions: 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.
explore career opportunities
learn about business.
be good at solving problems.
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
63(Suppl. 1), 107–129.
Schmitt, N. (2000). Lexical chunks. ELT Journal,
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,