Modern Foreign Languages - Boost the word count

Keeping new vocabulary in the memory is the key to learning

Rachel Hawkes

Anyone who has ever tried learning a foreign language knows that, regardless of the learning method, long-term progress depends on retaining new words.

Some would say that success, particularly at GCSE level, is to a large extent defined by the number of words we know.

But perhaps even more important is the interplay between motivation for learning and the words students already know in their heads and can produce without reference to notes. A survey of about 300 students from different secondary schools in Years 7-10 revealed a remarkable consistency in the belief that what students can produce confidently without notes is the true representation of what they know of the language.

So it is not much of a leap to say that if learners do not know many words, they do not feel confident in the language.

But vocabulary learning can be hard. Even for higher-ability learners, considerable work is required to fix words in the memory and keep them there. One activity I find useful is giving vocabulary activities as sentence-level, gap-fill tasks. This can be in two stages. The first version contains the missing words at the bottom of the page and tests a student's receptive knowledge and the ability to decode the meaning of a sentence. A subsequent stage (several lessons later) is to give the same sentences again but without the missing words listed underneath.

There are some examples of these for GCSE Spanish on TES Resources. I like the fact that these tasks test vocabulary but also develop reading skills and grammatical awareness. I have found that students of all abilities find this challenging but engaging, and that the tasks encourage active thinking about the meaning of the missing words.

It is helpful to discuss with pupils how they learn their vocabulary. Keep this conversation going with them throughout the year so they do not forget that they need to be very active when doing vocabulary homework.

Another element that helps is to give choice within vocabulary learning. For example, pupils select their own list of 10, 15 or 20 words to learn on a given topic. This personalisation not only leads to them learning the words they are most likely to need but also neatly injects the elements of autonomy and active learning into their homework.

Showing them how to use a decent online dictionary (, for example, rather than Google Translate) helps to avoid blunders.

Rachel Hawkes is a TES subject adviser.

What else?

With key word lists and a range of quizzes, bingo games, wordsearches and more, origami girl's vocabulary pack will help to fix words in pupils' minds. Check out her full collection of vocabulary puzzles.

For a German workout, try petermorris2001's interactive quick quiz.

Find all links and resources at

From the forums

There is a long-running thread on the TES MFL forum about how vocabulary is acquired. It also includes advice on how to expand pupils' vocabulary.

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Rachel Hawkes

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