Paul Nation Interview from darren elliott on Vimeo.

Paul Nation is  a researcher, teacher and teacher trainer best known for his research into vocabulary learning and acquisition. This interview was conducted by Darren Elliott for

He presented twice at the ETJ Chubu Expo on Sunday, and between presentations was kind enough to answer a few questions. As you would expect we discussed vocabulary, and Paul’s answers were thoughtful and optimistic for the directions that language teaching is taking. The book we refer to in the interview is Michael West’s “A General Service List of English Words“, a hand counted and analysed list of high-frequency words, published more than fifty years ago and in many ways not yet bettered.

I also attended the first of Paul’s presentations,  in which he emphasised the importance of a balanced curriculum of four strands. Teachers need to ensure that students participate in meaning focused input and output, in language focused learning (deliberate study) and in fluency development activities in equal measures. Although Paul is primarily a researcher, he is a great communicator of serious ideas with humour and clarity (a point I was trying to make in the interview, but listening back it sounds like I told him he needs to buck up a bit…. sorry!). If you get a chance to see him present, then please do so!


A vocabulary test in which the students merely have to vomit the words onto the page, and once purged walk away fresh with no memory of the incident, is no good to anyone. How can we ensure our students LEARN words, rather than just REMEMBER them.

  • Learner Autonomy – Are students more likely to learn words if they are relevant, personal and useful?
  • Learner Training – Is it better to teach students how to study vocabulary, rather than teach them vocabulary?
  • Language – What does it actually mean to learn a word? When can you truly say “Yes, I KNOW this word”?

I’ll point you in the direction of two excellent resources, and bear in mind that quite a few academics offer pdf downloads of scholarly articles on their websites these days. Both names will be familiar if you know a little about vocabulary. The first is Norbert Schmitt ‘s staff page at the University of Nottingham, the second is Paul Nation‘s page at the University of Wellington. Both are chock full of reading, but if you wander about halfway down each I’d recommend two particular articles (citations after the jump). Nation suggests self-selection of vocabulary, and Schmitt recommends a system of whole-word study.

I decided to try an experiment with a couple of reading classes I teach. As the students are focussing mainly on their extensive reading, and thus encountering completely different vocabulary, it seemed a good fit. Each student would compile a list of new words encountered in their reading (or anywhere else), and check for synonyms, definitions, antonyms, translations, word family and collocations. I also pointed out that they should check how useful a word is before studying it – most modern dictionaries (certainly the electronic ones my students use) will tell you if a word is amongst the top 1000, 2000 or 3000 words in spoken or written English. I encouraged them to choose words they liked for whatever reason.

Every couple of weeks, I’d take in the list of words and write a code beside each. For example, (C) means collocation, (ES) stands for example sentence and so on. In the second semester, I am dropping in words from their previous lists to recycle. This pdf is the handout I gave to the learners to explain the task

How to learn vocabulary

..and this pdf is the template for the tests

Vocabulary Test Template

Both are specific to Japanese learners, so if you want a word document you can play with, email me ; D

So far, it has been fairly successful. There are a couple of question marks.

  • There is some evidence that antonyms and synonyms cause interference, if BOTH words are new. For example, it may well be wrong to teach left and right together – fix one concept first, then introduce the next.
  • Some students will choose words which are too ‘easy’ or ‘difficult’ for their needs or current language level.

Working on these, but it’s an interesting experiment nonetheless.

Moir, J. and Nation, I.S.P. (2002) Learners’ use of strategies for effective vocabulary learning Prospect 17, 1: 15-35.

Schmitt, N. and Schmitt, D. (1995). Vocabulary notebooks: Theoretical underpinnings and practical suggestions. English Language Teaching Journal, 49, 2: 133-143.