Posted in Thoughts about TEFL Teaching

7 Deadly Sins of TEFL teachers: Number 2 – Human Dictionary

Quick question: What sounds does a badger make? Write down you answer, then continue reading.

The Human Dictionary. Too much vocabulary is a dangerous thing

Many years ago, I found myself in a corridor with my Director of Studies. He was prowling around the school, listening to the classes taking place, and I was in between classes killing time. He beckoned me over and we peered round the door into a classroom.

There were 10 students with blank looks on their faces watching their teacher stomp around the classroom making animal noises.

“I am a badger. This is the sound I make “Greeerghhuurrr. The verb we use to describe the sound of a badger is…..”.

At this point, my DoS and I looked at each other and burst into fits of laughter. The teacher continued for the next 10 minutes, making the most obscure animal sounds you could imagine: lizards, ladybirds, gnus, warthogs, bison etc. The amazing thing was that he knew the exact verb to describe the sound each animal made.

The teacher left at the end of the week. The DoS asked the class for some feedback on their teacher and they told him that all he did was define lists of words, 40 or 50 every lesson. Then, he’d test them on their retention of these new words and the poor students felt like fools when they got less than 20% correct.

How many new words should you teach in a lesson?

This is a ‘how long is a piece of string’ type question. As a rule of thumb, however, I’d probably say that 15 is the upper limit and 8-10 is the optimal number. Remember that students need to be able to pronounce a new word correctly,  manipulate the form, and use it in an appropriate context to really know it. It’s not enough to simply define a word: students need to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty by attempting to use it in a communicative act.

Finally, remember that technology has changed vocabulary learning. Long gone are the days when the teacher was the only person who could provide the definition. Use monolingual dictionaries and let students look up the words themselves then teach them to their classmates. Why not let them use their smartphones to check meaning? If they check their Facebook as well , does it really matter if they complete the activity?

The moral of this story is: teach fewer words but teach them well.

P.S. I never did find out what sound a badger makes.


I'm a teacher trainer doing lots of different things in Granada, Spain and back in the UK. I've been a Course Director on Trinity TESOL programmes, worked as an EAP tutor at universities in the UK, spent a couple of years as a DoS at a wonderful school in London, and have also dabbled in online teaching, course creation, blogging and materials development.

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