Vocabulary study for an Intermediate level English course in San Francisco

Once students have a basic grasp of the most common tenses in English, vocabulary tends to become the most commonly mentioned obstacle to communicative competence.  Students working on vocabulary in an Intermediate level Engish course, in San Francisco or elsewhere, find that the organizational simplicity of early vocabulary study (colors, body parts, clothing, etc.) is missing.  As a result, they lose coherence and focus in learning vocabulary.  Often, they give up on any systematic study of vocabulary, just at the time when they most need it.

The research on this is pretty clear  –  if you want to really learn a word, you have to do meaningful things with it, over several days, to make it stick in your brain.  This is kind of a bore, and not as much fun as going out with your friends.  However, there are a lot of simple exercises one can do to help with vocabulary development.  If you set aside even a fraction of the time you spend on “regular” homework for the study of vocabulary, you will see some pleasing results.

Our brains like order, and are searching for some sort of system.  Effective vocabulary study thus depends on giving your brain something to organize around and with.  This exercise, while somewhat time consuming, does just that.  I wouldn’t use this for all vocab, but for concepts that you really need to retain (for a university course, for example), this is one of the best.


connect the new word(s) to as many ideas as you can


                                                                                                      spicy                                                                  mild                                even-tempered

                                                    fiery                                           high temperature                 hot                  cool                                calm

                hot-tempered                                                              sexy                                                                    plain                             ordinary


                                                                                                      trendy (i-phone)                                              passe   (Myspace)

                                                                                     cool                                                                                       outmoded  (VHS)

(Note how “cool” is both the opposite of hot (temperature), and the same as hot (currently popular).  Word Webs allow you to build these irrational relationships which are fundamental to understanding English.  Dictionaries do not let you see the connections.)