Working with Words


Ruth Gairns, Stuart Redman

Cambridge University Press

(Extracted from “Working with Words” Pages 1-22)

A vast amount of teaching time is consumed by explanation and definition, whiteboards are often littered with masses of new lexical items, and students compile page upon page of vocabulary word-lists that they rarely have the opportunity to practice. Vocabulary seems to arise in the classroom regardless of the chosen activity, and in spite of any conscious design on the teacher’s part. Perhaps this is the root of the problem.

Why should we go out of our way to select lexical items and invent classroom activities when there is a form of natural selection inherent in any classroom activity and an element of vocabulary teaching in every piece of classroom material?

Can we assume that vocabulary arising incidentally in classroom materials will automatically be the most useful and appropriate to our students?

In a school learning situation with limited time available, conflicting student interests, and the constraints imposed by other syllabus demands, we cannot leave lexis to take care of itself in this random fashion and assume that students will acquire the vocabulary which best suits their needs.

Words and their meanings:

To understand a word fully a student must know not only what it refers to, but also where the boundaries are that separate it from words of related meaning.


We use this term to describe a single word form with several different but closely related meanings. In English for example, we can talk about the ‘head’ of a person, the ‘head’ of a pin, or the ‘head’ of an organization. Knowing that a single word denotes a particular set of things in one language is, however, no guarantee that it will denote the same set of things in another language.


Synonymy: Another difficulty with meaning arises with groups of words that share a general sense and so may be interchangeable in a limited number of contexts, but which on closer inspection reveal conceptual differences. Consider the following sentence:

The company has decided to extend its range of products.

The general sense of ‘extend’ here is to enlarge or make bigger, and in this context the word could be replaced by ‘increase’ or ‘expand’.

The company has decided to extend /increase/ expand its range of products.

Now look at the following examples:

We are going to extend / increase / expand the kitchen by ten feet this year.

We want to extend / increase / / expand our sales by ten per cent next year.

The metal will extend / increase  / expand if we heat it.

In these examples only the underlined verb is correct.

Teaching Implications: These problems may seem to present teachers with an extremely daunting task. If you decide that an item does not warrant serious attention, your teaching should still be informed by an awareness of the potential problems. The students may be quite satisfied with a quick mime to illustrate ‘shiver’, but you should not be surprised if they then ‘shiver’ with ‘fear’ or ‘excitement’ in their compositions. Had the possible confusion with ‘tremble’ and ‘shake’ been anticipated, these student errors could have been avoided by the briefest of explanations.



Some of the more amusing errors a learner can make in a foreign language arise from a lack of awareness of the appropriacy of items. We are using style in a very broad sense to include level of formality (ie. slang, colloquial or informal, neutral, formal, frozen), as well as styles such as humorous, ironic, poetic, literary, etc.

The follwing items are similar in conceptual meaning but differ in style:

Children (neutral)

Off spring (formal, sometimes humorous)

Nippers (colloquial, often homorous)

Kids (colloquial)

Brats (colloquial, derogatory)

Registers are varieties of language defined by their topic and context of use; the language of medicine, education, law, computers etc come into this category:

‘minor’ is the legal term for ‘child’

‘insolvent’ is the banking term for ‘penniless’

‘cardiac arrest’ is the medical term for ‘heart attack’

Dialect is used to describe differences in geographical variation (e.g. American English, Scottish English etc) as well as variation according to social class. Geographical dialectal variety will produce contrasts such as sidewalk (US)= pavement (GB).

Style, register and dialect strongly affect the impression we gain of a learner’s competence in the language, and this is shown, amount other things, in his choice of lexis. It is quite common for native speakers to be surprised at the level of apparent formality of foreign speakers.

‘There isn’t sufficient milk for breakfast’ where the speaker simply means ‘not enough’.

It can be equally surprising for native speakeras to hear foreigners using colloquial language which is either inappropriate or which sounds distinctly odd. It is necessary for learners to acquire a knowledge of a variety of styles, and a particular register or dialect appropriate to their present or future needs. The teacher’s role here is to select language items carefully and highlight any special features for the learner. Some  monolingual dictionaries can be useful in this respect to both teachers and learners as they often indicate all three aspects. Bilingual dictionaries are often a notorious source of deception in this area.


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