Focusing on Vocabulary in Writing Classes

Joyce Cain
Joyce Cain

As finals approach at the close of each semester, I ask my intermediate to advanced writing students to review all of the feedback they have received throughout the course. They go through every one of their essay, short-write, and summary assignments to tally the grammar correction symbols that I have marked.

While some students have persistent grammar errors, to their surprise and, originally, to mine, the most frequent correction symbols on their work are ww (wrong word), prep (preposition error), and ^ (insert missing word). By tallying their errors, it becomes clear to them that vocabulary is an area where they need improvement. However, many of them feel at a loss about how to improve their vocabulary. Because of this, I have begun to spend as much time on vocabulary development as writing and grammar instruction, which has helped their writing in my class but also given them some tools to continue their vocabulary development in future classes.

To be most effective vocabulary instruction must center on the current writing task. Therefore, I like to choose five to eight vocabulary words that are necessary in the current writing assignment. These words are generally chosen from repeated vocabulary errors that I’ve noticed in the first draft or short writing assignments on the same topic. Another way to choose the most important vocabulary for a particular topic or assignment is to run the class reading assignments through a vocabulary profiler. The one that I like is Compleat Lexical Tutor from University du Quebec, Montreal (, but there are others out there. A vocabulary profiler will identify all of the academic vocabulary in a reading. From this list, teachers can choose the academic words that appear the most frequently or that they feel are the most necessary but also the most difficult for students to use correctly in the particular assignment.

Once the five to eight important words have been identified, students need to learn how to use these words correctly in their writing assignment. The most obvious resource for this is the dictionary, but it is also the most often misused by students who think a dictionary is simply a tool for translation. By creating a lesson with the identified five to eight words that requires the use of a dictionary, students learn how to use these words correctly and how to use a dictionary for more than translation.

Recently my students were writing about the characteristics of an advertisement that make it effective. I developed a dictionary worksheet based on the errors I saw in the first draft of this essay. The worksheet asked them to use their dictionary to answer the following questions:

  • What is the adjective form of benefit? Use it in a sentence that you could use in your essay.
  • What are some synonyms for the adjective effective? Use two of them in a sentence about advertising.
  • Is advertisement a count or noncount noun? Use it in a sentence with the correct plural or singular form and with the correct article.
  • Look up the word ad. What does the dictionary tell you about the formality of this word? Should you use it in an academic essay?
  • Look up the word catch. How many definitions do you see for this word? Which one could you use in your essay about advertising? Write one sentence with this verb.

These five words were not new for most of my students, but many of them had used the words incorrectly in their first draft. The 30 minutes spent on this worksheet in class helped with their final draft and showed them some of the ways a dictionary can help them with word forms, synonyms, count and noncount nouns, formality, and identifying multiple definitions. With a different list of words, the vocabulary assignment might show students that the dictionary can help them with grammatical information, collocations, and idiomatic expressions, to name a few. I’ve found that this kind of exercise works most smoothly if students are all using the same learner’s dictionary; therefore, my students are required to purchase a specific dictionary for the course.

In addition to learning all of the resources in the dictionary, students can expand their working vocabulary by keeping a personal vocabulary log. Each student’s vocabulary log will be different as it is made up of words that have been marked in their writing assignments with correction symbols related to vocabulary. Each entry must contain more than a simple definition of the word. Like the dictionary exercise explained above, students should include information about the misused word’s various forms, synonyms, collocations, grammatical information, idiomatic expressions, and sample sentences. While vocabulary logs are nothing new, I’ve found that when they are personalized for each student and contain more than definitions or translations, they help to improve students’ working vocabulary.

While many writing teachers spend time focusing on writing and grammar instruction, an equal amount of time devoted to vocabulary instruction might lead to fewer persistent grammar errors. Grammar is so wrapped up in vocabulary that when both are given equal emphasis students’ writing naturally improves.

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