Growing our students’ vocabulary is a big part of our work as language teachers. They need to know WORDS to be able to communicate and make meaning of a new language. 

But as you know, just because you teach it doesn’t mean they necessarily remember it.  

If you’ve ever been a teacher (of any subject) I’m sure you’ve had a moment like this with students.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you think about vocabulary this year:   



It’s good to know ALL the colors, foods, places in the city, regular verbs, etc. but that doesn’t mean that ONE teacher should do it all in one unit. If you teach toward proficiency, you are focused on communication and this allows you to put language in context, not just teach topics. FOOD is so generic and encompasses sooooo much – it is impossible to teach it all and even if you try, they won’t remember it all. 

a solution: Teach one focused unit on the topic/theme and then sneak it in your curriculum a few more times in other units.

Instead of one huge food unit, you teach about street foods around the world. They can learn about prices, ingredients, vendors, how to order, etc. Later, you can talk about popular holiday foods and treats (tamales, turrón) and your travel unit can touch on what to eat while visiting x city (Apfelstrudel in Wien, Poutine in Montreal or Xiao Long Bao in Shanghai). 

 Instead of one huge unit about descriptions, add a lesson object like “I can describe…” in every unit. As they read descriptions of people, let them learn to describe others. As they listening to descriptions of houses, they can start describe their house. This allows them to practice the skill over time and build on it as their proficiency grows. 

No more worrying about them learning every single vocab word on the traditional list. You’re not a bad teacher if they don’t and they aren’t bad students. Narrow in and focus on communication. If you do, they will hold on to the words they need and that’s what it really important.    



In the same way that common vocab doesn’t need to be taught all in ONE unit, it doesn’t need to be taught all by one teacher or one level either. Students need opportunities to revisit themes and build on what they know as their proficiency grows. We’ve helped schools and departments map out their curriculum and many seem to think that “art” is level three and “shopping” is level two and “food” is level one. It can be done that way, sure! However, there’s no reason you can’t vertically align curriculum to include a different art theme (touching on AP theme of beauty and Aethestics) at every level. Plus, if students love a certain theme WHY limit it to one unit and one level? Each level can have a niche to focus on while building on what the students’ prior knowledge.  

 Street Food          & vendors

 Restaurants.       + chefs

 Cooking                + reality cooking shows

Farm to Table    + migrant workers


 Sometimes our vocab lists are long and detailed and filled with low frequency words that may be helpful but aren’t necessary. Learning more about proficiency helped me learn the different between FUNCTION vs. DETAIL vocabulary. Focus more time and energy making sure students see, hear, and read the function vocab and let the details be unique to each student.   

Novice Example: I can tell what sports I like to play.   

function vocab 

I like

to play


detail vocab 

basketball, baseball, hockey, gymnastics

(anything they want to talk about)

student example:

I like gymnastics and I like to play soccer.

Intermediate Example: I can give my opinion about this years fashion trends. 

 *Note: This is where lots of variety and creation happens because students have unique prior knowledge. While they are all learning new unit specific vocab/functions, they mix in what they already know with their opinions and it is much less predictable. WARNING: Expect more errors as they create. 

function vocab 

fashion trends

I think


according to


 new detail vocab 

boilersuit, dad shoes, logos, yellow, tie-dye, vests 

runways, models, fashion week, designers, 

 recycled detail vocab 

popular, ugly, awesome, interesting, fun, strange, terrible. pretty, better than, worse than, the best…

student example

One very popular trend of 2019 is the “ugly dad shoe.” According to Paris Fashion week, this will continue next year too. I think I like some of these shoes because they are more practical than heels, but some are too expensive. 

 Let go of the long list and give students choice and voice to pick the detail vocab that they need. This means students will know and sometimes use words that their classmates don’t know, but that’s ok. The big goal is for them to be able to communicate with any speaker of the target language – not just their classmates. 

Don’t forget… there is NOT just one way to teach a language. Think about what helps your students communicate – and focus on that. That might mean making some adjustments but it will be well worth it down the road. 

What changes have you made when it comes to vocabulary? How have those changes impacted your students’ proficiency?


  1. Darci Baker

    Thank you for a very informative post. I was advised when writing new units that I should limit the vocabulary list to maybe 10 words. These would be the words that the students would “own” by the end of the unit. The trouble that we have is what you have described above. We feel like the students need to know everything. We have had problems with units going much too long because of the unnecessarily lengthy vocab lists. It is unrealistic and unfair to the students. My question is, do you have any advice on how to select the words that make it to the short vocabulary list? If I simply ask myself which are the most fundamental words for that unit, my list still comes out to be 20+. Any guidance or advice would be much appreciated.

    • Kara Parker

      Hey Darci! First, apologies on missing this comment. I have a video that explains how we pick vocabulary: I’ve never heard 10 words for a unit. Brain research and my own experience shows they can learn more than that. I tend to think about it as how many a day are they working with. The book “How the Brain Learns” by D Souza is one of my favs that addresses this. Let me know if you have more questions after the video!

  2. Sarah Kushner

    I love this post! Using the same types of texts and themes throughout the learning process definitely helps students learn how to communicate more deeply about topics! I would love to know your thoughts about when to and when not to give discrete, direct-translation lists for vocab, like are in most textbook lessons? Are there some words that really need these lists, or would it be better to try to avoid them when possible?


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