Connect, Grow, Thrive

Vocabulary Activities

ETAS Journal Volume 31 No. 1 Winter 2013

Penny Ur 

Cambridge University Press (2012)

ISBN 978-0-521-18114-3

260 pages plus CD ROM

Penny Ur’s name has long been associated with teaching vocabulary, and recently she has articulated her beliefs about the value of English language teachers engaging with research (Ur, 2012). These two interests come together in Ur’s latest book, Vocabulary Activities, which is a welcome contribution to the Handbooks for Language Teachers series through Cambridge University Press.

The book is presented in two parts. The first, Guidelines, provides an overview of what teachers are likely to be most concerned about when reflecting on the learning and teaching of vocabulary. Ur uses selected research to achieve this, with the part organized into sections on the importance of vocabulary in second language learning, the aspects of vocabulary that need to be learned, teaching and assessing vocabulary, and an extensive set of FAQs. The second part, Activities, contains a vast range of learning and teaching activities organized into the following sections: Vocabulary Expansion, Vocabulary Review, Advanced Vocabulary Study, Vocabulary Activities, and Mainly for Fun. The book also comes with a CD-ROM containing materials that are ready to print, avoiding the need to photocopy the materials from the pages of the book.

The Guidelines sections for me were a bit of a let down. I had anticipated a more substantial set of theoretical principles and research findings from the vast array of good, applicable research studies on teaching vocabulary. I wondered whether this was influenced by Ur’s belief that “research relevant to ELT relates almost exclusively to language acquisition”, something that I tend to disagree with. I had hoped that the many relevant and recent studies in journals from our field, such as TESOL Journal and ELT Journal, might have been used to provide a more robust and extensive manifesto for teaching vocabulary. With this complaint aside, however, teachers will find that this introductory part of the book contains a useful overview and a solid platform from which to view the activities to follow, which are centre stage.

Good handbooks for busy English language teachers should be easy to skim through. Teachers need to be able to easily locate relevant and useful activities for their learners, often in a matter of minutes as they prepare for their lessons. This is a real strength of this book. Not only is the index thorough and sensitively organized, the signposts in the main text are very clear. For example, opening at a random page, I find Activity 1.4.2 clearly titled with a succinct outline. 1.4.2 Exploring affixes. Outline: Students find words that have given prefixes (and suffixes), and work out the meanings of the affixes. If that is the general aspect of vocabulary, and the inductive approach is suitable for this lesson, I can read on to see if it further suits my needs. The index is also a useful tool for efficiently finding areas of interest. I looked up pronunciation and found that 27 pages of the book contain activities for the pronunciation of single words, and two pages are devoted to pronunciation games.

Good handbooks for busy English language teachers should be prescriptive and at the same time they should offer the possibilities for re-working the activities to suit different purposes. Indeed, many new teachers find handbooks such as these provide schemata for a variety of activity types that they can transfer to other areas of their teaching. Vocabulary Activities is an outstanding example of this, including detailed procedures together with follow-ups and variations, especially in the Vocabulary Review section. For example, Activity 2.2.13 Gradual Erase provides a procedure for reviewing vocabulary items that could just as well be applied with a stronger focus on speaking, writing, or reading for that matter. Many more examples can be found throughout the book.

The Vocabulary Expansion section provides many activities that “create opportunities for students to encounter new vocabulary” (Ur, 2012, p. 20). These activities are arranged into sets: focusing on individual learner vocabulary needs, expanding upon contexts of use and lexical sets, collocations and combinations, word structure, and names. These divisions may be lost on some; indeed, the introduction might have given more of a rationale for these sub-sections. Nevertheless, it is a useful organizational structure. Perhaps my only real complaint here is the relatively small number of text-based activities, requiring students to work with whole texts. This section leads into Vocabulary Review, recognizing the research finding that a word needs to be encountered a number of times in a number of contexts to be successfully learned (Nation, 2005). The section has a variety of activities to achieve this, sub-divided into single words and words in context, which are certainly more text-based including a wonderful activity in which students re-write a text in order to simplify it for a less proficient audience, thereby working with the meaning of vocabulary in context. This section gives way to a section for advanced learners, including learners in academic English programs. There are many vocabulary learning strategies included in these activities, such as dictionary and thesaurus strategies, working out differences between synonyms, conducting a componential analysis, and analyzing L1 translation mismatches.

The section on Vocabulary Testing provides teachers with an array of testing and assessment activities, including written and spoken tests. This is a useful section that would also benefit from being more explicit about self-assessment (many of the activities lend themselves indirectly to self-assessment). Finally, the Games section includes many expected inclusions, such as crosswords, hangman, and word search. A short section at the end on pronunciation games and jazz chants begs for expansion. However, at the 250 page-mark, it is clear that decisions on content have been difficult to make!

Vocabulary Activities is a delightful handbook that all teachers ought to have access to, either as a library copy, a copy for the staff room, or a copy in their professional library. It is a book that many can learn from, while at the same time being a book of useful activities that can be located with minimum fuss. Perhaps a future edition will address the shortfall in the Guidelines section in order to enhance its status as an evidence-based compendium. 


Nation, I. S. P. (2001). Learning vocabulary in another language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press

Ur, P. (2012). How useful is Tesol academic research? Guardian Weekly Learning English, Retrieved from

Philip Chappell