Information about the vocabulary quizzes

This page has information for teachers about the rationale underlying the online quizzes on this site.


The primary audience for this page is ESL teachers. Other teachers and English learners may be interested in the contents, too.

Learning words

In the communicative approach to language learning, vocabulary is often not taught explicitly. It is expected that new words will be acquired through meeting them in various meaningful, authentic contexts.

There seems to be a consensus developing, however, that this approach alone is not enough to help learners acquire the words they need as quickly and efficiently as possible.

@ There is a growing recognition of the part to be played by the explicit teaching and learning of vocabulary. ~ This involves the presentation of words to be learned in lists, which may or may not have a unified theme There is some debate about whether or not it is helpful to learners to present them with groups of words from within a semantic set (.e.g, vacation words). Or whether it is better to present them with groups of semantically unrelated words. There are large numbers of both types of group on this site.

My page advising students on how to approach the vocabulary quizzes here addresses this issue in some detail. The link is at the foot of the page.

The various vocabulary lists and quizzes on this site are offered as a contribution to the explicit learning of vocabulary.

Possible objection

It may be objected that simply clicking on a web page, or at most writing single word answers, is not a good way of internalizing vocabulary. And that students should be writing sentences to exemplify the words or put in situations where they must use the words in oral discussion.

Of course, writing and speaking tasks have their own validity, but in terms of learning vocabulary recent research (Folse, 2004) suggests that it is not the manner in which a new item is treated that is critical but the number of times that the student encounters it.

With this in mind, many of the quizzes on this web site allow students to quiz themselves on the word sets in 16 different ways (example). It is felt that this will encourage the multiple encounters of new words that will lead to their acquisition.

Ideally, learners would sit together in front of the computer in groups of twos or threes (even more ideally, in heterogenous nationality groups). They can then teach each other the words they already know, and discuss together the alternative answers, before getting the computer to confirm their suggestion.


Many of the quizzes have sentences containing a gap to be filled with the target word. These sentences have been concocted by me, and are thus inauthentic. For some, to whom authenticity is akin to the holy grail of language teaching, this approach would be suspect.

I take the view, however, that in these web quizzes authenticity is subservient to efficient vocabulary acquisition. The sentences have been created, therefore, to exemplify the word in one of its common contexts, but excluding too much other vocabulary that might be new or distract.


I have used the Collins Cobuild dictionary series to help with definitions but not with example sentences. I find the Cobuild dictionaries excellent for the former (definitions) but often unusable in terms of the latter (example sentences).

For example, a learner using the Cobuild Pocket Dictionary of Idioms to find out the meaning of 'to put someone's nose out of joint' will be presented with this authentic sample:

Gillian's sons, 17 and 15, were resentful of the female invasion. Barry, the youngest, had his nose put out of joint by Lucy's aloof sophistication, although she was his junior.

It is hard to see how an authentic example of this nature is more helpful to the ESL student who wants to learn the expression and a typical context in which it is used than an inauthentic example created by an ESL teacher experienced in the needs of English language learners.


I am not a professional test-maker. Nevertheless, I have an understanding of the issues concerning the production of valid, reliable tests. In particular, I am aware of the limitations of the kind of tests that can be done online (multiple choice, fill the gap, etc.).

The purpose of these quizzes, however, is not to arrive at some kind of diagnosis of the students' level of English, and they should not be used as such. I have not spent a great deal of time, for example, trying to devise plausible distractors in the multiple-choice quizzes. My primary intention is to help students learn, not to grade or test them.


Folse, K. 2004. Vocabulary Myths: Applying second language research to classroom teaching. University of Michigan Press.

Here is a summary of Folse's book, together with a discussion of the implication of Folse's research for mainstream teachers.

Here you will find my advice to students on learning vocabulary by doing quizzes.