Exploring Strategies for Improving Vocabulary Retention in ESOL Learners

New College Durham

Trauma can seriously affect memory, making the ability to learn a new language even more difficult. What can we do to help those affected? Our project looked at ways to reduce anxiety and strategies to help our ESOL learners remember how to use vocabulary confidently and accurately.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway.


New College Durham is an FE college serving Durham city and the surrounding area. We offer a range of diverse courses including ESOL classes for adults and 16 to 18-year-olds.

We have noticed that many of the ESOL learners have problems retaining knowledge, often manifesting in poor retrieval of vocabulary or little progress being made in spelling work. Learners can become frustrated as they perceive their progress to be slow, and they are keen to move on to further study or employment but feel hindered by their poor language skills. This in turn can impact on confidence and self-esteem so it becomes more than just a language issue. Our project looked at strategies to aid retention and recall in conjunction with a selection of mindfulness strategies to improve language outcomes and learner confidence.


Over the first national lock down, many ESOL staff attended CPD sessions run by the British Council looking at the effect of trauma on learning. (British Council 2020). We know that trauma can have a negative impact on brain function (Van Der Kolk 2014) and it follows that this can lead to poor learning outcomes for particular groups of learners.

A significant number of the learners we work with have experienced trauma of some kind. We work with both adult refugees and unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, many of whom have fled war.

We have seen groups of learners not making the progress we would expect, often regardless of their own educational background. This can lead to feelings of frustration for them, and a lowering of their self- esteem and confidence.

We felt inspired to explore this area and see if we could introduce strategies into our teaching to strengthen the learners’ memory function, and thereby support them better in their learning journeys. Initially, we looked at general memory, but as the project progressed, we realised that this was too broad. We therefore narrowed it down to vocabulary retention with a particular emphasis on spelling as we identified this as an area which most of the learners had weaknesses in.


Aproach imageReady to learn

  • Identified strategies to help learners feel safe and secure before starting the project. (Delaney 2016)
  • Worked with a mindulness coach, concious of the need to avoid adverse reactions amongst those who have experienced trauma.
  • COVID-19 restrictions led to adapted approaches and staff selecting those they felt comfortable with. (Appendix 8 )

How we learn

  • Keen to encourage learners to learn more about how they learn/what works for them.
  • We constructed a simple questionnaire which reflected on past learning experiences both successful and less so.
  • Learners identified the ingredients of a successful learning experience for themselves. Staff reviewed this information to inform their approach.Aproach image
  • A similar questionnaire used at the end to explore their perceptions of vocabulary retention from both online and face-to-face classes.(Appendix 12)

Approach 1&2

  • Entry Level 1 class focused on spelling and breaking words up in their constituent syllables. (Case Study 1 & Appendix 14)
  • Pre-Entry Level class focused on spelling target vocabulary using the ‘look, say, cover, write, check’ method. (Case Study 2)

Other approaches

The following strategies were also used to practise and reinforce new lexis.

  • Using pictures to help remember difficult spellings e.g. apple
  • Visualisation to help personalise the meaning of an word/concept.
  • Recognition of words within words e.g. forgotten.
  • Word patterns e.g. dropped , slipped.
  • Choosing their own vocab lists.

Evaluation of progress

  • Specific assessments were planned at key points in addition to weekly revision. Term 2 – summative assessment of vocabulary retention across both terms.
  • Specific assessment criteria around vocabulary and spelling included.e.g. spelling accuracy, choice of vocab in context, range of vocab.
  • A range of assessment activities – cloze, multiple choice, correct the spelling, free writing and speaking tasks.

Next steps

  • Embed mindfulness strategies from the start of the new year
  • Establish a departmental garden as a safe space
  • Build in questionnaire and initial activities exploring personal vocabulary strategies into induction.
  • Build vocabulary development and assessment in more systematically and link to building confidence and independence.

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

In response to guidance from experts in the field, the team has extended the already extensive pastoral offer to include mindfulness exercises for all learners. The welfare offer has been particularly important this year with the stress caused by the pandemic. Staff have become more confident at conducting mindfulness exercises and have forged a relationship with a mindfulness coach in order to practise this safely. Mindfulness exercises at the start of classes set the right tone for learning new vocabulary and focussing on spelling.

The project has provided the opportunity for the team to focus on trying out different

Some of the spelling strategies used

Some of the spelling strategies used

strategies to teach spelling and vocabulary. We have had training as a team, and individuals have also worked on their own strategies, researching areas of interest as part of their CPD. Staff have used new approaches and have been open to new experiences and methods and this is something that we see continuing in the future. Staff got creative, using flashcards with home drawn pictures which they encouraged students to post around their homes to great effect. There is no conclusive evidence as to which approach was most successful, and learners seemed to prefer a variety. The key was to try out different approaches to find what worked for the teacher and the learners.

Over the lockdown period when classes were taught online, in contrast to the first lockdown classes from March 2020, the team maintained a focus on spelling and vocabulary in an attempt to continue with the progress made in this area. Rather than adopt one practice activity we found that looking for opportunities to recycle in as many different ways as possible proved most effective. They were used both as assessment and practice activities, designed to focus on:

  • Spelling: spot the mistake, word jumbles
  • Meaning in context: choose the best word, cloze activities
  • Grammatical use: freer writing tasks

There has also been a more reflective approach taken to assessment, considering how we assess vocabulary across different levels. Should we use the same approach and criteria for Entry Level 1 and Level 1 or are different elements more important at different levels?

We found that a more mechanical approach worked better at lower levels, using scaffolded approaches like gap fill texts to help the students reproduce the required words.

At higher levels, a free writing approach worked well as it allowed us to assess the students’ ability to select vocabulary to suit the context.

We have also found that, in addition to weekly spelling assessments, many of the practice activities we have been using provide learners with far more formative feedback helping them to explore their understanding and use of new items more fully. Reviewing and questioning the effectiveness of our existing practice has proved stimulating and has given us the impetus to try out new things as we adapt our teaching to a more blended approach.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

The biggest change to organisational practice has come about through the increased focus on welfare that we have. We have formed a relationship with a social enterprise in Durham, which

Increased focus on welfare

Increased focus on welfare

has the aim of supporting Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. As a result of the benefits we have seen from increased welfare focus, we have worked with the SLT to identify some space to start a gardening club. The college is building raised beds and a paved area for the ESOL learners, and the social enterprise has provided us with seeds, tools and mini greenhouse so that we can offer learners a chance to work outside and grow their own fruit and vegetables. This has proven benefits for positive mental health and by getting support from the college; the welfare element of what we do has been recognised and is being actively promoted.

The ESOL team has always had an ethos of sharing best practice, but this project has led to deeper reflections on teaching practice and more professional discussions within the team and a willingness among staff to try something new. During the project, we used a recording sheet to track our activities. This was open to the whole team and could then be discussed at weekly team meetings. This proved to be very useful and generated more professional discussions and provided support even when we were not able to share physical space. (Appendix 13)

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Results from the second questionnaire

Results from the second questionnaire

The overall results from assessments in term 1 show an increase in achievement in spelling, writing and speaking outcomes. We used range and appropriacy of vocabulary as assessment criteria in written and spoken tests and spelling as an assessment criterion in written tests.

We saw a dip in achievement in term 2, following the period of lockdown. What is interesting is that learners were quite clear on why they were more likely to remember the meaning and spelling of words from term 1, and the meaning only of words from term 2 as can be seen in the results from the second questionnaire.

I think from class better than online

Teacher explaining very good

I can remember words more and learn new words when I learn face to face

Breaking words down’ used as a strategy

‘Breaking words down’ used as a strategy

It is also worth noting that we did not have the opportunity to carry on with mindfulness activities during lock down, and this might also have been a contributing factor to a dip in achievement.

However, we were able to see that those learners who carried on using the spelling strategies we used together in class during lock down still continued to make progress. Learner S for example has found ‘breaking words down’ a very useful strategy and has been enthused by the impact it has had on her progress.

Those learners who did not use the strategies made less progress and the progress was not secure, so they were unable to reproduce the words independently in a freer piece of writing as we can see in Learner Y’s case study.

Attendance was 91% for term 1 (face to face) and 86% for term 2 (online) and this is also a possible contributing factor to the dip in achievement.

Learning from this project

Although the project took place in extremely challenging circumstances, and it may not be possible to say definitively what the impact of the lockdown was on the work we were doing, we are still comfortable with the following conclusions.

We can say that using a consistent and focused approach to learning vocabulary with built-in practice activities allows the learner the best chance to transfer the item from their short term to their long-term memory. Most approaches seemed to be successful, but learner buy in by way of them choosing the vocabulary items was really important. When that happens, the item can be retrieved even several months after learning. On the other hand, without focus and consistency, this does not seem to happen as easily, and learners are not as secure in their learning. It is interesting to note that ‘look say cover write check’ was found to be effective in the mechanics of writing the words, but not so much in the retrieval of the vocabulary item, so using it plus an approach focussed on meaning and context is more successful in helping the students to really know a word.

We also found that we had the best results when we were face to face with learners. We cannot say for certain, but it seems that the work we were doing on mindfulness allowed the learners to approach their learning in a more positive and relaxed frame of mind, which seemed to be better for learning to take place.

This is corroborated by feedback from learners who told us that being in class focused their attention more and that they found learning vocabulary more difficult “when I think of a lot of thing” and “when we don’t use it much in class”. They also felt that the chance to “…practise in my class with my friends” was a key advantage of face-to-face sessions. With this in mind, we will be looking at how we can replicate the opportunity to explore the meaning and use of new words more collaboratively if we continue with a more blended offer.

Asking learners to reflect on their own learning experiences before asking them to choose a strategy to help them remember vocabulary more successfully proved effective in many cases with some learners like Learner S getting a great deal out of the experiment. Raising the learners’ own awareness of how they learn, introducing them to strategies that might help them to move items into their long-term memory and then asking them to reflect on what worked well for them, reinforced the importance of learners taking more responsibility for their learning, in line with other college initiatives.

Finally, we learnt that no one is ever too old or has been teaching too long to try new things. Some of us felt a little ridiculous when we started introducing mindfulness activities into class, but the positive response we had quickly overcame any feelings of embarrassment, and we fully embraced the approach.