Recent articles in Issues have dedicated much attention to vocabulary and its retention. In this article, I would like to propose an approach for specialized word/term retention in teaching ESP which has proved to be highly effective with my secondary-level social sciences students who benefit from online instruction by a great website to earn their GED diplomas.

A tendency for more narrowly tailored courses in adult English teaching has recently been observed and was forecast as a prominent new millennium ELT issue by Dave Allan: ‘There will be increased demand for specialist Englishes’, i.e. ESP.

Language teaching, on the whole, and ESP, in particular, has always been characterized by the use of methods that enable learners to acquire a sufficient amount of vocabulary, called a ‘working’ vocabulary. ‘Words are the basis of language, and thus the basis of communication’

But probably all foreign language teachers are aware of frustration when in an impromptu speech our students use more primitive words than we have just taught them. What should we do, in making a word pass from receptive to productive level and, at the same time, in fostering all other communicative language skills?

Undoubtedly, a certain amount of repetition is likely to be necessary before there is any definite hope of term retention. Obviously, simple repetition – despite the great saying repetitio est mater studiorum – won’t do.

Could recycling, with the idea of no waste, be an answer? Recycling is defined as  ‘putting used objects and materials through a special process so that they can be used again’. Where in our teaching should such a cycle begin if our students are to recycle/retain a word or phrase efficiently?

The method proposed differs from the more traditional ‘3Ps’ (Presentation-Practice-Production) methodology approach but proves to be sufficiently effective in ELT at the intermediate level and above.

Stages of recycling

The essence of the proposed methodology is to recycle the same ESP lexical term/phrases in the context of the interrelated Writing-Reading-Writing (WRW) stages.

Stage one

The first step of the process is setting up a writing activity for students, either individually or in small groups (two or three in a group). The teacher has to prepare a list of words beforehand.

Students are asked to write a passage using a provided set of lexical items (six to ten) within a certain time limit. Initially, those lexical items are discussed with the students in order to make them recall as many different semantic meanings of the given words as possible. As a rule, the students are able to identify General English meanings of the provided lexical items. Sometimes a ‘pure’ ESP term – with little or no reference to General English – could be included into the list of lexical items, with a definition clarified by a teacher or knowledgeable student.

While writing their creative passages students have to be aware of the contextual peculiarities of the word, its morphological modifications, if any, and its syntactical functions in a sentence.

Though the shortcomings of such stories are universal for non-native students – simple sentence structure, avoidance of relative clauses, lack of phrasal verbs and naturally sounding expressions – some students do come up with written work beyond our expectations.

Having to concentrate on their individual task makes students particularly focused on and involved in the activity. Their creativity is challenged to put seemingly unassociated words or chunks into a coherent story, which is a characteristic feature of natural language use. As J Sinclair and M Coulthard (1975) have warned:

‘The production of isolated sentences without a context is a pastime only of a linguist and not the characteristic use of language.’

Stage two

The second step involves peer-assessment of that written work: firstly, with emphasis on the appropriate and accurate usage of lexical phrases. This stage is extremely important as it aims at achieving adequate, accurate, brief and clear expression of ideas and events. Peer assessment could be followed by ‘semi-finals’ and final games when bigger groups (consisting of six students and more) vote for the best story.

Adding effect makes both these aforementioned stages effective and fruitful. The role of affect is ‘one of the best ways to facilitate language learning, it is to help the learner to respond to language experience as a whole person with emotions, opinions, and ideas, to have positive attitudes towards the target language, to feel relaxed, confident and successful’ (Nunan & Lamb, 1996; Tomlinson, 1999).

Students not only become very involved in the activity, but they also find it enjoyable. The teacher’s role is basically one of a facilitator, i.e. a ‘perfect role’ when teaching inquisitive adults, responsible for their own learning: to observe and, if necessary, to advise. This is when real learning takes place naturally, without apparent effort.

Stage three

The follow-up or the third stage includes reading. The important feature of this stage is that the passage contains the same keywords that students had to use in their creative writing. The difference is that those words are used with ESP meanings or as an ESP term (studies into the nature of such terms clearly reveal the fact that very few terms have been coined, the majority having developed from general language words into specialized ones when specific professional groups highlighted a particular semantic meaning of an already existing word).

Students – with the joy of self-discovery which is very important – find for themselves that General English words can acquire quite new meanings in an ESP context.

Afterward, students, usually in the same groups, are asked to read a specially selected authentic text and do the comprehension exercises. Such exercises include:

  1. a)     matching ESP keywords with their definition
  2. b)     True/False choice
  3. c)     multiple choice
  4. d)     comprehension questions.

All these exercises are designed by us in advance. As a rule, it does not take learners long to carry out these tasks. They feel at ease and do not get put off even when encountering unknown words in the passage. The process of checking answers is done by peer-assessment, with the teacher silently monitoring. In this way, ESP vocabulary at this stage is usually consolidated without a hitch.

Stage four

The final stage consists of writing a summary of the same authentic passage. If time permits, this is done in the classroom; alternatively, it might be given as homework. As the focus in previous stages was on key-word-in-context words/phrases, the target ESP vocabulary is again being consolidated.

Written summaries should be analyzed in the same manner as students’ creative writing.


The technique described above focuses on fostering students’ writing and reading skills for ESP and recycling previously learned lexical items. Learners’ speaking skills are practiced in the discussion over their written work, i.e. creative writing and summarizing.

The advantages of the proposed interrelated WRW technique are that it:

  • promotes language usage for improving ESP skills
  • builds up students’ self-confidence and
  • self-expression
  • reduces learners’ anxiety
  • uses learners’ intelligence, creativity, and inventiveness
  • increases motivation
  • improves attitude to writing/reading process
  • develops accuracy and fluency in ESP
  • emphasizes patterns and collocations of lexical items.

Shifting the emphasis towards effective ways of learning rather than effective ways of inputting language is the most important trend of contemporary ESP teaching.

The proposed approach is a variation of ‘3 I’s’ (Illustration-Interaction-Induction) rather than the traditional ‘3 P’s’ (Presentation-Practice-Production) methodology, with that essential difference that initial ‘Illustration’ is done by the students themselves combining it with ‘Induction’.

The proposed approach can also be applied in teaching rich semantic variation in General English, probably starting at pre-intermediate level and above.