Paul Nation deserves our full attention

Before attending Paul Nation’s recent webinar entitled “What matters in vocabulary learning?” I had only a passing acquaintance with his work. I knew that he advocated the use of flashcards and that alone was enough to put him in my good books.


Here are some recommendations from the talk that I found particularly noteworthy:

  • devote fully one third of class time to “revisiting old material”

  • train learners in principles of learning (i.e. learning how to learn)

  • design course materials to ensure multiple encounters with high frequency vocabulary

I aim to begin every lesson with a review of vocabulary from the previous one and so I was heartened to see that Nation places such a high value on this practice. The pressure to “cover” new material can be such that we rush halfheartedly from one lesson to another. After all, if something’s not worth reviewing was it worth teaching in the first place?

The exact figure of one third of class time is not as important as the awareness that regular review is a highly valuable practice whose benefits are underestimated. As teachers we are unconsciously socialised to be in a constant, and dare I say, counterproductive, rush.

Nation maintains that learners should be made aware of effective language learning practices, as set out in his book What you need to know to learn a foreign language. (It can be downloaded for free from his website.) This is a great resource which could be assigned to learners as part of their language learner training. What’s more, as it’s been translated into Spanish, Turkish, Korean and Arabic it could be assigned to absolute beginners to speakers of those languages.


One thing in the webinar that I take issue with is the idea that a theme-based course will ensure repeated encounters with high frequency vocabulary. Although most coursebooks units are organised around topics, my sense is that they don’t achieve the input flood that Nation suggests will take place. In other words, although coursebooks nowadays are (ostensibly) informed by corpus data, they could do a much better job of repeating high frequency lexical items across texts to ensure greater uptake.

In other words, although coursebooks nowadays are (ostensibly) informed by corpus data, they could do a much better job of repeating high frequency lexical items across texts to ensure greater uptake.

Click here to watch Paul Nation's webinar.

Click here to see the handout.

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