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Enhancing vocabulary acquisition and retention via the vocabulary clock





Date Published

10 July 2023


I am Anestin Chi, a teacher of English and French languages in Cameroon. In 2022, I won the IELTS Morgan Terry Memorial IATEFL scholarship. Winning this award entails designing and describing an innovative educational activity that helps prospective IELTS test takers to prepare for the test. In this blog post, I take you through designing and using my award-winning idea – the vocabulary clock.

Chi Anestin Lum

Importance of vocabulary development for language learning and the IELTS test

Vocabulary constitutes the backbone of a language; the foundation for developing language literacy. Wilkins (1972) posits that ‘without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed’ (p.111) as people use words to express thoughts and feelings.

There is a strong correlation between vocabulary knowledge and development of competence in the four main language skills (Stæhr, 2008; Nation, 2015):

  • Learners are less likely to struggle with understanding the meaning of a reading passage if they have the required vocabulary knowledge for a given text.
  • It is much easier to decode and extract meaning in listening when learners have sufficient vocabulary. Although vocabulary knowledge is not the sole factor that comes into play in enhancing both listening and reading comprehension, it certainly plays a vital role in the process (Van Zeeland & Schmitt, 2013).
  • Vocabulary knowledge becomes even more important and perhaps a determinant factor in assessing a person’s speaking ability (Koizumi & In’nami, 2013). The more words people know, the better they are at expressing themselves orally or in writing.

Going by the aforementioned points, having a good mastery of vocabulary can help to improve test takers’ scores across all IELTS test sections. It is with this understanding that I developed the vocabulary clock, an activity designed to expand learners’ vocabulary repertoire.

Below, I explain what the vocabulary clock is, how it works, and how it could be adapted and used in different contexts.

Designing a vocabulary clock

The vocabulary clock is a word mat, designed in the form of a clock, which bears key expressions related to a given topic.

1. Vocabulary clock sample on climate change

2. What you need

To design a topic-specific vocabulary clock, you need:

  • two pieces of cardboard paper
  • bold markers
  • pens
  • a pair of scissors
  • pins.

3. The design process

  1. Identify challenging or unfamiliar expressions each time a new topic is introduced in a class. At the end of every topic, teachers should support learners to design a topic-specific vocabulary clock using the previously identified list of unfamiliar words and/or expressions.
  2. Ask learners to draw two circles on the first piece of cardboard. In the inner circle, they write the topic/theme. In the larger outer circle, they write the previously identified new words/expressions related to the topic. They partition the cardboard neatly according to the number of words or expressions.
  3. Ask learners to draw two circles on the second piece of cardboard and partition as the first. They write the topic in the inner circle and either the meaning of the words/expressions, or their synonyms or antonyms in the outer circle. Learners may use context clues to guess the meanings, antonyms or synonyms of the words or simply look up in a dictionary, when designing a vocabulary clock.
  4. Guide learners to place the first piece of cardboard over the second and pin together. Ensure that the pieces of cardboard are cut neatly, according to the partitioned expressions, so that the pieces can be lifted to read the meanings, synonyms or antonyms on the card beneath.

Depending on the goals of the lesson, the vocabulary clock may be designed to display words/expressions and their:

  • meanings
  • synonyms
  • antonyms.

Adapting to different CEFR levels

The vocabulary clock can be adapted to learners’ proficiency levels:

  • When dealing with beginners, teachers could identify and pre-teach difficult vocabulary and at the end of the lesson ask learners to design a vocabulary clock as a recap task.
  • For intermediate learners, teachers may ask them to identify and establish the list of expressions to be put on the vocabulary clock.
  • Also, at intermediate level, the vocabulary clock may be designed to include collocations.

Adapting to different classroom resources

The vocabulary clock can also be adapted to different contexts:

  • In low-resource context, vocabulary clocks on different topics/themes may be designed in learners’ notebooks; in this case the notebooks, with topic-specific vocabulary clocks in them, become mobile dictionaries for learners.
  • Where cardboard is readily available, teachers may also get learners to design vocabulary clocks on large pieces of cardboard to display in the classroom for easy reference and recycling.
  • In a high-tech context, the vocabulary clock idea could be adapted to any of the wheel games such as Wordwall, which makes it even more interesting as a game.

Turn the vocabulary clock into a classroom game

Cognisant of the fact that building vocabulary takes more than just learning words, but actually using them correctly in context, teachers can get learners to recycle the vocabulary on the clocks in a fun way.

One way I suggest is to get students to play a sort of pinball game. In a situation where the vocabulary clocks are designed on large cardboard and displayed in the classroom, teachers can divide learners into teams. The teams score points not just by striking the words/expressions on the cardboard as they make various shots with pins, but also by providing either the meanings, synonyms or antonyms of the words, or even using them correctly in sentences, depending on teachers’ instructions.

Take, for example, teams A and B: Team A strikes a given word/expression with a pin; team B provides the meaning, synonym or antonym of the word/expression. If team B gets it correct, they earn a point; if not they lose a point. By playing the game, students recycle topic-related vocabulary and unconsciously assimilate their meaning and use.

Benefits of the vocabulary clock

The vocabulary clock is perfect for giving prospective test takers a quick recap of lexical items – a quick glance at the clocks helps them to become familiar with new words/expressions and expand their vocabulary repertoire, which is particularly necessary for IELTS Speaking and Writing tasks.

The vocabulary clock appeals to all learning styles. Besides being visual and kinesthetic, the design and use of vocabulary clocks meet both the needs of solitary learners, who feel comfortable designing their own clocks in their notebooks, and social learners, who are happy to recycle the vocabulary during a group game.

Also, learners make use of both auditory and verbal cognitions when recycling vocabulary (whether manually, as in the pinball game with students using pins to strike specific words/expressions on the clock, or electronically, using any of the wheel games) as they listen to others and take turns to speak. This helps them to internalise vocabulary.

In all, the vocabulary clock caters for individual dispositions and enables learners with different learning styles to experience equally appropriate ways of enriching their vocabulary reservoir.


  • Koizumi, R., & In’nami, Y. (2013). Vocabulary knowledge and speaking proficiency among second language learners from novice to intermediate levels. Journal of Language Teaching and Research, 4(5), 900–913.
  • Nation, P. (2015). Principles guiding vocabulary learning through extensive reading. Reading on a Foreign Language, 27(1), 136–145.
  • Stæhr, L. S. (2008). Vocabulary size and the skills of listening, reading and writing. Language Learning Journal, 36(2), 139–152.
  • Van Zeeland, H. & Schmitt, N. (2013). Lexical coverage in L1 and L2 listening comprehension: The same or different from reading comprehension? Applied Linguistics, 34(4), 457–479.
  • Wilkins, D. (1972). Linguistics and language teaching. Edward Arnold.


Chi Anestin Lum is a Cameroonian teacher of English and French languages and a multi-award winner, including the IELTS Morgan Terry Memorial 2022. She is passionate about innovative teaching methodologies and teachers’ continuous professional development.