29 Oct Oldies but Goldies: The Most Common Teaching Vocabulary Tips
Author: Ilinca Stroe, International House Bucharest
When it comes to determining which is more important, grammar or vocabulary, teachers of English as a foreign language usually have their favourite: some of us love teaching grammar, whereas some others find teaching vocabulary a thousand times more fun. But personal preferences aside, vocabulary is arguably slightly more useful than grammar, when speaking a foreign language: just send out there two learners of English, one who’s perfectly knowledgeable of the difference between Present Simple and Present Continuous, and one who’s picked up a lot of words, and see which of them reaches their destination first – the one who can say “I am looking for…” (and not “I look for”), or the one who knows “station” and “train”…
So teaching vocabulary is at least as important as teaching grammar and, just like the latter, it requires planning and a procedure, it makes use of certain techniques, and it poses challenges. Let’s go through them.
First, what is taught in a vocabulary lesson? When we think of a vocabulary lesson, we automatically tend to see it in terms of words (names of animals, colours, body parts, weather-related nouns, etc.). Don’t forget, however, that in a vocabulary lesson the target language (i.e. the language to be taught) could better be described as vocabulary items: that includes, besides words, collocations, idioms and even functional exponents (e.g. phrases used in meetings, telephoning, socialising, negotiations, etc.).
Secondly, what are the typical stages of a vocabulary lesson?
warm-up (to raise the students’ interest in the topic)
elicitation (to activate the students’ knowledge of the target language)
presentation (to introduce the vocabulary items under focus)
explanation (to clarify the vocabulary item’s meaning, pronunciation, form and other aspects like positive or negative connotations, appropriate formal/informal usage, etc.)
controlled/freer practice (to enable students to use the vocabulary items in exercises, games, tasks, speaking activities, etc.)
feedback (to praise and/or correct the students’ use of the vocabulary items)
How about some of the most common ways to introduce new vocabulary? Your choice of the right way should depend on the type of vocabulary items you’re teaching and your students’ level. If, for instance, you need to teach prepositions to an A1-level class, then probably the best way to do it is via pictures. B1/B2-level course books, on the other hand, usually introduce new lexis through texts, while for advanced students presenting idioms via pictures might not be the best choice at all, as quizzes could be more engaging, instead.
So do consider your students’ level and the type of vocabulary items to be taught before choosing one of these ways to either elicit or present new lexis:
visuals (flashcards, photos, magazine pictures, posters, Google images, etc.)
miming (it’s effective and good fun for adjectives describing moods or for action verbs)
TPR (total physical response for body parts, for instance)
matching exercises (item to definition, item to synonym or opposite)
translation (generally not recommendable, but occasionally useful)
realia (e.g. plush toys to teach animals, colouring pens to teach colours)
mind maps or spidergrams (to visually organise the target language being taught)
word clusters (e.g. to group together items into lexical sets)
music (using a famous tune with new lyrics that include the target language)
categorisation (to associate the vocabulary items with a concept, e.g. a weather noun with a country)
Mind you, many times it’s significantly more effective to use a combination of two or more such methods (e.g. miming and synonym/antonym matching), since that ensures more comprehensive clarification.
Finally, the challenges of teaching vocabulary: how do we create memorable contexts for the new vocabulary we’re introducing, and how do we ensure long-term memorisation of the vocabulary items we’ve taught?
To create a memorable context for each of the new vocabulary items you’re teaching, customise and personalise as much as you can. Make a memorable connection between a person (story/film character, celebrity, classmate) and the word/phrase under focus. For example: if you’re teaching clothes, use the students themselves to introduce the clothing items under focus (“Look, Laura’s wearing a skirt today. Dan’s wearing a suit and tie. And look at Silvia: she has a blue scarf around her neck”); or if you’re teaching adjectives to describe personality, associate the latter vocabulary items with the students’ signs (e.g. “Aries are stubborn”, “Cancerians are shy”, etc.)
As for long-term memorisation, practice, repetition and revision are essential, leading to solid retention, in-depth acquisition and confident use. They say the vocabulary taught in a class needs to be revised during that same class, then one hour later, then one class later, one week later, and one month later. In other words, revise initially more often, subsequently more occasionally. But do revise. Create opportunities for students to use that vocabulary, design activities and tasks for the completion of which those words or phrases are both common sense, handy and easy to use.
One last remark, about a challenge that’s relevant mainly (but not only) for non-native teachers of English: what do you do when a student asks you about the meaning of a word/phrase which you’re unfamiliar with? Above all, do not pretend you know it, if you don’t. The phoniness of it will show, and you risk losing your students’ respect. Instead, admit honestly that you don’t know, and be open about finding the answer together (for instance, by looking it up in a dictionary on the spot, in class). Or tell the students that you are going to look into it and give them an answer the next class. And then just keep your promise.