I hope there’s a little bit for everyone in today’s post. For teachers just starting out on their career, this whole post might serve as a useful guide in how to go about teaching vocabulary in the language classroom, while the experienced among us may wish to fast forward to the third section and explore the tools I suggest. Whoever you are, please drop me a line in the comments section and let me know if you found this post useful!
Learning vocabulary is as important a step in developing future reading, listening, writing and speaking skills as any other aspect of language learning. Consequently, in this post I’ll reflect on what we teachers need to do in terms of dealing with what learners need to know about the words we want to teach, and how we can effectively teach them. In part one I’ll cater specifically to newbie teachers and briefly consider some of the most effective ways of presenting vocabulary. I’ll move on to look at what learners might need to know about a word. In part three I’ll cater to everyone and introduce ten useful tools for teaching vocabulary in class. I’ll round up with some sound advice that we could all do with remembering!
Ok, ready? Here we go…
Part 1: Effective ways of presenting vocabulary
At this point it’s important not to worry and to remember that there are loads of techniques we can employ to teach vocabulary in a stimulating and effective way. Here are a few of the best…
1.1 A Written definition
It might seem like an obvious suggestion, but it’s one that you need to make sure you do properly. When deciding how to define a word, make sure that it is clear and remember to ask questions to check if learners really have understood properly. One good way of getting used to writing clear definitions is to consult a learner dictionary to see how they do it.
1.2 Visual illustration
Concrete nouns, by which I mean ‘things that have a physically distinct shape or form’ (dog, rain, tall, etc.) can often best be dealt with through the use of images. Conversely, you are perhaps best advised not to try and illustrate emotional states such as despair, love, etc, unless you are an incredibly talented artist!
1.3 Gradable items/Synonyms/Antonyms
A lot of adjectives work on a sliding scale (cold, warm, hot, etc.), while many others have opposites (good and bad, for example). Using the words a student already knows can be effective for getting meaning across. This can of course be dangerous, especially when you know that a word either means one extreme or another, but can’t remember which: I remember a colleague describing a student as incredibly ‘stupid’ to a parent, as he’d got the word mixed up with ‘clever’!
So, you have to teach your learners the meaning of certain action verbs. Well, miming lends itself extremely well to showing what action verbs mean. What’s more, it tends to be both fun and memorable.
Translating from English into the mother tongue has its pitfalls, but if you know the students’ L1 reasonably well, it can often prove to be a fast and efficient technique. Remember: not every word has a direct translation into English and this is where it can prove to be an ineffective technique.
As far as I’m concerned, this is the king of techniques. If you can provide one – or more – clear context in which the word is used, you’re well on your way. Either describe it to the students or give them example sentences to clarify meaning further (preferably, do both).
Part 2: What might learners need to know about a word?
In one unit of a course book I regularly use, I have to teach a text about desertification. Now, for all intent and purpose, the English word ‘desertification’ isn’t actually that necessary in the wider scheme of things, but it would be extremely difficult for this particular text if learners didn’t know what it meant. Naturally, the extent to which a learner really needs to ‘know’ a word will depend on a number of factors, but here are the aspects of knowing that are generally considered the most important. As I suggested earlier, experienced teachers might want to skip through this and just focus on the ideas part.
2.1 What does it mean?
I can’t imagine getting learners to try and confidently use a word without knowing what it means. Get the meaning of the item across clearly and to ensure that your learners have understood correctly with checking questions.
2.2 The form
To be able to use it effectively learners need to know if it is a verb / a noun / an adjective etc. It’s always useful to bear in mind that they might need to review what these parts of speech mean in their L1, too!
2.3 How is it pronounced?
Pronunciation can be especially problematic for learners because there is often no clear relation between how a word is written and how it is pronounced. Simple classroom activities like drilling words that you think might cause pronunciation problems can resolve a lot of pronunciation issues.
2.4 How is it spelled?
As with pronunciation, and for the same reasons, this is frequently problematic in English. It is usually useful to clarify the pronunciation before showing the written form.
2.5 Does it follow any (un)predictable grammatical patterns?
For example, ‘man-men’ is an example of an irregular plural. ‘Information’ is an uncountable noun (in many languages it would be ‘informations’). Depend is always followed a particular preposition (i.e. depend on).
2.6 Does the word have particular connotations?
‘Svelte’ is a nice way of describing a woman, while ‘skinny’ is distinctly less positive! ‘Bachelor’ is a neutral / positive word to describe an unmarried man, whereas ‘spinster’ conjures a more negative image, even though it is basically the direct female equivalent.
2.7 When is the word used or not used?
Is the word formal / neutral / informal? For instance, think about how we might describe eye wear in different situations: spectacles / glasses / specs. Is the word used mainly in spoken or in written language? For example, ‘to summarize’ is usually used in writing, whereas ‘mind you’ is almost always spoken. Has the word become outdated or archaic? Would we, for example, ever refer to a ‘pilot’ as an ‘aviator’ these days?
2.8 How is the word related to other words?
Examples of this might be a particular vocabulary item’s synonyms and antonyms, or the lexical sets in which it appears (yellow would belong to the ‘colour’ set of words, for instance).
2.9 What are its collocations (the way that it occurs together with other words)?
As obvious as it might be to us that we describe things ‘in great detail’ and not ‘in big detail’, such things might not necessarily work the same in our learners’ native tongues. Collocations are important to highlight to learners in order to prevent mistakes in usage.
2.10 What do affixes (prefixes and suffixes) indicate about the meaning?
What does the ‘sub-’ mean in substandard? Knowledge of affixes greatly helps when having to guess them meaning of unknown words, for instance.
The areas you choose to focus on in class will depend on the item you are teaching and the level of your students. It’s fair to say that this is something that you’ll have to reflect on every time you teach vocabulary. Now it’s time to think about how we do all this in class.
Part 3: Useful tools for teaching vocabulary in class
Now we get on to the cool part of today’s post. Now that we’ve looked at some basic techniques and the various aspects of knowing what words mean (or, if you’re an old pro and have followed my advice, have fast forwarded to this part), I’ve done some research and prepared a list of really useful tools that are free to use and will help you address the issues mentioned in the first two parts of this post.
Memrise is immense. I mean really… it’s huge. There are so many vocabulary resources here that the most difficult thing will be for you to decide where to start. You can use what you find here in class, or you can recommend to your learners for self study. There’s something good for practically every aspect of knowing a word, and there’s also a nice range of activities.
*Marek Kiczkowiak has written much more on Memrise on his blog here.
Lexipedia is a really nice multi-lingual visual dictionary that creates a word web and defines words based on parts of speech. The toolbar bookmarklet makes using it convenient and easy.
This free tool allows you to make lots of fun little quiz activities that will help you build up learner knowledge of vocab. Because you input the data yourself, you can easily cover the various aspects of knowing a word depending on how you decide to make each quiz.
This is an amazing tool that turns all the words in any website or digital text into a clickable dictionary and translates text into 12 different languages.
This is a quick and very functional little tool that enables learners to attach visual images to their sentences. You have full control, as you write the example sentence yourself and then choose the image you want to go with each word.
Snappy Words is an online interactive English dictionary and thesaurus that helps learners find the meanings of words and draw connections to associated words.
One of my favourites, this fabulous tool creates a 3D orbiting galaxy of words and their associations (perfect for seeing the most frequent collocations). Click on any word to move it to the center of the galaxy, then click again and watch the globe populate with images from Flickr.
You have to sign up for this one, but the account is free and you can create word lists to support a written text. With a click of a button, learners can access dictionary information and create flash cards for review.
With Vocab Grabber you copy and paste text into a box and this tool then generates a word cloud to help you identify the key vocabulary. You can sort words by content area.
Visuwords enables you to look up words to find their meanings and their associations with other words and concepts.
If you have any other suggestions, please mention them in the comments section below and I’ll add them to the list.
Part 4: A few other things
- When it comes to learning vocabulary, your learners should be encouraged, above all else, to be as autonomous as possible. The best way to pick up, retain and develop vocabulary knowledge is through repeated exposure, so get them to read, watch films, listen to songs and note down useful words.
- In addition to teaching your learners the grammatical names for the parts of speech (never take knowledge of this for granted), familiarize them with the phonemic script, as this will greatly benefit them in terms of pronunciation.
- Encourage your learners to get hold of a good dictionary. Devote class time to highlighting the benefits of having one and how to use it effectively.
- Reviewing the vocabulary you teach in class through a game or some similar motivating activity is a surefire winner. Also, I strongly suggest that you encourage your learners to do the same at home.
- Be ready for on the spot questions! My advice here is to always have a good dictionary with you in case a learner asks about a word you don’t know, or can’t define, or can’t contextualize. Trust me on this one!
- It’s generally a good idea to teach / learn words with associated meanings together.
- Your learners will discover all kinds of weird and wonderful words while watching films and TV shows… and they’ll ask you about them. If you don’t know or have never heard of the word, be honest and tell the learner that you’ll check and get back to them. There are more than a million words in the English language; you can be forgiven for not knowing them all!
- Give further examples sentences to the students if they are unsure and encourage them to write the word in an example sentence (maybe for homework).