Emma Herrod has one of my favorite blogs to follow. She’s very objective, filled with great ideas for activities and insightful reflections on teaching. A couple of weeks ago Emma proposed a challenge, a Vocabulary Blogging Challenge to be more exact. In short, she asked us to share some ways we approach vocabulary teaching in class, intending to compile a list of great ideas that everyone could use to spice up their vocabulary teaching. those who have read other posts on my blog – or know me on twitter – should remember my difficulty in declining a good challenge. So here I am!
Well, there are so many ways I teach vocabulary to my students! I don’t think I can even remember all of them. But two activities were a bit more successful recently and they’re the ones I’ll share for this challenge. The first one is something I do with all my High Intermediate groups and it had a curious and unexpected development this semester. It’s the Vocabulary Bank.
The idea is that I give the group 30 words throughout the semester, 1 per class (there are 36 classes in a semester in my school), add to the poster and leave them there. The students have to use at least 10 different words from the list - their choice of which word, how to use it and when – before the semester is over. My intention is that students are forced to use new words authentically, that they develop the skills of knowing when to use vocabulary they are exposed to appropriately. I think we all agree that just presenting new vocabulary to students does very little for the actual acquisition of that vocabulary. The student needs to see the words in context, being used and they have to use it themselves, to really learn it.
They can use the words they choose in either speaking or writing. I ask them to underline or highlight the word when they do it in writing, to make sure their use of the word doesn’t go unnoticed by me when I correct the writing – and therefore don’t record it in the vocab bank use log. When they use it while speaking, if I miss it, either their classmates or themselves call my attention to it. Although I have to admit I can’t remember not noticing the use in class. And it’s always a big hit among them. At the High Intermediate track the students are quite fluent, with a considerable vocabulary already. So I choose less common words most times, from books or articles I read, from vocabulary lists made for those who are studying for language tests (such as TOEFL, IELTS, etc). Sometimes a student proposes a word he has come across and believe it fit for the bank. There’s no rule for the choice of the words that go into the bank, really. Sometimes it’s just because I saw it being used beautifully :-)
How do I present these words? To tell you the truth, after I explain the “project” in the first day of class, and do it for a couple of classes after that, the students are the ones who ask for the new word as soon as they come into the classroom. (Who says students aren’t eager to learn??). But in those first classes – or when they don’t ask – I try to vary the way I present the words. Sometimes I am traditional and just add the word to the list, other I use it in a sentence I ask them – knowing only too well at least one of them will raise their hand and say “Teacher what does THAT mean?”, it varies. Then after they see the new word, I ask if any of them has ever heard it or know what it means. If they do, they give a definition for it and then I ask if anybody can use it in a sentence. If they’ve never heard it I try to elicit from them what function the word has (Is it a verb? An adjective? An adverb? Why do you think so?), if they think the word has a positive or negative connotation and why they think that way.
The best thing about this ongoing project is to see the students using the words, adding them to their vocabulary, having fun while doing it, motivating each other to use, cheering each other when a friend uses one of the words. Or when a student comes to class and says he/she saw the word being used in a film, book or in the internet. And we even created a game with the vocab bank this semester – which was a fun class, with students fired up and using language (and the words!) to negotiate.
The second idea I’m sharing here can be used with many levels and groups. I play a little game as a warmer with my groups sometimes, to help students establish relationships between words that have the same root and to expand their vocabulary with words the students themselves have in their repertoire. The students sit in a circle and I start by writing one or more words on the center of the board. Then I hand the marker to one of the students and he/she has to go to the board and add a word that has the same root of one of the words, making a word web. For example, if the initial word is photo, students can come up with photographer, photograph, photographic, photogenic, etc). The first students hands the marker to the next one and it goes on until nobody can add another word to the webs on the board. It a simple, easy activity, and the teacher can choose the initial words according to what is being / has been taught in class.
On a final note, I’d just like to mention a vocabulary game that I keep at hand. I have a Boggle in my cabinet, in the classroom. And I use it in many ways: as a filler for those final minutes of class when you have done everything you set out to; as a fun activity to unwind after a more boring class; when students ask for it (some of them become quite hooked on it, as you can see on the picture below :-)) or as a warmer, in the beginning of class. I usually have them sit in a circle around the boggle and when the time is up, the students take turns saying the words they came up with. They have to know the meaning of all the words they say, and sometimes I ask them to say what it means. Most times we do it as a competition, with students earning points for every word they come up with – only words with 3 or more letters (for the points we have a system that awards 1 point for a 3-letter word, 2 points for a 4-letter word, 3 for a 5-letter word and so on). It’s a great game to have at hand!
As usual, I’d love to hear your ideas. How you teach vocabulary. And I can bet Emma would happily include any other ideas to her challenge! :-)