In the beginning was the Word
Teaching vocabulary - for teachers; learning vocabulary - for students; personal experience - David Naylor
HOW TO TEACH VOCABULARY
There are teachers who love doing grammar with their students. They excel at explaining rules and constructions turning it into fun and games. However, when it comes to teaching vocabulary they may scratch their heads and say they just teach the words that naturally come up in class. Let me give you some useful guidelines to use when teaching new vocabulary:
How much vocabulary can I teach in class?
As one of my colleagues once said “Don’t put 15 pounds of potatoes in a 5 pound bag”. What this means is teaching too many new words will not result in anything but failure. I have made the mistake of relentlessly throwing new lexis at my students throughout the lesson with such abandon they complained about having a headache by the end. Give them too many unknown words and they will remember nothing. However, the perfect number of new words you can introduce remains a point of debate. There are teachers who say that you should teach 5 new words but perfect them to the point of mastery, others are known to raise the number to 15 or even 20 words. It really depends on the level of your students, their awareness of the language in general and educational background, their age, affinity to languages and even the day of the week. It is best if you figure out their average retention and stick to that. Before you do that, try to ration the amount of words you give.
How do I know which words I should teach?
More experienced teachers might scoff at me here, but I assure you it is an important one. If you are new to teaching, looking at different course books and vocabulary files will give you a general understanding of the range and type of vocabulary relevant to each level. First select your topic, say “food”, then open Vocabulary in Use or any other vocabulary book and see what words are suggested there for your students’ level. But this is not all.
I once taught the topic “homes” using a popular intermediate level textbook, where there were words such as “shed”, “extension”, “observatory” and “shutters”. I had to carefully filter out the words my students would probably never use or even encounter in their life. On the other hand, I added some words not present in the book but ones my students would likely need to use when talking about their homes. Thus ask yourself these two questions as well: “How relevant is this vocabulary to my students’ level and needs?” and “Will my students use or even come across the words I am planning to teach?”
How exactly do I teach vocabulary?
You should start with eliciting what your students already know. Ask them some general questions, describe a few pictures, brainstorm or create a mind map on the board. It will give you a general idea of what they can say and what they would like to say. After that introduce new words through context. Reading a text or doing a listening task will generally put the lexis in context and enable your students to guess its meaning. Do a few matching or gap filling exercises and you are done. However, I would not stop here. Words do not exist in vacuum and many words have more than one meaning. Some words go well with each other, others just don’t. So, introduce collocations, make sentences and examples, ask each other questions or write stories using new vocabulary. This way students will be able to get the hang of where these new words stand in the language, how they can be used. I would also show a few short videos where the words are used in films or series to increase exposure. Some great websites for that are playphrase.me and getyarn.io .
How do I make students remember the words?
We remember things that we often encounter in our lives, English words are not an exception. If you want your students to remember and use the words you will have to bring them up more than once. It is not enough to spend one lesson on a topic. Play revision games and encourage students to use new words when doing speaking activities. More than that, use this vocabulary yourself to increase students’ exposure to it.
Words are the color of any language. More often we can hear “I need more vocabulary” and everyone needs to find what works for them. Being patient, setting realistic goals, and rewarding yourself if you reach them is a good strategy that can be complemented with any of the following points. So here are some tips for an easy way of learning.
Make word association webs
Our brain takes what we read and makes it into images, ideas, and feelings etc. and then makes connections between what we knew before and the new information (words and ideas). This is how we remember things. The “new” stuff is fitted into the “old” stuff. Think of a tree. It is easier for you to see a big tree with lots of branches and leaves than it is to see a small tree with very few branches and leaves, right? Well, it’s the same for your brain. When you connect a new word or idea to things you already know you make it easier for your brain to find (see) it when you need to remember it. How can you do this? Easy. Make an Idea Web. Start with the thing you want to remember (words, ideas, sentences) in the middle of a piece of paper. Then draw lines from it like a spider’s web. At the end of the line write down any ideas or words or even pictures that you think of when you say the word or idea in the middle of the page. Anything you think of is ok…just write it down.
This only takes about 2 minutes. Now all the words/ideas are getting connected in your mind. If you see or hear one of them it will help your brain remember all of the others. To make this work really well, you can talk to yourself about how each word/idea fits together with the others. The more you do this, the more connections you make. Lots of connections makes it very easy for your brain to “see” the word you want to recall when you are trying to remember it.
Learn words in Chunks (collocations)
Remembering the word is important but English, like Chinese, is a language and languages are NOT just facts to be remembered – they are tools for people to USE to express their ideas and communicate. So, find examples of how each word is used in your text. Write a few words before and after the word so that you remember how it is used. For example: if your word is “arrogant” write something like this….”the tall, arrogant man” … This will help you to remember that “arrogant” is an adjective and that it describes people. The next thing to do is to make 3 full sentences with the word to practice using it.
Draw small pictures that show the meaning of the word if you can. Sounds crazy, right? That’s why it works. Our brains have so much normal information coming in every moment that a crazy image is a nice surprise – and you always remember surprises, don’t you? Our brains are also specially designed to catch and understand visual information quickly. So, make a funny picture that shows the meaning of the word you want to remember and your brain will remember it easily.
Tell a tall story
There’s a memory trick you can use to learn new words without a feeling “there are too many words”. Just make a crazy story that uses all the words. Picture it in your mind as you make the story. We remember stories easily, especially crazy stories that we can imagine in detail in our minds. Repeat the story and you will remember the words. When you make the story connect the words in funny ways. Try it. You’ll be surprised!
Recycle the pieces
Use roots, prefixes and suffixes to guess what a word means.
Maybe you don’t recognize this word “microbiology” but may be able to guess what it means. First, look at the prefix “micro”. Micro means very small. You may also remember that “ology” means a subject, the study of something. Already we know that part of this word’s meaning is “the study of” + “something small”. Now, you will probably remember that “bio” means living things. So, we can figure out that microbiology probably means the study of very small living things. This is correct. English is like a puzzle – we put the pieces together to make new words. So if you make a list of word beginnings that you often see (un-, dis-, con-, micro-, etc.) and word endings that you often see (-able, -ly, -ent, -tion, -ive, etc.) and remember what they mean, you will be able to guess what many new words mean.
Think & learn in opposites
Learn words with opposite meanings (antonyms) and words with similar meanings (synonyms) together. For example, learn angry/happy (antonyms) and angry/cross (synonyms) at the same time. We can remember similar and opposite things more easily because they “stick together” in our minds.
Timing is everything
According to psychologists who study how we remember anything, there is a better way to learn things quickly and permanently. Use the new word immediately. Use it 10 minutes later. Use it 1 hour later. Use it 1 day later. Use it 1 week later. After that, you’ll rarely have to review – the new vocabulary is yours forever.
By David Naylor
A few years ago two of my former colleagues, who were both experts in teaching pre-schoolers, were arguing over how to teach the children's nursery rhyme Incey Wincey Spider. One colleague thought it was better to have the children interact with the song and then study the meaning of vocabulary. The other thought the opposite was better, that the children needed to know every word before interacting with the song. While both approaches are equally valid, I would support the former over the latter.
This brings me to the question of whether or not it is necessary to 'pre-teach' vocabulary before introducing students of any age to any kind of text.
I personally am against pre-teaching vocabulary before introducing students to text. Firstly, because the term itself is completely nonsensical. It implies that we 'pre-learn' rather than just learn. Secondly, I feel that students learn and remember new lexical items when they are in context rather than in isolation. Presenting new vocabulary after the comprehension stage is complete helps students remember it more effectively.
Approaches to teaching vocabulary vary and each teacher has their own preference of going about this. As long as it is effective and it falls within ethical standards there is no right and wrong way. Each teacher must find the way that suits them best.
That’s all for now,
Stay amazing <3