Vocabulary influences every aspect of language use. After all, if you don’t know what words mean, they are practically useless to you. When working through a written text with your students or beginning a new topic in class, it's important to highlight vocabulary words to aid in understanding. So, how do you figure out which words to focus on?
As with any lesson preparation, you have to start with understanding your students’ needs: Do they need academic English? Business English? Survival English? This will greatly influence what words you need to focus on. If you’re teaching conversational English your students probably don’t need to know what it means to cite a source.
So, how do you choose vocabulary? There are three criteria that I always consider when choosing my vocabulary words.
They should be just above your students’ current level of knowledge.
They should be useful for the context of your students' learning.
They should support the grammatical or linguistic concept that you're teaching on.
Stephen Krashen has a theory of input, which states that a learner can improve and progress when they are being taught, and are receiving input, at one step above their current level of knowledge. His theory can be summarized in a simple equation:
'i' stands for your learners' current linguistic level, and the +1 indicates that what you teach should be one step above their current level. If you simply teach 'i' (what they already know) then your intermediate level students will end up frustrated during your lecture on the meaning of 'cat.' Likewise, if you teach them '+7' (something that is too far above what they currently know) you'll find your beginner level students confused as you explain the difference between the words 'prescribe' and 'prescriptive.'
Just as the difficulty of the vocabulary words should be catered to your students' needs, the topic that the words fall into should be catered to your students' context. If you are teaching a class on business English, it probably isn't necessary (or preferred) that you teach the students words having to do with caring for a baby. If you're teaching a second grade class, they're not going to be interested in the ins-and-outs of the stock market.
You may sometimes focus on a linguistic or grammatical concept in your lesson plan. In this case your vocabulary words should mostly support that objective. I've taught a class on short vowel sounds, and my vocabulary list consisted of words that used that short vowel sound. If I was teaching on the use of compound words, I probably wouldn't highlight the word 'country' as a vocabulary term, even if my students are unfamiliar with it. You'll want to address the words they're unfamiliar with, but it isn't necessary to focus on all of them.
There is a balance between these three elements. After all, if your vocabulary term targets a grammatical concept and is useful for the context you’re teaching in, but it’s W A Y too far above the proficiency level, your students will be lost.
Likewise, if you focus on compound words and have chosen words that are at the correct proficiency level, but your words are all related to sports and your students are CEOs and corporates, they won’t see the value.
Since lesson plan focuses change all the time, we’ll focus on finding the balance between targeting proficiency level and context. There are three main categories to sort words into as you begin to form a vocabulary list. Read more about them below.
Types of Words
Active words are words that are active in an individual’s language. They are used easily and on a regular basis. This (hopefully) means that the definition, pronunciation, and usage is already known to a certain level. It’s not quite worth your time to focus on these words in a lesson. The students won’t be challenged by these words.
However, you may need to review these words or correct a student if they have an inaccurate idea about the definition or usage of the term. You can do this on an as-needed basis, though. Active words don't belong on a vocabulary list.
Receptive words are words that are used often in general English. These are words that your students will be most receptive to. There is a need for them because they are used often in the students' context, and the words are just above the level that your students are currently at. Those within your class have probably seen or heard these words before, but they don’t use them personally because they don’t know what they mean, how to say them, or how they should be used. This is the sweet spot.
Students could use these words on a regular basis if they knew what they mean and how to use them. Your students will be challenged linguistically, and they’ll understand the value of these words because the words are used often. Vocabulary lists are made of receptive words.
Throwaway words are words that are not used often and, therefore, are not necessary for the context that you’re teaching in. Throwaway words could also be words that are too far above your class’ proficiency level. You wouldn’t teach a second grade class what ‘psychology’ is because it isn’t useful for their context, isn’t used often in their context, and is probably too far above their proficiency level.
It’s pretty easy to categorize words from a written text, if you know your class well. To show you how I would categorize words, you'll find the first few sentences from The Ugly Duckling below.
“It was lovely summer weather in the country, and the golden corn, the green oats, and the haystacks piled up in the meadows looked beautiful. The stork walking about on his long red legs chattered in the Egyptian language, which he had learnt from his mother. The corn-fields and meadows were surrounded by large forests, in the midst of which were deep pools. It was, indeed, delightful to walk about in the country. In a sunny spot stood a pleasant old farm-house close by a deep river, and from the house down to the water side grew great burdock leaves, so high, that under the tallest of them a little child could stand upright”
I've taken some time to think about a class that I would use this text in, and I've categorized the words below.
Active: Summer, Corn, Walking, Child, Etc.
Receptive: Lovely, Oats, Haystacks, Meadows, Etc.
Throwaway: Burdock, Egyptian, Learnt, Etc.
It’s important to note that if you are using a text that contains throwaway words, you should still identify them and offer a concise definition. You don’t have to focus on them, but chances are your students will get caught up on them.
Now that you have your words categorized, you can begin to create your list. This list will probably just contain your receptive words. When you go to teach the text you can have your students define the active words for you, you can focus on the receptive words, and you can briefly mention and define the throwaway words. However, the words that you’ll continue to come back to, practice with your students, and encourage them to use will be the receptive words.
Three Simple Steps for Using Your Vocab List
Keep the Words in Front of Your Students
Now that you have a vocabulary list, you’ll want to keep the list in front of your students. Language is like a muscle, if you don’t use it, you’ll probably lose it!
There are a few ways to do this. You could create a vocabulary word wall in your classroom. This is just a section of your classroom that is devoted to vocabulary. You could simply post the words on the wall or you could get creative with your presentation.
One idea that I really love is to involve your students in the creation of a vocabulary display. You could have students write the words, draw a picture to represent the words, or help to design the method of display! Make the classroom design and decorations as interactive as possible; it becomes another way for adults students to take charge and lead their own learning.
Provide Opportunities for Your Students to Practice
Opportunities for vocabulary practice can come in multiple forms: homework, guided practice, independent practice, etc. Give your students opportunities to explicitly interact with the vocabulary words. Simple activities like alphabetizing, defining, and grouping can be helpful interactions that allow students to become comfortable with the words.
Model the use of the vocabulary words and integrate them into your lesson plans for weeks following the main lesson. One way that I’ve found to do this is by using them in my end-of-class fillers. If the lesson gets done early, play hangman with your vocabulary words! Or try to create silly sentences using them. Make them a part of the class.
Implement Routines into Your Class to Consistently Recycle Vocabulary
Recycling vocabulary means to simply reuse the words in your lesson plans and routines. If you teach a few terms and never pick them up again, students are more than likely to forget them. Likewise, if you use the words in a single context and don't carry them over to different circumstances, your students won't be as familiar with all of the uses that a single word in English can have.
There are plenty of reusable routines that you can implement into your classroom to keep students engaged and recycle your vocabulary. If reusable routines seem too difficult and confusing to implement, start simple! Begin your class with a quick review of homework and/or vocabulary words from the class before. You could have students come up with sentences for the vocabulary, try to mime the word, give you a definition, or even do a quick word search-type worksheet while you’re waiting for students to arrive.
Creating your own vocabulary list doesn't have to be daunting, and it can even save you some time! You won't have to go searching the internet for an hour or two looking for the perfect list. If you fill the list with words that are at the correct level, appropriate for the context, and go along with the rest of your lesson plan you'll be good to go!
Using your vocabulary list in class can be super rewarding! Make sure you put the words in front of your students. They need visual reminders of what they've learned so that they can continue to use that information. Give them opportunities to practice and make vocabulary a regular part of your classroom routine.
If you'd like more ideas, activities, and resources for using vocabulary in your classroom, check out Pinterest! In fact, I have a board dedicated to vocabulary that you can check out below. It's constantly growing, so be sure to follow!
I Want to Hear From You!
How do you visually incorporate vocabulary into your classroom?
What are some ways that your students have enjoyed practicing vocabulary on a regular basis? What is most engaging for your class?