Vocabulary doesn’t develop overnight. It’s a skill that has to be built slowly over time, bit-by-bit. It has to be cultivated by both teachers and students. While students should work on building their vocabulary, teachers have to practice cultivating vocabulary in their classroom. It's a two-way street!
Vocabulary acquisition can be cultivated in a variety of ways, and there are a ton of tools for students and teachers to do so. In this article you’ll find a method to help your students develop their own autonomy when it comes to unknown words, a few ideas for building your students abilities to help in their understanding of vocabulary, and four of my favorite tasks for getting my students familiar with unfamiliar words!
Method: Guess Vocab from Context
Most teachers I know encourage their students to guess a word's meaning from the context. It's a pretty well known method. However, I've found that most of my students are hesitant to guess meaning, or, honestly, don't guess very well!
I love this step-by-step guide I found in Exploring Second Language Reading: Issues and Strategies by Neil Anderson (though the guide is originally from Paul Nation). I think that this method is a great tool for second language learners to have in their tool belt when reading a text because it will equip them with more confidence when guessing!
The first thing students should do when they encounter an unknown word is decide it's part of speech. Is it a noun? Verb? Adjective? Adverb? Knowing how a word functions will give you a lot of insight into what it means.
Next, have students look at the clause or sentence that contains the word and ask themselves how the words within that clause or sentence affect the unknown word. If it’s a noun, what adjectives describe it? If it’s a verb, what noun does it go with?
The third step is to have students look at how the clause or sentence that contains the unknown word relates to the clauses or sentences that surround it. Conjunctions can help students understand relationships, as well as punctuation. There may not be an indicator, though, and in that instance you must figure out the relationship on your own. Some possible types of relationships are: cause-effect, contrast, summary, etc.
Finally, students should guess the meaning based on the information they’ve acquired. After a guess is made, have students check their answer by replacing the unknown word in the sentence with their guess. If the sentence makes sense, they’ve probably guessed successfully. An additional way to check, a last resort of sorts, is to consult a dictionary. However, encourage your students to do the work themselves in order to build their vocabulary and language skills.
What Should My Students Know?
There are a few tried and true language abilities that you can build in your students in order to cultivate their vocabulary acquisition. These language abilities are improved through practice, so be sure to begin implementing different types of activities that will strengthen and grow their skill in these areas.
Teach your students how to recognize word parts. Prefixes, roots, and suffixes shed a lot of light on word meaning, and can help your students to more accurately guess an unknown word’s meaning that they may encounter.
Paul Nation, in his book Teaching and Learning Vocabulary, provides a list of 14 keywords that students should know in order to unlock the meaning of over 14,000 words in the English language. You can find that list through www.icanread.org here.
Teach your students how to recognize the parts of speech, and how those parts function. Your students’ ability to recognize parts of speech, how they function, and how they relate to a word’s meaning can greatly improve their vocabulary acquisition.
Learning about the parts of speech will also affect almost every other aspect of their language learning, such as their writing, reading comprehension, sentence structure, etc. If you're looking to begin to familiarize your students with the parts of speech, Basic English Grammar for the ESL Teacher: Noun Edition is a great place to start!
Tasks to Cultivate Vocabulary
One of the best ways to build your students' vocabulary skills is to give them opportunity to practice in the classroom! These 4 activities will help your students to activate schemata, practice level-appropriate vocabulary, and become more familiar with the words you've already assigned!
Activate Schemata with Pre-Reading: Do a pre-reading assignment to activate prior knowledge and cultivate vocabulary. When you're starting a new book or piece of writing, show your students the title or front cover and ask them to create a semantic map of vocabulary they think that they might encounter.
If the front cover shows a picture of a girl on a farm, they may begin with the word 'farm' in the middle of their paper. Off of farm they may branch off to write the word 'animals' and list off a few different animals and related words. At the end they should have a web of vocabulary they are anticipating!
Use it or Lose it! Recycle: Recycling vocabulary simply means that you make sure old vocabulary words are used frequently in the classroom. They are reused in new ways. So, if you learn vocabulary related to law enforcement one day, the next class you may choose to read an article about a current issue involving the law enforcement.
Recycling vocabulary ensures that your students are reminded of and familiar with words that they've learned. It also makes sure that your students understand the vocabulary words more fully because of their increased exposure to the different connotations, uses, and meanings of the words.
Role Play Your Vocab: Role play is a great tool for the language classroom, and one way to make it into a game of sorts is to have your students try to incorporate their vocabulary into their role play.
To make it more of a challenge, have students write a role play about one topic and use vocabulary that seems to be unrelated to that topic. For example, write a role play that takes place in a grocery store, and use vocabulary related to law enforcement.
Another way to make a role play more challenging, and add a level of competition, is to have students try to use as many of their vocabulary words as they can!
Have Fun with Mad-Libs: The popular Mad-Libs game is a great tool for learning and practicing parts of speech. If you need a time-filler, are looking for a warm-up task, or just want students to have a little bit of fun, have them pair up and complete a Mad-Libs story with their vocabulary list!
Depending on the level of your students and how you want the task to work, you can use it in a variety of ways. In pairs students will have more opportunity to speak and practice the language, but as a whole class experience it can be a lot of fun to laugh together and shout out words!
I think that vocabulary is one of the most fun ESL subjects to practice in the classroom. There are so many fun tasks to use and opportunities for discussions because we all know how many different definitions, connotations, and uses a single word can have in English!
Figure out how to equip your students with the tools and opportunities they need to excel with their vocabulary competency and have fun! A few methods for guessing vocab, a couple of other skill-building tasks, and plenty of practice is all you really need to cultivate vocabulary.
I Want to Hear From You!
So many great experiences and discussions can come from teaching vocab.
What are your favorite stories from your time teaching?