I don’t know about you, but teaching vocabulary in an ESL class is always a rollercoaster for me. It is one of the most basic and easy tasks as an ESL teacher. You simply teach your students new words that they need in order to communicate. However, it is also incredibly (and surprisingly) complex and challenging.
The two difficult areas of vocabulary instruction that I want to target today are planning and explanation. How do you decide what to teach when, and how do you actually explain it in a way that’s going to stick? After all, there’s nothing worse than trying to explain something and only receiving blank stares in return.
Below you’ll find 2 simple things that you can do, as an ESL teacher, in order to completely revolutionize your vocabulary instruction. The terms you’re teaching will make more sense and have more meaning with one simple tool: context.
Do Your Students Struggle with Learning, Retaining, and Using New Vocabulary?
Read Cultivating Vocabulary in the ESL Classroom and Find Out More About How You Can Equip Your Students!
Teach Vocabulary in Connection, Not at Random
Before you even get to the complexities of the teaching stage, an ESL teacher has to decide what vocabulary terms should be introduced at what point. ELLs are bombarded by thousands and thousands of new words, grammatical concepts, and other elements of language daily, and it can all seem very overwhelming. With a little thought and a whole lot of context, vocabulary can begin to make sense before it’s even taught.
Context is key. Especially when it comes to deciding what words your students need to know in order to succeed. Vocabulary is more memorable and applicable (which usually means more well-received) when it’s taught in connection with at least one of three things:
- The same location or event you’re already discussing
- Similar grammar or use of words you’re already discussing
- When needed in order to be more successful with a specific task or situation
For example’s sake, let’s take the term “patio.” If taught at random, two things will be lacking. The first is the reason for learning. Your students won’t understand why they should learn this new vocabulary term, which results in low motivation. The second thing that will be lacking is the experience surrounding the process of learning. When a word is taught at random, it usually happens in a flash. It will be introduced, defined, and forgotten.
However, when it’s taught as a part of a discussion on rooms of a house (same location), backyard barbecues (same event), when talking about how to make words ending in a vowel plural (same grammar), or when practicing reading and comprehending real-estate listings (same task), it becomes much more useful and more memorable.
Remembering the importance of context when you’re making vocabulary instruction decisions can help your students remember the words you’re teaching much better than when they’re taught in isolation. It provides students with a framework to place the new knowledge into, and it gives them a more well-rounded understanding of the word. Instead of just understanding the definition of “patio,” they may better understand how to use it in a sentence, how to make it plural, or which descriptive words are often used in connection with the new term, as a result of learning it in context.
Don’t Teach Vocabulary in Isolation
On the surface teaching vocabulary seems pretty straightforward, but any ESL teacher can tell you that nothing is straightforward when it comes to the English language. A seemingly simple task, such as teaching the word “table,” becomes much more complicated when you try to describe how it differs from a dresser or counter. Or how a side table is different from a dinner table, which can be different from a folding table. It goes on and on, but you get the point.
Things become even more confusing when you teach stand-alone words, such as “table,” “delicious,” or “stories” in isolation. Think about how far you could get with only the language found on your vocabulary list. It probably isn’t very far. Maybe you could exclaim that something is “delicious!” or identify a few objects in a picture, but you could never communicate with simple vocab.
So, how do you teach vocabulary in a way that will allow your students to better understand the meaning and use of those words? Context. Don’t teach your vocabulary words in isolation. Don’t simple teach the definition, have your students complete a worksheet or two, and then forget the word until the next time it comes up. After all, your students only have two options in that situation: to try and use the new words with their limited knowledge and experience, or to not use the words at all.
Provide your students with examples and contexts for them to hear, understand, and use the new vocabulary words in a realistic setting. When students are able to realistically use something they’ve learned right away, it is more likely to stick in their head, rather than simply memorizing a definition in order to use it later.
There are a few quick ways that you can do this. First, teach your students simple sentences to go along with the word and its definition. For example, instead of just teaching “delicious,” teach “that is delicious!” That way you can easily set up an activity for students to begin using the word right away, such as identifying foods they like by saying either “that’s delicious!” or “I don’t like that.”
The second thing that you can do to give your students a more well-rounded understanding of words and allow them to begin using them right away is to tell a story or set up a scenario surrounding the new word. If you’re teaching the word “knight” tell a story about a knight or a modern-day knight. It provides context to words that may be more difficult to learn and practice.
While context is important for every aspect of language learning, it's especially important for vocabulary. Without the proper framework, your students won't have a good image of what a new word means and how it fits into what they already know. Use the two tips above to make sure you're choosing new words based on their connection with one another and you're presenting them in a way that allows your students to begin using them immediately!
I Want to Hear From You!
What are your go-to methods for teaching vocabulary?
How do you balance vocab worksheets (or pen-and-paper work) with using the new language to communicate?