For teachers only: Vocabulary

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Yesterday I ran a workshop for English teachers at VW in Wolfsburg who are having trouble adapting the coursebook they are using for their mixed level courses. Before they get started on the given tasks, they have to pre-teach the more challenging vocabulary. The coursebook comes with great texts that can be exploited, along with a little booklet called “Pocket Coach”. Teachers can get a lot of mileage out of these. Some of my favorite vocabulary activities include:

Mind maps: Create a mind map to extend a word to its related vocabulary, creating sets

Rinvolucri’s elephant revisited: Use an image to locate the new vocabulary, Rinvolucri style. I like using a long, winding road (complex processes, projects) and the learners write words or phrases along it and explain why they belong in that position. I use a simple staircase  for simple processes; a house or tree for organisations or systems; and a pyramid or target with dedicated fields to symbolize frequency, values, relevance.

Memory: Use memory picture cards (I like art boxes best myself). Write the sentence with the new word on an index card. Draw a picture card and explain why that picture is connected to that sentence. Have a second student explain the connection in his/her own words. Do this for up to 7 new words. Then play memory with the picture cards and the sentence cards.

Shopping for words, A. Hot seat: The first scenario construct is that a shopkeeper needs to know his/her goods. After discussing the new words, write them on the board/ on cards and stick them on the board behind the “shopkeeper”, a student in the hot seat. The student is not allowed to look at the board. The class explains the word without using any derivatives of that word. The student must remember the word, and then gets to cross it off (or take it down) when he/she has remembered it correctly.

Shopping for words, B. Haggling: A variation of this game without a hotseat, uses the image that the shopkeeper wants to sell as many of his/her goods as possible, but that a customer has specific needs. In this case, the cards are visible to all participants. Here the shopper explains the context in which the word would be used, and then the shopkeeper haggles over which word(s) would be best and has to make a case for why they work well together. I like to have two shoppers vs. one shopkeeper: One shopper wants only one word (“shopping on a shoestring!”), the other wants several. That makes the dynamics more fun.

The amazing disappearing sentence: Make a sentence using the word. Write it on the board. The class reads out the sentence. Erase words, one at a time, and the class keeps reading out the sentence until there’s nothing left. Have pairs dictate the sentence to each other.

Dictogloss: Discover your inner author and write a text using the new words. 12 sentences work best. Then read the whole 12 sentences at natural speed. Students are allowed to take notes. Read it again, at natural speed. Don’t slow down or repeat anything. Keep smiling. Groups of students try to reconstruct the entire 12 sentences word for word on paper. The most valuable part of the learning process are the discussions among the students.

Quick switch: Replace the word in the sentence with another word and discuss how the meaning changes. See how many switches you can make for the word. Make a word map with the words that made good replacements.

Marisa Costanides wrote up activities adapting “companions”, little booklets that accompany coursebooks in Greece. Her suggestions are very helpful for adapting any supplementary materials, and could be used with the book at VW, too. So I’m reposting some of her suggestions here. This is an excerpt, and you’ll find her complete original post “Companions: An aid, a crutch, a snag?” in her blog (follow this link).

Synonyms-Opposites race: Write a list of words already known to the students on the board and ask your class to look through a page of the companion quickly and provide the synonyms or opposites.

Categorizing & Copying: Ask the students to search through the word lists for one or more units and copy all the words that fit certain categories:

Odd-Man-Out sets: After you have played the game Odd-Man-Out a few times, ask your class to prepare some odd-man-out sets in teams so that they play against another team. Put an example on the board.

Student-made crosswords: Students revising make an easy crossword and check companion for help with definitions or examples.

Student-made board games: Students designing a board game to check another group on known vocabulary prepare cards with definitions, gap-fills or synonyms which will be used as question cards by the opposing group during the game.

Wordwatching: Students make multiple definitions of known words to trick an opposing team (as in “Call my Bluff”) or write sentences with correct/incorrect uses of a word.

e.g. What is a HABITAT?
a. your clothes?
b. a bad habit?
c. the home of an animal?
d. an exotic bird?

Spelling bees: Groups select ‘difficult’ words to use against an opposing team in a spelling bee game.

Storytelling competition: The teacher, a student or a group, assign random selection of words to everyone, i.e. the fifth word on every page. These words are studied by pairs/ groups or teams, and each one has to create a story in which these come in naturally. Best story wins!

Dialogue improvisation: Each group is assigned 3-4 words from a page which they study and then have to incorporate in an improvised conversation/ role play. The rest of the class has to spot the words, situation and topic.

Creative dictation/ improvisation: Each group selects six to eight words which they dictate to another group. This group must then cooperate and make up a little story or conversation in which all these words are used.

Word competition: A word is chosen randomly by the teacher. Pupils have to hunt through their “companion” as quickly as possible and jot down as many words as they can which begin/ end in the same letter.

How many words can you make? A long word is chosen and students try to make as many other words as they can out of the letters of this word.

Word association game: A word is chosen randomly by the teacher or a student. The class in pairs/ groups/ or individually, hunt through the pages of the “companion” and try to find other words that they associate with this word. The teacher is the final judge in this game where the pupils can create any associations they like but should justify them, and the winner(s) are those who produce the longest list of acceptable associations.


15 Responses

  1. Welcome, Mohan 🙂

    These “one word a day” resources are great, especially if students are studying on their own. I’d add two or three to your list:
    Spotlight: This contains an mp3 including a recorded sample sentence.
    Macmillan: This links into their thesaurus
    Paul Smith: Paul includes a fun quiz and source texts from current publications. He says himself that he selects these words with a degree of serendipity.
    In class, we try to overcome the serendipity of vocabulary lists to help mold connected sets of words, as they will only be remembered if they are connected.

    Thanks for dropping by!

  2. These are very interactive and engaging techniques, Anne, thanks for all the great ideas.
    Id like to add another effective method to the list which is, teachers can also assign word projects to the students and students can create comics, videos or animations using that word. welcomes all such contributions by students. Students can also sign up to receive a fun flashcard for a difficult word and a link to the word video in the email. Additionally students can create their personalized word lists for bite size learning in the WordAhead Study room. Teachers can create a widget of the videos for the words of their choice and embed it in their class blog or site.

  3. Thanks Anne for these ideas. I’m a big fan of mind maps – and I intend to use some of your other ideas in my next few lessons. And your blog posting came through twitter, which I am just starting to explore, so that’s cool too!

    Karen (in NZ)

  4. Dear Faiza,
    Thanks for your idea! Drawing an adhoc cartoon is a great anchor, isn’t it, and you can decorate your class – or how about uploading it to a class blog? Sending it in to an impressive site like WordAhead might be quite motivating for some learners.
    The WordAhead widget is a little too wide for my template, unfortunately, so I’ve had to delete it. Head on over to the website, though!

    Welcome Karen!
    Isn’t it marvelous how Twitter is connecting us?
    About mind maps: I usually use them to collect trains of thought, but I’ve also learned from Paul Emmerson to present more or less finished ones that contain empty bubbles as labels to add words to.


  5. One more thing, Faiza,

    I keep reading about great multimedia tasks in class, and am an avid fan of Nik Peachey’s ideas. Yet I’m sceptical about the amount of time needed to actually produce a nice multimedia product, and you wouldn’t want student projects to lead to results that are less than satisfying to the learners.

    I think learning is all about the process. I wonder whether focussing on the product isn’t counter-productive. So whatever tools are out there, they must be incredibly easy to use and yield great results in no time. And at the same time they must avoid being so standardized that they come across as slick.

    For some reason this makes me keep going back to anything hand-drawn and even hand-written. And then, of course, you can always snap a picture of it.


  6. Hey Anne

    That’s a certainly wonderful article and couldn’t concur less with your comments.

    We believe in hand-crafted visual vocabulary which can be integrated with every day learning while making it fun. That’s what we do @ and encourage learners to share their creations too which are featured on the homepage.

    Look forward to your thoughts and comments regarding the same.

    Warm regards,

  7. Really excellent. Have a look, guys. The drawings are inviting. There’s audio. And it’s got nice social networking tools, too. Thanks for visiting, WeboWord 🙂

    PS: I’m just curious why you weren’t happy with my comments. Did I come across as a technophobe? I’m not, believe me. I write Ask Auntie Web ( a tech advice column for teachers, and I’ll clearly have to devote a post to these new tools. I just have great respect for getting back to the basics, and am completely happy to teach unplugged, off the grid and barefoot.

  8. Of course Anne, learning should always be about… learning! There is definitely nothing wrong with teaching which does not involve any tools or complicated technological techniques. I loved your post! All ideas are very creative and actually these ideas are universal in the sense that they can be used with students of any age and for any language! I just wanted to extrapolate these ideas and introduce a platform where your students could share their work with students all over the world.
    Secondly, as you very rightly pointed out, the goal is not creating an excellent product. The focus should always be on the task at hand which is vocabulary learning in this case, and not on the effective use of tools and gadgets which may even distract the students from the the primary goal. Students need not use complex tools, you can actually see examples of the contributions by some students, which are pretty simple & equally effective:
    Examples: &
    And these days, Toondoo, Xtranormal, GoAnimate and Windows movie maker etc have made accomplishing this very easy, if, this particular task is decided to be done using tools.
    WordAhead is all about vocabulary building whichever way the student or the teacher feels comfortable, with or without tools.

  9. Thanks Anne for this wonderful post and I also want to say ‘thank you’ to everybody who suggested an idea here. I’m a new blogger and it’s amazing to see how we can help each other. There is an activity I also want to share. I use it as a filler or a warm up. It just depends on the mood. As far as I remember, I got the idea from a workshop years ago. I ask my sts to choose a letter. I ask them write the letter in the middle of the page then I set time limit and ask them to write down any word that comes into their mind beginning with that letter. Usually I end the activity with paragraph writing.

  10. Welcome, Eva! Trying to see how many words you can find and packing them all into an essay might make for strange writing, but in moderation… the alphabet is really an infinite source for collecting words, isn’t it? Can work well with prefixes, too: inter-, de-, un-, con-…

  11. Hi Anne,
    I recently started following you via twitter and discovered your blog and you have so much great information here! I especially liked this post on vocabulary building. I will start teaching Adult ESL at a community center next week (we are on break) and I plan on using some of your tips to help my students. I’m also a second language learner (Spanish) so I also enjoyed your post on your learning Latin and French. Great stuff, I look forward to reading your blog 🙂

  12. Hi Roger,
    Welcome 🙂
    A Michigander, it’s a pleasure meeting you. My family heads up to the Upper Penninsula for our summer get-togethers. All the best for your upcoming adult ed classes.

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