Saturday, April 7, 2012

More Vocabulary!

March 1st was the end of my first “free” long-term (16-week) course. By “free,” I mean that it was my first course where I was given complete control of the content, materials, syllabus design, and activities. Basically, no material was provided, and the content was expected to be based on the needs of the students.

In the last session (after the goodbye-party murder mystery game, of course), I spent some time getting feedback from the students about what I should work to improve for the next group of students. What things did they like? What things did they think were boring? What did I not include enough of? What should I skip next time?

They were very friendly in their feedback and told me that I was their favorite teacher ever (which I appreciate, because I worked my booty off for that class). I was very surprised, however, at their unanimous criticism (but I was also very grateful for it, because it was something I would not have independently realized).

And the criticism was....(drum roll)....


It really surprised me. First of all, I remember drilling vocabulary as a Spanish student, and I also remember how much I hated it. Second, I'm currently at the stage in language learning (for German) where grammar seems like the most important thing. It seems that I've forgotten that in my years as an advanced Spanish learner, the grammar was all in my mind, and that it was the vocabulary that I needed the most. As such, I can see that I've neglected a lot of explicit vocabulary instruction in my teaching, in favor of communicative grammar instruction.

On a side note, as I was drafting this post, this quotation at the top of a post from Teaching Cloggy Style resonated with me: While without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary nothing can be conveyed.”

So, in the next few posts, I will be exploring different ways to enhance vocabulary instruction and strategy training for my students (and for myself as a language learner). 


  1. This is very interesting. I'm currently teaching English in Colombia and often feel that I have the same problem. My classes are often too focused on grammar and I feel that I'm not including enough vocabulary. Any tips to help me out? I'm teaching adults so I need practical ways to teach vocabulary in real-life situations.

  2. Hi Kaleigh - Thanks for the comment.

    I had a class last quarter for "Everyday English," (like conversation, etc.), and at the end, the students told me that they learned more vocab than in their vocabulary classes! I was shocked, especially given my previous experience and the fact that I had not intended to focus on Vocabulary.

    During the class, I used some of the strategies I've written about here to elicit the students own words in a topical way, and then to include some of the ones I wanted to talk about that day. Other than that, there was no special practice or anything to make me think that they would get EXTRA vocabulary.

    The only thing I can make of it is that I forced them to keep a special notebook, and in one section of every day's page spread, we brainstormed and wrote down new words/phrases to help us with the topic. Basically, I suspect the key was giving them a place to write it, as well as explicitly labeling it "NEW WORDS".

  3. I have been teaching ESL since 1988. I used to teach from a grammar base and develop the curriculum by scaffolding grammar points. Now I start with theme-based vocabulary (ie. themes such as medical, housing, food, employment, community). I start with a set of images to build up the learners'knowledge of the theme and then I incorporate the grammar around the vocabulary, sometimes drilling, sometimes getting learners to write etc. They use the vocabulary in a grammar context such as prepositions ("the bank is next to the hospital") or verb tenses ("he goes to the bank every day" or "he went to the bank yesterday") or comparatives ("the bank is farther than the hospital"). For a beginner class the grammar is repeated from theme to theme. I find particularly with Chinese students that the grammar is most challenging, so having them repeat the grammar is important. Even the themes can be reused within another theme, such as now we are working on housing and I have incorporated my pictures of places in the community when teaching about searching for an apartment. They practise phoning a potential landlord and asking "Is there a bank in the neighbourhood?" I have published a set of theme-based books available on Amazon with sets of pictures, activities for developing the vocabulary and then grammar activities incorporating the vocabulary


What do you think?