What’s the Word?

Originally published on this blog: http://pearsonerpi.com/fr/blog/article/whats-the-word

The number one excuse that students give for reverting to their mother tongue in an ESL classroom is not knowing the word they need in English. Having sufficient vocabulary to communicate is essential to students. That’s why, as teachers, we provide them with functional language when doing a communicative or writing activity, and that’s also why teaching vocabulary is so important. But what is the best way to teach vocabulary? After all, every learner is different.

When babies start to speak, their vocabulary is very limited. Then, little by little, babies start to use common words like mama or milk. These words are not only functional, they are the words children hear most often. I have never heard a young child use environment as his or her first word! (If you have, please send the video: we want to see this!) Babies use words that are constantly repeated by their parents and close family members. It is the same with students. After being repeated again and again, simple instructions like “open your books” are understood by students. Teachers repeat words, use gestures and provide visual clues until they don’t need to anymore.

As students hear the words and use them again and again, the words become part of their own vocabulary. I usually start the year by asking my students to introduce themselves. Every year, students struggle with the word achievement. Now, as a teacher, when students don’t know a word, we can translate it, explain it, illustrate it … but what really makes it stick is when they reuse it. That’s why after having them read a few texts on someone else’s achievements and use the word in conversations again and again, I can happily see my students use the word achievement in a writing production five months later … without any prompting!

Here are some ways to reuse vocabulary so that it sticks:

  • Use or reuse the words you want students to learn in your own stories and instructions. Tell them about your own accomplishment or reuse the word at the beginning of a class to talk about someone’s accomplishment that you heard about on the news. The trick is for them to hear that word—the one you are trying to teach them—as often as possible.
  • Have students use the words themselves. Challenge them to write a story using all of the newly introduced vocabulary words. Use short writing exercises like the ones in the It’s Your Turn sections of the On Track series and challenge students to use some of the new vocabulary words in the task.
  • Use or reuse the vocabulary words in discussion prompts for group conversations. Make sure the words are in the questions or necessary for the answers.
  • Find texts or news articles that include the vocabulary words you want to teach. Make sure students see the words in context as many times as possible.
  • Have students play games with the words. Have them play Hangman or use apps like Quizlet to have some fun with vocabulary. Play charades with the students and have them act out the words to one another or to the class.

The key to learning new vocabulary words is not to memorize a list of words but to live the words—to actually use and manipulate the language until the words become as familiar and as much a part of the students’ routine as “open your books” has surely become for your students.

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