Are you getting ready for your first teaching job? Are you picking up new subject areas to teach?
Here are the questions (and answers) about teaching vocabulary that I have been asked most during my time as an ESL teacher.
Frequently Asked Questions for Vocabulary Teachers
Should I allow my students to use translators in class? What about dictionaries?
As long as students study English, they will want to use translators and dictionaries in class. At times, they are quite helpful. When a student comes to class with little to no knowledge of English, translators may seem like the only way of communicating. However, in my years as an ESL teacher, I have seen far too many students become overly dependent on translators and dictionaries. Because of that, this is what I have found works best. I do not allow students to use electronic translators in class. They are too easy to use and become dependent on. For beginning students, I do allow bilingual dictionaries in class. Paper dictionaries are more cumbersome and therefore less likely to become addictive than translators, so if my students want to wrestle with the pages for a time, I am okay with that. By the time students are studying at the intermediate level, they should be able to get some kind of understanding of unfamiliar words without the use of dictionaries. I no longer allow bilingual dictionaries at this point, but I will allow students to use an English only dictionary. Languages rarely have exact equivalents with each other anyway, so learning a definition of an English word in English will actually help my students more than the translation their bilingual dictionary gives. No matter what level they are at, I encourage my students to communicate creatively with the language they know rather than looking up the “right” words in a dictionary. The more they can use the language they possess, the better off they will be.
How do I decide which words to teach?
Most of the time, vocabulary units center around themes. Often, the curriculum dictates what these themes will be. Beginning level students usually study food, transportation, sports, family, school and similar themes. Intermediate students will often move on to more complex vocabulary units such as countries and careers. Advanced students with a good foundation in vocabulary will often study units built around reading or listening material. If you are deciding on your own what words to teach, think about what your students need most. Are they business English students? Try to teach an area that will help them with their careers. Are they academic English students? What will they need to know to successfully navigate their first year at a university? Are your students trying to get a general foundation of the English language? What types of words do they need to go about a typical day? If you think about the greatest needs of your students, you will know what types of vocabulary they most need to know and can choose your unit themes from there.
Where do I find vocabulary units?
If you are teaching at an established school, the curriculum has most likely dictated the words you will have to teach in vocabulary class. If you are starting your own program or if you have a flexible curriculum and can choose your own themes, you may decide your own word lists for vocabulary class. I find that examining the greatest needs of your students is the best way to determine what vocabulary they need to know. Once I have a subject area, I compose a list of the words I will teach. If you decide to compile your own list of vocabulary words, here are several ways to compile a vocabulary unit from scratch.
How do I make class more than memorizing lists of words?
Teaching words in context is the most important step in avoiding the memorization rut. Though students learning vocabulary will always have some degree of memorization on their to do list, using words in context and in practical situations helps cement them into the learners’ minds better than anything else. Start by presenting words to your students in context. You can do this with a picture (most effective for beginning level students) or with a video or reading selection. Give your students a chance to puzzle out the meaning of the word on their own, from context, before you give definitions or have them look up their own definitions. Then, give your students a chance to recognize the words in a new but similar context, a dialogue for example. Finally, ask your students to produce the words as they speak or write. If you include these three steps, (determining the meaning, recognition tasks, production tasks) your vocabulary class will certainly be more than an exercise in memorization.
What do I do if my students are complete beginners?
Students who truly have no experience with the English language are a challenge for any ESL teacher. While some teachers would start their instruction in the students’ first language, which is a good strategy for teaching complete beginners, for me that is not an option. Though I have taught overseas, I would not claim fluency in any language other than English. My preference in this situation is using the TPR (Total Physical Response). Just as babies learn their first language with nothing more than physical clues, second language learners can learn English without instruction in their first language. It’s not easy teaching students this way, but it does work. I had the privilege of getting one five minute TPR lesson in Hebrew over ten years ago. I still remember what my teacher, whose intention was to show us the effectiveness of TPR, taught us in those few minutes. You can find the basics on TPR here.
Is it okay to teach grammar, writing, etc. even though it’s specifically a vocabulary class?My strategy for vocabulary class has always been teach grammar and other subjects as needed as they relate to vocabulary class.
Vocabulary is important for ESL students. In fact, it’s one of the basic pillars of language. However, vocabulary in isolation does not a language make. I can buy a bilingual dictionary or use an online translator, but that does not make me a speaker of Japanese. Language is more than just the sum of its words. Because of this, I have always taught grammar, speaking, listening, reading and writing in my vocabulary classes. Memorization will only get a person so far with language; they must use the words that they are learning in meaningful contexts to really learn them. My strategy for vocabulary class has always been teach grammar and other subjects as needed as they relate to vocabulary class. I try not to let these lessons dominate my class time, but I do include them as necessary. For example, if I am teaching business vocabulary, I may have my students write a memo as a production task. They benefit from a few minutes spent on how to format a memo. If I am teaching a unit on food, we may talk about how to read a menu and then do it in class or for homework. Grammar is never primary for me in vocabulary class. It is a tool to help my students move to competency with the words they are learning in class.
What questions do you have about teaching vocabulary?