Five stage vocabulary review puts learners in control

When it comes to vocabulary, published materials generally offer plenty of exercises. Traditionally, students match words to definitions or fill in gaps as a way to get a “hit” on meaning and perhaps exposure to form. It is then up to students to move from the contexts on the page to their purposes in real life.

To help students store words in a way that supports future retrieval in communicative contexts, we need activities in which students provide the cognitive hooks. The beauty of involving the learner in generating their own material is that teachers don’t need much more than a few colored board markers and a word list.

The following activity sequence can be done in stages. It starts very simply with basic word meaning, moves to form and grammar, and then on to genres and contexts in which collocations and lexiogrammatical chunks are likely to occur. The later stages rely on experiences, knowledge and language that students already have while the teacher’s role is to step back and be a language consultant.

Level: This can be adapted for high beginner and up, but the example is based on an intermediate vocabulary list in a reading class.

Material: An 8 – 12 item word list that students will review. It can be the product of a vocabulary exercise or an elicited set of words they want to practice. Include words that have more than one part of speech for stages two and three.

Stage one

  1. Put the word list on the board (or vocabulary answers to a book activity). Leave some space between the words for adding words and phrases.
  2. Model the task: Take the first word and ask a volunteer to say another word form. For example, if the first word is conventional, the volunteer might say convention or conventionally. Write the forms in a different color under the word.
  3. Instruct pairs to think of at least one other word form for each of the other words in the list. (If there isn’t one for a particular word, just cross it out.) Then give students a few minutes to talk to each other. To save time, do not require them to write unless there is a reason for it.
  4. Elicit the word forms to the board under each vocabulary item and give feedback as necessary.

Stage two

  1. Model the next step by asking a volunteer to name the parts of speech in your example. Conventional – adj, Convention – n. and conventionally – adv. Clarify as needed depending on the level and awareness of the learners.
  2. Instruct pairs to do the same with the rest of the list. Give two or three minutes.
  3. Quickly elicit forms to the board and give feedback as necessary.

Stage three

  1. Model this step by eliciting collocation partners for your example word. Ask them to pick a word then add one or two words before or after to create a phrase.  For example, you might get a conventional house, or language conventions, or dress conventionally.
  2. This time give pairs a choice of which words to work with. Have them pick five challenging words from the board and create their own phrases around the word. Point them towards resources such as Just-the-word if warranted. As they work, circulate and monitor their progress, giving assistance as needed. It is unlikely that you can elicit all examples to the board, so attending to group work allows you to correct mistakes. (You can also collect their work if you like.)
  3. Consider a pair to pair share or go straight to whole class. Elicit the most interesting examples and discuss.

Stage four

  1. Model this stage by asking students to think of a conversation topic in which your example phrases might appear. Elicit or provide ideas for your examples.
  • Conventional home – People comparing traditional single-family homes with multi-family homes and deciding which is better for immigrants.
  • Language conventions – People talking about writing for academic purposes and how it differs from informal English.
  • Dress conventionally – College graduates might discuss the best way to dress for different kinds of job interviews. In some they might want to dress conventionally; in others, they might want to look more creative.
  1. Have pairs pick three of the phrases from the board and think of conversation topics in which they might appear.

Stage five

  1. Have a volunteer select one of your model phrases and then you alone (or with volunteers) create a short dialog around it. It does not need to be more than four or five lines.
A: I need to change my look.
B: Why? You have great style! I love your clothes.
A: Aww, that’s sweet, but I just got a new job at an insurance company, and I need to dress conventionally.
B: Really? That’s too bad. Maybe you can find a way to be a little bit creative.
A: Maybe, but for the first few months, I should look everyone else.
  1. Have pairs write their own dialogs around one of the phrases. Encourage them to use the word more than once if they think it works.
  2. If inspiration strikes, work with pairs to think through the pragmatic aspects of the dialog such as the relationship between the speakers, cultural norms and high frequency functional language for that type of conversation. Then have them perform the dialog for another group or choose one or two to perform for the class.

Whatever learners can do to integrate new language into familiar phrases and personal contexts should help them to both store and  retrieve a desired word.

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