Helping Students Acquire Vocabulary in World Language Class

Vocabulary for World Language Classrooms

During Korean Lesson. David Woo. Nov. 30, 2007.

Last week’s #LangChat participants discussed their strategies for helping students acquire vocabulary. @tmsaue1 correctly noted that the wording of the topic was deliberate: participants were asked how to help students “acquire vocabulary,” not just how to “teach” or “introduce” it.

Participants shared their best practices for ensuring that students are exposed to and retain meaningful and relevant vocabulary, and that they feel comfortable using it in context. We reassessed the value of traditional vocabulary-learning techniques (like lists and flashcards), and put forth innovative ways to use technology for new word acquisition.

Debating the Value of Vocabulary Lists

In most traditional world language classrooms, students are exposed to new vocabulary through “vocab lists.” Our participants took a step back and debated whether or not they are a natural and useful way for students to learn new words.

Several participants shared how they have let go of traditional lists and now focus on student-generated lists. @LauraJaneBarber often has her students do brainstorms based on pictures; they students are allowed to use English or L2 circumlocution to describe, and she provides the L2 word. She recommends focusing on fewer words at a time, as it increases the likelihood that student will remember them. @placido and @trescolumnae both generate lists with their students based on a text or topic of discussion. @trescolumnae’s advanced Latin students select topics 1-2 weeks in advance and help him develop the final project-type assessment with self-selected vocabulary.

Putting Flashcards in their Place

Traditional vocabulary lists and traditional flashcards go hand-in-hand. Participants also debated the value of this “old-school” memorization tool.

  • @placido warned that studying isolated words on flashcards do not mean students will acquire them. Student need to hear and read vocabulary words in context many times before the words are actually acquired.
  • @LauraJaneBarber, however, acknowledged that flashcards can be useful for students who really struggle with memorization. She recommends that they make their own electronic flashcards on Quizlet. @msfrenchteach also likes Quizlet because it can incorporate authentic audio as well as visuals.
  • @MartinaBex agreed that flashcards can be a useful tool for some students to use outside of the classroom; they just waste time in-class.

Some participants pointed out that flashcards often just use translation: the L2 word on one side, and the L1 translation on the other. @LauraJaneBarber warned that translation does not help acquisition. Many advocated using flashcards with images, rather than L1 words. @placido pointed out, however, that a simple translation of more abstract terms can save students a lot of confusion.

Learning Vocabulary with Visuals

Participants touted the value of teaching vocabulary using visuals. Both photographs and drawings can contribute to meaningful vocabulary acquisition:

  • @sonrisadelcampo recommends the WordFoto app for introducing students to new vocabulary: http://t.co/PKtwilbw
  • @CoLeeSensei has had her students go on phone photo “treasure hunts,” teaching her students to create their own visual vocabulary lists.
  • @placido, a TPRS teacher, recommends pre-teaching vocabulary using gestures, images, and personalized Q&A; she then “activates” it with storytelling.
  • @CoLeeSensei also uses Microsoft ClipArt images so as not to violate copyright law. She also takes the opportunity to expose students to open photo source rights – so important to understand in our digital age!

Teachers of all subjects are falling in love with Pinterest as a way to get ideas and organize lessons. The visual nature of Pinterest’s virtual pinboards make it a great tool for world language teachers introducing vocabulary to their students. @msfrenchteach makes thematic pinboards with relevant images and types the L2 word into the description box.

Activities and Strategies for Introducing Vocabulary

Several participants shared specific activities that they use with their students, and the strategies and philosophies that inform them:

  • This year, @laurenna725 started introducing her students to five new words each day after her warm-up activity.
  • @katchiringa believes the best way to help her AP students acquire vocabulary is by inundating them with authentic materials and asking them lots of questions.
  • Many participants recommended using songs to introduce and reinforce vocabulary. Authentic music puts words in context in a memorable way.
  • @klafrench has students apply and use new vocabulary immediately after it is introduced. She calls this “writing to learn.”
  • @DiegoOjeda66 recommended having students keep a journal of new vocabulary, and suggested that students connect L1 and L2 words through common etymologies.

Finally, @tmsaue1 reminded us that not every strategy works for every student when it comes to vocabulary acquisition. All the more reason to offer up vocabulary in a variety of ways (audio, visual, etc), pointed out @CoLeeSensei. And @msfrenchteach wisely notes that her greatest success with vocabulary acquisition has come since she made the shift to 90%+ spoken target language (TL) in her classroom, in accordance with ACTFL guidelines. Be sure to read last week’s #LangChat summary for more on the 90% TL classroom!

Thank you to all who participated! A warm thanks to @msfrenchteach and @placido for moderating the fast-paced discussion.

Have an idea for a future #LangChat topic? Be sure to share it on the #LangChat wiki! Also, don’t forget to vote in each week’s poll to help decide the next topic.

Join us Thursday, November 1st at 8pm EST (5pm PST) for the next #LangChat discussion!

#LangChat is an independent group of world-language education professionals who come together every week via Twitter to share ideas and discuss pressing issues in the world of education. Check out the #LangChat wiki for more information about our goals and the team behind it all here. These weekly discussion summaries are sponsored by Calico Spanish as a service to the world-language community.

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