Beyond the Vocab List

An Authentic Approach to Vocabulary Instruction

Remember when you were a toddler learning how to talk, and adults gave you a vocabulary list of words to memorize? No? Neither do I...

We learned our first language through simply living and observing. As a Spanish teacher, I fully recognize that the way we learn our second language is different from how we learned our first one. Still, that doesn’t mean that vocabulary learning needs to include a series of prescribed lists that we require students to memorize because a textbook deemed them important. The bottom line is, much like our first language, we acquire our second by exposure to reading, writing, listening, and speaking. By communicating.

There’s something refreshing about giving my students a blank vocab list in anticipation of a new unit.

Obviously, in any language, lexicon is the building block for communication and understanding, which is why language teachers put so much thought into the way we teach terminology. The following is in no way a list of superior methods; simply a reflection of techniques I’ve tried to build my students’ vocabulary.

1. Traditional Vocabulary Lists

Most language students get a list of as many as 50 words at the beginning a the unit and practice those words within the context of a certain theme. This input is typically followed by a variety of assessments: multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, matching, or writing assessments where students write a paragraph using x amount of words from the vocabulary list. What’s nice about this is, as the teacher, you know exactly what to expect from students and can spiral vocabulary throughout the school year. One fallback I notice about this strategy is that the vocabulary lists are sometimes too long to memorize, and students aren’t always great at determining the most important words. Furthermore, I find lists like these somewhat limiting, irrelevant, and unnatural. It doesn’t allow for students to take ownership of their language learning.

2. Students Make the List

My GMWP colleague, Katie, talks about how she had her students make their own vocabulary lists. I was intrigued, so I tried it. One the first day of the unit, students brainstormed words they knew related to the topic. Next, as a class, created a list of words they’d wanted to know. It worked in increasing engagement and ownership; but I didn’t do a great job fitting those vocabulary words into my unit. What I found was that I had a hard time incorporating the words they came up with into my teaching. The authentic resources I used didn’t necessarily have their words. Essentially, to make this work, the teacher would be building a unit on the fly, one day at a time, and needing to do a lot of searching for (or creating) resources that use the students’ words.

3. Reading for Vocabulary

To me, this is one of the most natural ways for students to acquire new words. There are several ways to approach gaining input through reading. Sometimes I give students a reading with bold words that they need to figure out. To increase motivation (and discourage the use of Google Translate), I make it into a competition between groups to see who can figure out the most words. Another technique is giving them something to read and allowing them to determine the most important, new words. It is because of this technique that my students know how to say Frida tuvo un pasamano por su pelvis (Frida had a handrail through her pelvis). Essential, right? Okay, maybe not; but it was authentic and it stuck.

4. Daily Vocabulary

After deciding the Traditional Vocabulary Lists wasn’t effective, I decided to break up the vocab based on our daily communicative activities. I would start the lesson by telling students the three to five new words we’d be learning and they figure out what they mean throughout class as we did reading or listening activities. Students learn the vocabulary in context and at the end of class, they have to use the vocabulary in a way that shows me they understand it (write a definition, use it in a sentence, summarize the main ideas with the vocab, etc). What I like about this is that it allows for students to learn new words slowly and tune in to the main themes of lessons each day. Furthermore, I was able to use authentic resources and pick meaningful vocabulary and spiral it throughout my thematic units.

5. Word Wall

Shout-out to English teachers everywhere! Thank you for the idea of posting high-frequency vocabulary on my wall. This year I have three sections of my word wall: general words, false cognates (words that look or sound like English words, but mean something different), and slang expressions. Students sometimes ask me to add a word to the wall, to which I usually oblige. Their favorite false cognate is the verb ganaría - I would win (high schoolers are a special breed, aren’t they?).

Overall, I think the best approach to teaching is a holistic one, which is to say, no one of these methods is the best. I choose to do a combination of these techniques, but lean towards the more self-directed ones so students can be responsible for their own learning. I also tend to utilize vocabulary activities that seem most authentic and natural in terms of language acquisition and communication. The bottom line is: I want them to grow. Any time they are using any Spanish words in my class is a small victory.

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