What to do with all those words?  One of the gripes I have with course books is the often seemingly random presentation of vocabulary sets where the target items appear in a little box in one corner of the page, surrounded by pretty pictures and apparently unconnected to anything else in the unit. This isn’t true of all course books, but unfortunately it happens more than it should (and yes, I have a specific example in mind!).

So the question then becomes what to do with them all?  Vicky Loras has an excellent summary of an ELTCHAT discussion on this very topic, which highlights all the various ideas participants came up with to help activate vocabulary, as well as a comprehensive set of links to web resources to do the same:

How Can We Activate Vocabulary and Get Our Students to Use It? – ELTChat Summary « Vicky Loras’s Blog.

There are two points that Vicky highlights in her post that I think are particularly important:

  • Connecting the words or collocations to something meaningful, something that can help them retain, is the key. Establishing a meaningful and relevant context is paramount.
  • Try to connect the vocabulary students learn to theirimmediate needs, if possible.

Context is fundamental and is perhaps the thing that I struggle most with.  Not so much in creating a context for the provision and immediate retention of the vocabulary, but in creating a meaningful context for the use or production of the target items in a (quasi) authentic form.

The obvious answer is the use of role plays and discussion tasks, though I’m sure many teachers will echo the howls of frustration when learners happily carry out these tasks without ever once referring to the nice list of items on the board!

In Gairns and Redman’s “Working with Words” they suggest that categorisation and ranking tasks can help with this.  Firstly these allow the learners to filter the language according to learner needs, secondly tasks that allow for “semantic processing” helps move vocabulary from input to intake as learners not only process meaning on a deeper level, but such tasks can also help learners organise their mental lexicon.

Following on from this, rather than simply presenting, say a lexical set of types of shops (e.g. “butcher, baker, florist, greengrocer, etc) and doing a task where learners “go shopping”, it might aid retention if learners were asked to discuss which shops they used most frequently in their lives or which their parents used most.  They could then extend this to a discussion of a fictional village and decide which shops might impact most on the lives of the villagers and what the effects might be if some of them had to close down.

Tasks that involve information gathering, manipulation and presentation also work well here.  The standard example is the Survey – not so much a “find someone who” but a “find everyone who” approach!  Simply gathering the information, whilst useful, is not quite enough.  What do the learners do with it next?  Spreadsheets, tables and charts are all useful ways for the learners to transfer the information they gathered into an alternative form, increase the opportunities for use and to deepen the associations of meaning.

These are just a couple of ideas – feel free to add any others and as always, any feedback, comments, criticisms and queries are welcome!