Today, let's continue the controversial topic of vocabulary instruction in world language classes with a bit of a clarification. What is a traditional vocabulary list ? For the sake of the conversation, let's agree upon this definition:
A traditional vocabulary list - (n.)
a list of words prepared by the teacher or textbook which contains the new TL words defined with their English meanings. A traditional vocabulary list is normally presented to students at the beginning of a unit of study.
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD OF A VOCABULARY LIST
- Have clear learning targets that the students are aware of. For example, I can describe my family and compare it to others' families is a clear learning target that leads students to inquire about and personalize the vocabulary they need to be able to communicate on the topic.
- Provide a non-linguistic representations of the vocabulary paired with a word bank. Have the students make their own guesses about which words correspond to the images. The word bank will have to include at least a few comprehensible terms if the mix of words they will be learning includes words that have no connection to their English meanings.
- Provide an introductory text related to the them of the unit. Have students read and discover the necessary vocabulary to perform within that context.
- Provide an authentic resource that contains vocabulary relevant to the learning targets of the unit. Have students interact with the text via questioning to make connections to the words and begin to communicate with them from day one of the unit.
- Have students brainstorm necessary vocabulary for a learning target or communicative task and ask them to share their suggestions with you. Write only the TL vocabulary on the board and let them take notes in their own way.
- Use an image or graphic and tell them a story or talk to them about the topic using comprehensible input. For example, I prepared a visual of my own family. I talked my students through my family tree in the TL. Their job was to listen and complete a graphic organizer (a table with only the names of my family members), afterwards, they had to apply what they heard and took notes on to label a diagram of my family tree that only had photos of my family and I.
- Use TPR strategies to introduce vocabulary with props and images.
- Provide TL definitions of words using comprehensible input and have students match target vocabulary they find in a word bank to those definitions.
- Use audio recordings connected to the context of your unit and learning targets either from authentic sources or your textbook listening program and have students listen to discover what the speaker might be speaking about. Have them listen in layers, first for the obvious words. Have them try to figure out other related words each time you replay the audio for them. Towards the end of the unit play the audio for them again to demonstrate to your students how much they have learned since the beginning of the unit.
What's Most Important
The list of strategies above and my point of contention with how we have been teaching vocabulary is mainly in its presentation. I no longer believe that I should be the person in control of the list of words my students master during the course of a unit I teach. I also don't want to control the length of that list. But more importantly than the list or the length, the way I present and handle how vocabulary is taught will either train my students to attend to new and unfamiliar words better or my methods will handicap them from developing the skills they need to be able to process new words when they see and hear them. YES, I can be the source of their handicaps when dealing with new language, especially at the novice levels. I have discovered that what I am actually teaching (or maybe creating) is skills for how to acquire language more that I am teaching a certain list of words and concepts. Everything I do in my instruction should be focused on training them how to make meaning because I don't want them just to be able to handle the words we are currently learning, I want them to be fearless about new words they have never seen or heard before. My problem with the traditional vocabulary list is that if we provide the meaning for them, what have they had to do to understand it? NOTHING. We let them mentally off the hook. This is why we have to re-think how we instruct and present vocabulary.
Following Up with the Vocabulary
I do feel there is a place for following up with resources that help and encourage our students to study the vocabulary independently, so after presentation I always gather the vocabulary the students have decided is important and create digital flashcards via Quizlet.com. I also take digital photos of the whiteboard on days that we have generated new words and expressions and I post them online. Note taking and curating their vocabulary is up to them, but I support that with organizing the information and posting it in a centralized location later. There are all kinds of ways to do this, but this should not be confused with how we present vocabulary.
There are going to be some teachers who disagree with the idea of letting go of a traditional vocabulary lists and who just won't see what might be wrong with them. To each his own. Ultimately, the decision is up to each of us when we close that classroom door behind us, however I will not stop challenging anyone who will listen about this topic. So, if you are reading this now, please consider one thing about this post if nothing else at all. Think about whether you are teaching content or proficiency and remember this. Performance is what students can do in class; proficiency is what they can do on the streets of Madrid, Paris, Tokyo, etc. Does how we teach and present vocabulary do the thinking for them or does it promote skills for acquisition?