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Exploiting vocab lists - going beyond the vocab test

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Thanks to colleagues who have suggested some of these ideas.

Many of us work with text books which contain lists of vocabulary. Vocab learning can be a pretty dull task to do and an uninspiring homework to set. Then you have to deal with the students who do not do their learning or who simply cannot set words to memory very easily. Doing a vocab test of the traditional kind has its uses, of course, but I find them dull to administer and they work best only with the brightest classes.

By the way, I used to doubt the whole value of vocab learning, believing that vocab was acquired by regular use rather than by rote learning. Without entering a debate on conscious versus unconscious learning in language learning, I now believe that learning by heart can have a place. Put simply, consciously learned vocab can make the crossover into one’s “acquired” competence (despite what Stephen Krashen would claim!). Needless to say, we need to revise vocab from one lesson to the next, otherwise most children will forget words.

So what can we do with lists of words apart from telling a class to go away and memorise them?

Jan Baker, Ann Pendray, Anne Jackson and Sue Chalmers and kindly sent me their ideas, to which I have added my own.


1. Think of it as a challenge not a chore – attitude is MOST important – you need to WANT to learn them.
2. Read the words in silence several times – then try & do a memory test – how many can you do without looking?
3. Cover the words and test yourself – or get someone to test you.
4. Use a word fan – make a fan (fold the paper several times) & write the English on one side/French on the other & so on.
5. Concentrate on the difficult words & link them to something you know eg. clay keys (the word for key is clĂ© – pronounced clay).
6. Write the words out over and over – English with French and vice versa – do more and more from memory each time.
7. Make up a rhythm – tap out the words as you say them.
8. Record the words onto tape.
9. Listen to them over & over from the tape.
10. Try and spell out the words with the French alphabet.
11. Remember what you teacher tells you about them – think about what was said in the lesson – read your notes as well.
12. Try and make the words rhyme or make up a rap.
13. Read the words out loud – fast/slow/loud/quiet.
14. Break up the words – mus/ique prof/es/seur.
15. Invent a song/poem with the words in.
16. Sort them by gender/groups/patterns – fruit/vegetables/which adjective follows which rule or colour code them.
17. Group them alphabetically.
18. Jumble up the letters & try & rearrange them in the correct order & then give the English.
19. Draw the words & label.
20. Write out the words with letters missing – vowels? – then gap fill.

Demand written evidence of how the pupils tried to learn e.g. wordsearches, look cover sheets, cards, fans etc. Encourage them to set themselves a test and bring it in. Some pupils may put up lists on back of toilet door etc. Pupils who work really hard may improve their test marks by using a different method. You can test using mini whiteboards or through team games rather than giving individual marks. You can raise the status of vocab learning by talking about the processes involved with children.

How about listing games? For example, first group to list 5/10 fruits/sports/types of
house etc. Or you can have a competition where the winner is the first group to guess the same five fruits/sports etc which you have on your own list. It’s not particularly fair but can be fun and very competitive.

“Running reporter”: a vocab list is put somewhere far away (e.g. back of class). In teams of two, one student runs to the list and tries to memorise as many and as accurately as they can and then run back to report to the team mate who then writes it down. The runner is not aloud to write! They then swap and the other student runs to the list to do the same. First pair to finish list all correct win.

From Elsa Carnoy:

A nice way to pair test vocabulary is to ask each student to write ten words in english from the list they had to learn (they can use their list so it makes them revise). Past the list to partner and each translate their partner’s list. Then they check their partner’s translation with the book again. They enjoy it and can be quite mean at giving difficult words to their partner!

My own ideas for the classroom

Read aloud vocab list to class. Students repeat. It seems obvious, but speaking aloud words can help fix them in pupils’ minds. You can make this fun (and improve pupils’ pronunciation) by whispering, raising the voice, creating a rhythm or even singing. Pull faces, get the class to watch your lips.

After an initial run through, pupils can try to quickly memorise as many words as possible. Most pupils are good at short term memory tasks and see them as a challenge. Use translation both ways.

Then get them to cover up the target language words. You then supply the first syllable or sound of a word and they have to complete it with the rest of the word. This can be amusing. Pupils can produce their rsponses orally or in writing.

Then do the same, but supplying the last sound or syllable of the word. Maybe save this to the next lesson.

For lists of concrete items pupils can use mime or gesture in pairs. One pupil mimes while the other guesses the word. Pupils enjoy this.

Give oral definitions of words. Students write down the answers. This is harder, but provided good listening practice.

Play word association. (This can lead off into all sorts of directions, but works well with large fields of similar vocab e.g. food and drink.)

Make up anagrams of words. Alternatively, pupils make up anagrams to test their partners.

Make up a code-breaking task for the class. There are examples on this site.

Get students to make up a simple crossword or acrostich.

In pairs each person has to give a word from the list. The first person who cannot think of a word loses.

Aural anagrams: spell out words in the wrong order, pupils have to work out the word. Gets competitive.

Makevoneoenormouscwordafrombtheulistlyouahaveisetrtheeclass. Place added letters between the words. the added letters could spell out another word.

So, if a class is not good at learning vocab at home, cut your losses and focus on learning in the classroom.


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