Teaching Vocabulary in Context

Strategies for Effective Language Learning


**Based on the presentation “RIP Lists: Breathe Life Back into Teaching Vocabulary”
by Cristin Bleess, 2023.

Why Context Matters

Before we delve into strategies, let's ponder why teaching vocabulary in isolation may not be effective. Consider the case of Nigel Richards, a New Zealander who won the 2015 French-language Scrabble World Championship despite not speaking French beyond “Bonjour” and counting his Scrabble score. He achieved this feat by memorizing the French Scrabble dictionary. This example highlights the limitations of learning vocabulary without context – it doesn't facilitate meaningful communication.

To further illustrate, let's take the word "job." When asked to define it, responses would be something like "the type of work you do." However, when we add the word "good" to it, "good job" can take on multiple meanings, from "a job well done" to "a well-paying occupation." The context in which a word is used greatly influences its interpretation.

So, what do these examples teach us about vocabulary learning? Context matters! Learning vocabulary within sentences and scenarios helps students understand word meanings and retain them longer.

Strategies for Teaching Vocabulary in Context

Let's look at some strategies to present and practice vocabulary within context.

1. Eliciting

Eliciting involves conveying word meanings without translation. Here are various techniques:

  • Miming: Act out the meaning of the word. For example, for "raincoat," mime putting it on when it's raining.
  • Pictures or Realia: Use visuals or real objects to represent the vocabulary. Realia is especially effective for items like clothing.
  • Synonyms and Antonyms: Provide similar or opposite words to help students grasp the meaning. For "raincoat," you could say it's a type of jacket for rainy weather.
  • Hyponyms: Show that the word belongs to a larger category. For example, "raincoat," "umbrella," and "boots" are hyponyms for protective rain gear.
  • Definition: Offer a simple, clear definition in the target language. For "raincoat," you could say it's a coat or jacket worn when it's raining to stay dry.

2. Questioning Techniques

Questioning involves teachers using a series of questions to deepen understanding and for students to hear the words repeatedly in an engaging way after establishing meaning of the word. Questioning techniques also allow teachers to constantly gauge students' comprehension to adapt their comprehensible input. There are three types of questions used, going from simple yes/no to open-ended.

  • Yes/No Questions: The easiest is yes/no questions. These questions establish basic comprehension without students needing to produce the new vocabulary words. For example, using our weather and clothing vocabulary, you could start with questions like, "Do you wear a coat when it's cold?" Students only need to answer “yes” or “no.” After the students answer, the teacher clarifies or affirms the choice. “Yes, you wear a coat when it’s cold.”
  • Either/Or Questions: After students are more familiar with the new words, you can progress questions that require a forced choice to encourage students to produce the target word. For example, "Do you wear a coat or shorts when it's cold?" The teacher can then clarify, confirm, and add information. “Yes, very good. You wear a coat when it’s cold. You don’t wear shorts when it’s cold."
  • Open-ended Questions: The final type of question challenges students to produce the new vocabulary in context. For example, "What do you wear when it's cold?" What do we do if the student can’t produce the answer to the open-ended question? We go back down the scale to an either/or question or Yes/No question based on the needs of the students.

These tiered questions engage students at different proficiency levels, ensuring everyone can participate.

3. Personalized Questions

After presenting the new vocabulary and using questioning strategies, you can ask students personalized questions related to the vocabulary. For example, for "coat," you could ask about the color of their coats, when they wear them, or their favorite brands. Personalized questions allow for personalization of vocabulary and build classroom community as we learn more about each other.

4. Storytelling

Humans love stories. Crafting stories that incorporate target vocabulary and phrases is another powerful strategy for presenting and interacting with new vocabulary. Use storytelling techniques like repetition of key vocabulary and phrases, pausing, gestures, using visuals and your tone of voice aid comprehension and add interest. A simple story format is:

  • Introduce the character or characters - describe them in detail
  • Present a problem that the character must solve
  • Have the main character attempt to solve the problem two times before finally solving it (provides more repetition of new words and phrases!)
  • Conclude and recap the story

    Adding an element of humor can make the story (and vocabulary) more memorable. And don’t forget to add cultural elements as well!

5. Picture Talk

Picture talk is another strategy to present vocabulary. The teacher selects images that prompt discussion related to the new vocabulary and encourage students to describe and discuss the pictures using the target words. For instance, we could use a picture of a person packing for a beach vacation to elicit vocabulary related to clothing and travel. It is a fantastic way to recycle previously learned vocabulary and new words and phrases.

Practicing New Vocabulary

After introducing vocabulary in context, students need to process and use the vocabulary in communicative contexts. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Discussion Questions
    A quick strategy that doesn't involve much prep is for the teacher to create discussion questions that incorporate the new vocabulary. Encourage students to share their thoughts and opinions on relevant topics, fostering class community. For example, in a weather and clothing unit, you might ask, "What is your preferred vacation destination and what do you need to pack to go there?" Discussion questions can also turn into fun debates, with students discussing their preferences and attempting to convince others to agree!
  2. Information Gap Activities
    A strategy that takes a little more prep but is a favorite for students because of its “game-like” feel is Information Gap activities. Like the game Battleship, in an Information Gap activity, each person has some information that the other does not have but needs. Using the target language, partners ask each other questions to get the vital information they need. In our weather and clothing example, we could create an Information Gap activity by using a weather map where we blank out different information for partner A and partner B. Students would have to exchange data about different cities and the clothing needed for each location based on the information they have on their map. This activity not only reinforces vocabulary but also incorporates geography and math (Celsius to Fahrenheit conversions).
  3. Mingle Activities
    Finally, implementing mingle activities like the High Five are great ways for students to practice and reinforce the new vocabulary they are learning. In a mingle activity students ask each other questions related to the vocabulary while moving around and engaging with classmates. This approach promotes active communication and vocabulary use and gets students out of their seats!

Incorporating these strategies into your language instruction will enhance vocabulary acquisition and empower students to use language more effectively in real-life contexts. Remember, teaching vocabulary in isolation may limit students' ability to communicate effectively, so embrace the power of context in language learning!

Michelle Olah

Michelle Olah

Michelle Olah was inspired to be a language educator by her own experience taking Spanish 1 as a student in Minnesota. Upon seeing a photograph of the painting "Las Meninas", Michelle convinced her family to go to Spain to see it in person, and came home a lifelong devotee of Spanish language and culture.

Michelle applies that same passion to her work as an Instructional Strategist for Wayside Publishing, where she blends current research and tech tools with personal experiences gleaned from over seventeen years of experience working with students and teachers in Florida. Michelle's past experience includes virtual instruction, which has lended itself well to coaching educators new to the virtual classroom environment.
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