During a recent visit, my Spanish neighbour’s young granddaughter proudly recited to me all the words that she could say well in English. Young children often measure their own language progress by counting how many words they know and can say. Certainly, learning vocabulary items can be one of the most important and most enjoyable activities during the early years of primary school. Being able to recognize and say words increases pupils’ confidence and self-esteem. It also allows them to enrich the ways in which they can respond to the standard chunked language which they learn in the early stages of language learning, e.g. What’s the weather like today? or What’s your favourite colour/toy/ food/drink/day? Most chunked language which is learned as set phrases without reference to grammatical structure can be answered by a variety of vocabulary items where pupils can make creative choices.
What’s in a word?
During the first year of language learning, pupils usually learn vocabulary items as a one-to-one correspondence between the word and the concrete object or pictorial representation. Through the process of repetition which is contained within games, songs, stories and arts and crafts, pupils learn words easily. This is particularly true when the vocabulary items are recycled regularly, as we know that young children’s long-term memory is still developing and that words that are charged with a positive emotional memory will be more easily retrieved from their short term memory. While some drilling is useful and can be done in a varied and fun way by changing the pitch, pace and order of group chorusing, hopefully, less and less primary English teachers are drilling excessively. I personally have visited many classrooms in the past where pupils where literally shouting out the vocabulary items at the top of voices, as the drilling was interminable. During a group discussion with the pupils, using a translator, one pupil told me that he thought the teacher was deaf and hadn’t heard the words properly and so they needed to shout. You see how logical a child’s world can be!
As part of the ongoing vocabulary learning process, pupils need to learn a variety of aspects about a lexical7 item. For example, pupils need to learn how a word sounds, how it is written, if it needs a capital letter, how it changes grammatically in the plural. Not only do they need to know the meaning but how it relates to the meaning of other similar words. For example, how does tiny relate to small and big? They need to know how a word combines with another word. For example, a tall man but a high mountain. They need to know the word order of a string of words. For example, a big green ball, and not a green big ball. Towards the upper end of primary school, it may be necessary to understand the register and style of a word. For example, is it a formal or informal word, eg. Good morning versus Hi! They may also at a later stage want to learn some metalanguage. For example, noun, verb, adjective or adverb, although these can first be introduced as: an object word/ a doing word/ a helping word. A word may also have some cultural content which older primary pupils might want to know. For example, trousers are used in Great Britain but pants in the United States.
Ideas for vocabulary practice
When practising vocabulary items it is important to provide opportunities to help children to develop important cognitive skills. Here is a list of some of these skills and some activities which help to promote them:
Step1 Pupils need to associate words and meanings and increase their recall of vocabulary.
With early years’ primary pupils this can be easily done through the use of puppets and flashcards10. It is always best to work with lexical sets rather than random vocabulary items, as this helps recall. For example, the lexical set of colours, clothes, food, animals, numbers etc.
Activity 1: Follow the puppet’s instructions
• The puppet gives individual pupils instructions to come to the front and touch certain flashcards.
Activity 2: Repeat after the puppet
• The pupils repeat vocabulary or chunked language after the puppet. For variety the puppet can vary the pitch, volume and pace. Different groups can be called upon in surprise order.
Activity 3: Correct the puppet
• The puppet says something incorrect about a flashcard, e.g. The ball is blue. The pupils have to correct the puppet in chorus, e.g. No! The ball is yellow!
Activity 4: Missing flashcard
• The teacher sticks the flashcards on the board and asks the children to close their eyes. The teacher removes one of the flashcards. The pupils name the missing flashcard either individually or in chorus.
Activity 5: Flashcards groups
• The teacher divides the class into groups and gives each group a flashcard from a lexical set, e.g. fruit. The teacher gives different orders, e.g. Stand up apples! or Touch your toes oranges! The group has to respond.
Activity 6: Point to the flashcard
• The teacher sticks the flashcards from a lexical set around the walls of the classroom. The teacher names a flashcard, the pupils point to the correct flashcard. They could repeat the word also.
Step 2 Pupils also need to learn to think about the properties and meanings of words:
Activity 7: Odd one out
• The teacher writes four vocabulary words or sticks four flashcards on the board. One word/flashcard must not belong to the lexical set. The pupils must identify the odd one out.
Step 3 Pupils need to recognise and improve their spelling of words.
Activity 8: Word Snake
• The teacher draws a long wiggly snake on the board or on handouts. Inside the snake are ten vocabulary items. They are not separated by spaces. The pupils have to identify and circle the individual words.
Activity 9: Crosswords
• The teachers create a crossword using known vocabulary. Use these links to help you create the crossword: www.puzzle-maker.com, worksheet s.theteacherscorner.net or puzzlemaker. discoveryeducation.com
Step 4 Pupils need to reinforce connections between words:
Activity 10: Lexical Sets
• The teacher writes a selection of words from three different lexical sets in random order on the board/handout (You can also use flashcards). The teacher draws three columns on the board with the name of each set at the top, e.g. Colours , Food, Animals. The pupils write the words in the correct column (or place the flashcard correctly)
Step 5 Pupils need to personalize vocabulary learning.
Activity 11: Sentence Chains
• The teacher divides pupils into groups of six and demonstrates the game: One pupil says, E.g. “I like…” and names a food or drink. The next pupil in the group says, e.g. “Sarah likes (named food/drink) and I like (another food/drink).” The game continues around the group until the last pupil can name all the preferences. The game can be used with other suitable structures, eg. Yesterday I… (simple past tense structure).
Step 6 Pupils need to develop strategies for inferring meaning.
Activity 12: Nonsense words
• The teachers write a sentence on the board with familiar language and a nonsense word, e.g. The slopit has got a long neck and a short tail. This activity encourages pupils to think about the function of the nonsense word, e.g. is it a noun, verb etc and also to deduce the possible meaning of the word. If the sentence is surrounded by more text, pupils have more information to help them succeed. (Possible answer: giraffe)
Step 7 Pupils need to develop strategies for communicating the meaning of unfamiliar words.
Activity 13: Guess!
• The teacher gives out word cards to some pupils that need to be defined, e.g. a carpenter, a hospital, a can-opener. Other pupils have to make up sentences to help other pupils to guess the word. They use stem sentences such as: It’s a person who…/ It’s a place where…/It’s a thing that you use to.
Step 8 Pupils need to learn to cooperate and interact with others.
Activity 14: Word tennis
• The pupils work in pairs. The teacher specifies a lexical set, e.g. Food. In turns the pairs pretended to play tennis by sending words back and forth to each other, e.g. sausage/chicken; apple/orange. The pairs should keep a score of how many words they get and compare at the end of the game.
Learning vocabulary is one of the most rewarding aspects of learning another language for primary pupils. While the teacher is always aware of the purpose and value of each of the vocabulary games together with their importance in enhancing problem-solving, memory, concentration, autonomy, physical co-ordination, self-expression, social turn taking skills, and hand to eye co-ordination skills, the pupils can enjoy the challenge of the puzzles and sometimes competitive nature of the activities!
Read C. ‘500 Activities for the Primary Classroom’: Macmillan 2007
Bradshaw C. ‘Games and Activities Book 1´Penguin Young Readers’ Pearson Education 2002