There is little doubt that for most students one of the most off-putting things about language learning is the sheer number of words you have to memorise. For most of us this requires considerable effort. Simply coming across a new word isn’t enough. You have to repeat it, test yourself on it, maybe even write it, before you have a reasonable hope of remembering it two days later.
There’s no way around it: building up your vocabulary is the basis of learning a language. But is there any way to make it more palatable – or at least make it feel less of a burden?
Should it, for a start, be an explicit activity (“Now we’re going to learn six new words”) or should it be more ‘organic’? It tends to be more explicit in the early years and then become more like osmosis where it is assumed that new vocabulary will get absorbed through contact.
Setting a regular target for vocabulary acquisition can make the piling on of words feel less arbitrary. Thailand’s current plan for English in primary includes a lesson whose goal is to teach five new words a week.
For many students, seeing a picture together with a written word will help them remember it. But while this may work for lots of nouns, there are plenty of words that can’t be illustrated.
Some students enjoy the old fashioned technique of keeping a small vocabulary book where they list new words and that they can look over and use to test themselves. It can give a reassuring sense of accumulating knowledge – a visible proof of progress.
Digital games that offer rewards and challenges, and that make the mundane task of memorising more entertaining, can of course help – especially if they are part of a resource that goes beyond mere vocabulary and integrates them in the wider context of language learning.
One effective way of lightening the burden is to do starter or warm-up activities in your class that make a game of vocabulary recall. Here are a few examples.
1 Challenge the class in pairs or groups to name:
a month that starts with A,
an animal that starts with H, etc.
2 Write up three letters and challenge students to think of as many words as they can that contain those three letters.
3 Tell students to clap their hands when you name something you can eat (or wear/play/travel in), then say a series of words, e.g. home, bed, bread, red, orange,…etc
4 Say: I’m thinking of … and describe something that students must name, e.g. I’m thinking of a yellow fruit (banana). I’m thinking of a game where you kick the ball (soccer/football).
Above all, the more opportunities you can give your students to actually use the words they have learnt, the less they will question the effort of learning them.